A new report has revealed that government officials across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are targeting LGBT people based on their activity on social media and other online platforms.
This is documented in a 135-page report by Human Rights Watch which examines the use of digital targeting by security forces and its far-reaching offline consequences in five countries that persecute LGBT people: Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Tunisia.
It found that security forces have entrapped LGBT people on social media and dating applications, subjected them to online extortion, online harassment, and outing, and relied on illegitimately obtained digital photos, chats, and similar information in prosecutions.
“The authorities in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Tunisia have integrated technology into their policing of LGBT people,” said Rasha Younes, senior LGBT rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “While digital platforms have enabled LGBT people to express themselves and amplify their voices, they have also become tools for state-sponsored repression.”
Human Rights Watch documented 45 cases of arbitrary arrest involving 40 LGBT people targeted online. In every instance, security forces searched people’s phones, by force or under threat of violence, to collect – or even create – personal digital information to enable their prosecution.
In reviewing judicial files for 23 cases of LGBT people prosecuted based on digital evidence under laws criminalising same-sex conduct, “inciting debauchery,” “debauchery,” “prostitution,” and cybercrime laws, Human Rights Watch found that most of those prosecuted were acquitted upon appeal.
In five cases, people were convicted and sentenced to one to three years in prison. Twenty-two people were never charged but were held in pretrial detention, in one case for 52 days at a police station in Lebanon.
Digital platforms, such as Meta and Grindr, are not doing enough to protect users vulnerable to digital targeting.
Human Rights Watch also documented 20 cases of online entrapment on Grindr and Facebook by security forces, who created fake profiles to impersonate LGBT people; and 17 cases of online extortion by private individuals on Grindr, Instagram, and Facebook, including by organised gangs in Egypt and armed groups in Iraq. Six people who reported the extortion to the authorities were themselves arrested.
The organisation further documented 26 cases of online harassment, including doxxing and outing, on Facebook and Instagram. As a result, LGBT people reported losing their jobs, suffering family violence, being forced to change their residence and phone numbers, and deleting their social media accounts, fleeing the country, and suffering severe mental health consequences.
Most said they reported the abuse to the relevant digital platform, but none of the platforms removed the content.
Human Rights Watch believes that digital platforms, such as Meta (Facebook, Instagram), and Grindr, are not doing enough to protect users vulnerable to digital targeting.
It called for digital platforms to invest in content moderation, particularly in Arabic, by quickly removing abusive content as well as content that could put users at risk.
“Online abuses against LGBT people have offline consequences that reverberate throughout their lives and can be detrimental to their livelihood, mental health, and safety,” Younes said. “Authorities across the MENA region should stop targeting LGBT people, online and offline, and social media companies should mitigate the adverse impacts of digital targeting by better protecting LGBT people online.”