Human Rights Watch released a report accusing social media platforms Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Twitter, and dating app Grindr of not doing enough to protect LGBTQ+ users from anti-LGBTQ+ officials in Africa and the Middle East. According to the report, authorities in five countries – Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Tunisia – have been manually monitoring social media and creating fake profiles to entrap LGBTQ+ people. HRW interviewed 90 LGBTQ+ people who had been digitally targeted on these apps by officials, as well as 30 experts about anti-LGBTQ+ harassment in each country.
The report states that authorities sometimes publish the personal information of LGBTQ+ people on social media, exposing them to familial violence or homelessness. They also meet with LGBTQ+ people in public and detain them, unlawfully searching their personal devices, often under threat of violence. Using these devices, authorities collect or create private information that enables them to prosecute the detainee and their suspected LGBTQ+ associates.
HRW’s report also reveals that police officers who could not find queer digital information at the time of arrest downloaded same-sex dating applications on their phones, uploaded photos, and fabricated chats to justify their detention. One 23-year-old Egyptian man, Ayman, agreed to meet a Grindr connection at a cafe but was met by five plainclothes police officers who threatened to hang him with a rope if he did not open his phone for them. Ayman and other detainees are jailed under vague, trumped-up “morality,” “debauchery,” “prostitution,” and “cybercrime” charges.
Detainees have reported being interrogated, denied access to lawyers, visitors, or medical care, verbally abused, subjected to forced anal examinations, sexually assaulted, tortured, and forced to sign confessions. They are punched in the face, choked, have cigarettes put out on their arms, sprayed with cold water hoses, and are allowed to be raped by other officers and inmates. They have also had their hair forcibly cut, personal belongings stolen by officers, and are starved or denied water. While most of the arrestees were acquitted in court, many were jailed, often for prolonged periods of several months.
Former detainees often lose their jobs, suffer familial violence, and are forced into conversion practices. They also face post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, suicidal ideation, as well as harassment and monitoring by officials for years afterward. Some LGBTQ+ locals completely deleted their social media profiles, changed their residences and phone numbers, or fled their home countries to avoid future harassment, resulting in a lack of LGBTQ+ visibility, community, and activism in local communities.
HRW’s report suggested that social media companies should enforce content moderation against anti-LGBTQ+ content and collaborate with local LGBTQ+ advocacy groups to improve policies and features that would better protect LGBTQ+ people. It also suggested that all five aforementioned countries pass laws to prevent criminalization and harassment of LGBTQ+ identities and to ensure that abusive authorities are held responsible for their crimes.
The report raises serious concerns about the safety and security of LGBTQ+ people in the Middle East and Africa. Social media platforms have a responsibility to protect their users from harm, and their failure to do so is a cause for concern. HRW’s findings emphasize the urgent need for action to ensure the safety and well-being of LGBTQ+ people in the region.