The international organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Twitter, and Grindr of not doing enough to prevent violence against LGBTQ+ users by anti-LGBTQ+ officials in Africa and the Middle East.
In a new report, HRW interviewed 90 LGBTQ+ people who had been digitally targeted on these apps by officials in five countries: Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Tunisia. HRW also interviewed 30 experts about anti-LGBTQ+ harassment in each country.
“Authorities across the five countries manually monitor social media, create fake profiles to impersonate LGBT people and entrap them on dating applications such as Grindr and social media platforms such as Facebook,” HRW wrote.
Authorities sometimes publish LGBTQ+ people’s personal information on social media, leaving them subject to familial violence or homelessness. Other authorities meet with LGBTQ+ people in public, detaining them and then unlawfully searching their personal devices, often under threat of violence. Using these devices, authorities collect or create private information that’ll enable them to prosecute the detainee and their suspected LGBTQ+ associates.
“When police officers could not find [queer] digital information at the time of arrest, they downloaded same-sex dating applications on their phones, uploaded photos, and fabricated chats to justify their detention,” HRW wrote.
One 23-year-old Egyptian man named Ayman said he agreed to meet a Grindr connection at a cafe. Instead, five plainclothes police officers met him and threatened to hang him with a rope if he didn’t open his phone for them.
“They found private photos of me with long hair and other photos with a man and turned it into a case of debauchery and indecency,” Ayman said. “In their police car, [they] beat us there while calling us names like ‘fa**ot,’ ‘whore,’ and ‘son of a bitch.’”
Ayman and other detainees are jailed under vague, trumped-up “morality,” “debauchery,” “prostitution,” and “cybercrime” charges. In jail, they’re interrogated; denied access to lawyers, visitors, or medical care; verbally abused; subjected to forced anal examinations (which cannot medically prove the past occurrence of anal sex); sexually assaulted; tortured; and forced to sign confessions.
Detainees said cops repeatedly punched them in the face, choked them, put out cigarettes on their arms, sprayed them down with cold water hoses, allowed other officers and inmates to rape them, had their hair forcibly cut, had their personal belongings stolen by officers, and were also starved or denied water.
While most of the arrestees were acquitted in court, many were jailed, often for prolonged periods of several months. Others were extorted and blackmailed — either by police or local gangs — into paying money or acting as informants, lest they be outed to their families and others. Those found guilty in court served one to three years in prison.
Former detainees often lost their jobs, suffered familial violence, and were forced into conversion practices. They also faced 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.
Authorities and gang members do this all with impunity, and victims are reluctant to report these activities over fear that they’ll face anti-LGBTQ+ harassment as a result.
HRW’s report didn’t look at governments’ use of sophisticated spyware and surveillance technology. Nonetheless, the organization suggested that social media companies 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.
“Digital platforms… have a responsibility to prevent online spaces from becoming tools of state repression [and] are not doing enough to protect users,” HRW wrote. “Platforms should also provide context-specific information in Arabic to LGBT users and advise on their rights and the applicable law.”
The HRW 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.