BEIRUT (AP) — Security agencies and government officials in several countries in the Middle East and North Africa have been using social media platforms and mobile dating apps to crack down on LGBTQ people, a rights group said Tuesday.
The findings of a new report by Human Rights Watch exposed digital methods of clamping down on the LGBTQ community in the region. For years the community has relied on online platforms for safety and privacy to sidestep oppression and discrimination due to social stigma and laws that criminalize their expression.
The report, “’All This Terror Because of a Photo’: Digital Targeting and Its Offline Consequences for LGBT People in the Middle East and North Africa,” documents dozens of cases of security agencies in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Tunisia extorting, harassing, publicly outing, and detaining LGBTQ people based on their activities on Facebook and Instagram, as well as queer dating app Grindr. The publication also questions major tech companies for not investing sufficiently in Arabic language content moderation and protection.
“This type of social media frenzy really had implications on people’s lives,” Rasha Younes, senior researcher with the LGBT Rights Program at HRW, said at the press conference.
One case the report documents is a 27-year-old gay man from Egypt named Yazid who said he was arrested and beaten in prison until he would sign papers that said he was “practicing debauchery” and publicly outing himself. He said one of the officers was someone impersonating a gay man who he met on Grindr. Human Rights Watch documented several cases of ill-treatment and sexual assault among other detainees.
In some cases, private individuals and gangs were involved in the extortion. In Lebanon, some people who were extorted online told HRW that they were threatened with being outed to their families and the authorities if they did not pay them a certain amount of money.
Younes added that many of the victims lost their jobs, faced violence and deleted their online accounts, while some opted to leave the country. Many of the victims say they suffered depression, anxiety and distress, while some reportedly attempted suicide.
Mohamad Najem, executive director of the Beirut-based digital rights organization SMEX, accused tech companies of a lack of transparency on their content moderation process. Content moderation is when a company monitors what is published on their platforms to ensure they are not abusive, illegal or in violation of their rules and guidelines.
“The problem with these tech companies is that you start a process with them and they disappear in the middle of it (and) you don’t know what happened with them,” he said at the news conference.
While Human Rights Watch called on governments to respect LGBTQ rights and end the criminalization of their expression, they also called on major tech companies, notably Meta, Twitter and Grindr, to invest in stronger Arabic-language content moderation and respond more proactively to these incidents, as many of the victims who reported harassment and threats say they received no answers from the companies.
Younes said it was unclear whether tech companies are doing the best they can to protect users from online harassment and other abusive practices, especially in the Middle East and North Africa.
“In my brief engagement with platforms there is a repetition of how policies are meant to account for hate speech for everyone,” she said, but that there is “inequity in moderating content.”