On February 21, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report on “Digital Targeting and Its Offline Consequences for LGBT People in the Middle East and North Africa.” The report examines a wide range of abuses including torture and sexual assault being perpetrated against LGBT people in several countries after they were entrapped via social media and digital apps. The HRW report examines digital targeting in five countries: Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Tunisia. The details include first-person testimonies.
HRW summarized the data, noting “State actors and private individuals across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have entrapped lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (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, in violation of the right to privacy, due process, and other human rights.”
The 135-page report details how security forces in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Tunisia are targeting members of the LGBT community based on their social media activity and use of dating apps, resulting in prosecution, torture, and other offline abuses.
HRW documented cases of digital entrapment, in which security forces created fake profiles on the dating app Grindr and on Facebook to impersonate LGBT people.
Yazid, a 27-year-old gay man from Egypt, told HRW, “[The police] took me to the ‘morality ward’ and kept me until 4am in a tiny room with no food or water. They took my phone and belongings. When they came back with a police report, I was surprised to see the guy I met on Grindr is one of the officers.”
HRW enumerated cases of online extortion using Grindr, Instagram, and Facebook by private individuals, including by armed groups in Iraq and organized gangs in Egypt.
Complicating fighting the entrapment is the fact that due to the dangers inherent in being “out” in countries where it is illegal to be openly LGBT, many LGBT people in the region keep their sexual orientations and gender identities closeted. As a consequence, online extortion can be utilized as a means to manipulate people and then threaten to report them to the authorities or publicly “out” them unless they pay the extortion requests.
HRW reported several dozen instances of social media “doxxing” (publishing private information online) and outing of LGBT people. This resulted in gay and trans people “losing jobs, being forced to leave their homes or flee the country, suffering violence from family members, or negative mental health consequences.”
Rasha Younes, senior LGBT rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, said, “The authorities in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Tunisia have integrated technology into their policing of LGBT people.”
Younes said, “While digital platforms have enabled LGBT people to express themselves and amplify their voices, they have also become tools for state-sponsored repression.”
HRW found a pattern of “fabricated material.” The report interviewed 90 LGBT people who had been targeted online as well as 30 experts including digital rights practitioners and lawyers. There were documented cases of “arbitrary arrests” of LGBT people who had their phones searched — mostly by force or under threat.
In several of the cases, prosecutions were based on digital evidence of “debauchery” and “prostitution.” These are ill-defined charges under cybercrime laws in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Tunisia that are used specifically to target same-sex activities, the way sodomy laws were selectively applied to gay and lesbian people in the U.S.
Lack of evidence was no bar to arrests. Those whom HRW interviewed said that officials “downloaded same-sex applications, uploaded photos, and fabricated online conversations to justify their detention” when they couldn’t find anything actionable on the phones of those they targeted.
Amar, a 25-year-old transgender woman from Jordan, told HRW,
“They took my phone and started sending messages to each other from my phone, then they took screenshots of those conversations and screenshots from my photo gallery.”
She said, “They took photos and videos where I have makeup or a dress on, and they used them as evidence against me. They went through my WhatsApp chats and took contact details so they could entrap my friends as well.”
In addition to the entrapment, the people who had been detained were denied the most basic civil rights, like being denied access to a lawyer. They were also forced to sign coerced confessions. Some of the complainants alleged verbal, physical and sexual assault at the hands of officials.
Trans women faced specific forms of abuse. Some were detained in men’s jails leaving them open to harassment and even violence, including sexual violence. An Egyptian trans woman alleged she was sexually assaulted over and over again for 13 months at a police station.
Younes said, “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 added, “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.”
HRW called on platforms to “invest in content moderation, particularly in Arabic, by quickly removing abusive content as well as content that could put users at risk.”
The HRW report asserted, “Digital platforms, such as Meta (Facebook, Instagram), Grindr, and Twitter, all of which have a responsibility to prevent online spaces from becoming tools of state repression, are not doing enough to protect users vulnerable to digital targeting. Digital platforms should invest in content moderation, particularly in Arabic, including by proactively and quickly removing abusive content that violates platform guidelines or standards on hate speech and incitement to violence, as well as content that could put users at risk.”
In addition, HRW said, “Governments should respect and protect the rights of LGBT people instead of criminalizing their expression and targeting them online. The five governments should introduce and implement legislation protecting against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, including online.”
To read the full report visit: https://www.hrw.org/.