How a video that may have been a hoax caused a frenzy on the right and ignited violent anti-trans protests at an LA spa

Wi Spa protests
Attorneys Christian Contreras, left and Humberto Guizar, right, with Justice X held a news conference outside LAPD Headquarters to announce lawsuits against the LAPD over its alleged targeted attacks against journalists and activists during anti-transgender and counter protests associated with Wi Spa. Al Seib / Contributor
  • A video in which a woman complained about an LA spa’s trans-inclusive policies went viral.
  • There is no evidence to support that the incident leading to the video actually took place.
  • The viral footage incited violence anyway, following a major online trend.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A viral video prompted two violent anti-trans protests outside of Wi Spa in Los Angeles, but unnamed Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and spa sources reportedly told the Los Angeles Blade that there’s increasing doubt over the fundamental details that led up to the footage.

In the video, which has 980,000 views on a version reposted on Twitter as of Wednesday, a woman tells employees at the spa that there’s a “man” in the women’s changing room after she said she saw a transgender woman in the facilities. When other patrons tried to intervene, asking if the woman in the changing room was transgender, the woman responded, “there’s no such thing as transgender.”

After the brief confrontation, she returns to the changing room to ostensibly find the trans patron, at which point the video cuts out. As reported by the Trans Safety Network, a UK-based group tracking anti-trans rhetoric, there is no evidence of any other footage existing after that point.

The Los Angeles Blade, an LGBTQ news outlet, reported that spa sources said there were no regular trans clients at the Koreatown spa when the video was originally posted on June 24 by Instagram user “cubanaangel,” who did not respond to Insider’s request for comment. According to the Blade, unnamed sources within the LAPD also said they were unable to find evidence that a trans person was at the spa at the time the video was filmed.

Wi Spa, which did not respond to Insider’s request for comment, told The Los Angeles Times in a statement, “like many other metropolitan areas, Los Angeles contains a transgender population, some of whom enjoy visiting a spa. [The spa] strives to meet the needs and safety of all of its customers.”

After the spa stood by its trans-inclusive policy, right-wing protesters and trans-advocate counter-protesters staged rallies on July 3 and July 17, both of which turned violent. Two people were stabbed.

Protesters clash at WiSpa rally.
Police and protesters clash at the second Wi Spa rally on Saturday. Courtesy of Kelly Stuart

Advocates and experts say this is far from the first time unverified or false information has served as a rallying point for violent protests by the far right.

Brennan Suen, an online disinformation expert at the left-leaning organization Media Matters for America, which tracks right-wing media and rhetoric, told Insider that he thinks the same mechanisms that produced the Wi Spa protests also led to incidents like the Capitol riot and the June rally in Loudoun Valley, Virginia, where dozens of parents protested the teaching of Critical Race Theory.

The video went viral online in right-wing spaces

On June 24, the day the clip was posted to Instagram, multiple threads on anti-trans and far-right fringe message boards shared the video with headlines calling for action to be taken against the spa.

“The chatter on social media was calling for violence, calling for payback, ‘be prepared,'” LAPD Deputy Chief Al Labrada told The Los Angeles Times. “When you see that type of chatter, the intent is not to peacefully protest, to voice concerns regarding LGBTQ issues.”

The Wi Spa video hit a stride when it was reposted by Ian Miles Cheong, a right-wing Twitter personality known for posting decontextualized videos and images, among other trollish behavior. The tweet, which Cheong posted on June 26, has garnered over 15,000 likes and nearly 12,000 retweets.

Tucker Carlson and other right-wing figures with histories of spreading misinformation, including Andy Ngo and Daily Wire columnist Matt Walsh, circulated the video without digging into the basic claims made by the woman.

“You have a highly-viewed news source like Fox News amplifying these myths … it has a snowball effect that’s creating these moments,” Suen said.

The virtual clamor swelled until it coalesced into the two protests.

“Some of this online hate is being legitimized not just by Fox News but by people running for office, Republican consultants and political actors who are like, ‘Oh, people are animated about trans kids, so let’s really beat this drum, let’s get messaging out about it,'” Suen said, adding that right-wing outlets amplify this hatred “in order to gain political power.”

Viral videos are often weaponized by movements for their own best interests

Political movements frequently weaponize viral videos for their own best interests, circulating clips with minimal context to fortify pre-existing biases.

After the presidential election last year, popular right-wing influencers and politicians shared contextless or debunked videos related to ballot-counting, baselessly alleging that the clips were proof of election manipulation.

Trump won
Former President Trump’s supporters gather near his Mar-a-Lago home on Feb. 15, 2021. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The widespread claims helped lead to the Capitol riot on January 6, which left five people dead.

The problem exists across the political spectrum. In 2019, a viral video depicted teenage Trump supporter Nicholas Sandmann smirking next to Native American elder Nathan Phillips. Many news outlets and left-wing activists accused Sandmann of trying to intimidate Phillips, but the full-length video, released later, painted a more complex picture. Eventually, CNN and the Washington Post were forced to pay undisclosed settlement fees to Sandmann.

Anti-trans groups often claim they ‘protect’ cis women and girls

Staged or not, the viral video also follows a history of anti-trans activists fighting to keep trans women out of proper bathrooms and changing rooms.

Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists – commonly referred to as “TERFs” – have been around since the 1970s, emerging as a response to trans women in feminist spaces. TERFs argue trans women are men in disguise, using deception to coerce their way into women-only spaces.

“TERFs are people that build their ‘feminist politics’ off of the violent subjugation of trans people,” Eric Stanley, a professor of Gender & Women’s Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, told Insider. “In short, they use a claim to feminism to mask their deeply anti-feminist ideologies.”

The modern TERF movement argues that transness harms children by making “young girls” think they are trans or by putting girls in danger by allowing trans women into women’s restrooms.

Experts have disproven both of these theories, as there is no explosion of trans people de-transitioning or increase in predatory men sneaking into women’s restrooms pretending to be trans women. However, these ideologies are still taking hold of public discourse.

As transphobic rhetoric is used to justify transphobic legislation and violence, Stanley worries instances like these will only increase. Right-wing activists and organizations have pushed hard to bar transgender girls from competing in school sports in 2021 – lawmakers from at least 25 states have introduced legislation restricting transgender people from competing in athletics.

Trans rights
People take part in rally outside New York’s Stonewall Inn in 2017. Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images

Suen, the disinformation expert, said that the person who posted the video “was ultimately reinforcing a narrative that has really been pushed heavily by Fox News and these online communities.”

Suen continued, “They’re making the same implications and relying on some tired myths about pedophilia and the LGBTQ community. We’ve seen it repackaged time and time again.”