Middle Eastern Governments Crackdown on LGBT Community Via Dating Apps

A human rights group released a new report detailing how security agencies and government officials in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have been using social media and dating apps to crack down on LGBTQIA+ people.

The report by Human Rights Watch, titled “All This Terror Because of a Photo: Digital Targeting and Its Offline Consequences for LGBT People in the Middle East and North Africa,” exposed how governments used digital methods to clamp down on the region’s LGBTQIA+ community.

It documented several cases of security agencies in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Tunisia harassing, extorting, publicly outing, and imprisoning LGBTQIA+ people based on their activities on popular social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, as well as Grindr, a popular dating app for gay men.

One of the dozens of cases the report documented was that of Yazid, a 27-year-old gay man from Egypt. He narrated how authorities arrested and tortured him until he was forced to sign papers confessing he was “practicing debauchery” and publicly outing himself.

His ordeal started when Yazid met one of the officers pretending to be a gay man on Grindr. Human Rights Watch also recorded many instances of sexual abuse and mistreatment among other victims.

The group also questioned the lack of effort on the part of major tech companies to sufficiently invest in content moderation and protection in Arabic. For years, the LGBTQIA+ community in the Middle East and Northern Africa relied heavily on social media platforms and dating apps to circumvent oppression and discrimination caused by social stigma and laws criminalizing homosexuality.

This type of social media frenzy really had implications on people’s lives,” said Rasha Younes at a press conference. Younes is a senior researcher with the LGBT Rights Program at HRW.

But it wasn’t just governments who used the internet to harass and abuse members of the LGBTQIA+ community. In some instances, gangs and private individuals were involved in extorting them.

In Lebanon, for example, some LGBTQIA+ individuals report being extorted and told HRW how they were threatened with being outed to their families and the authorities if they failed to pay the extortionists a certain amount of money.

According to Younes, several victims lost their jobs, faced violence and harassment, deleted their accounts, and even left their countries. Many victims reportedly experienced depression, anxiety, and distress, while some contemplated suicide.

Younes also said it’s unclear whether major tech companies are doing their best to protect users from online harassment and other forms of abuse, 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, noting that there is “inequity in moderating content.

Mohamad Najem, executive director of Lebanese digital rights organization SMEX, accused major tech companies of not being transparent in their content moderation process.

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 a press conference.

HRW called on governments in the MENA region to respect LGBTQIA+ rights and demanded that major tech companies invest in their Arabic content moderation processes and respond proactively to these incidents.

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