Middle East, North Africa: Digital targeting of LGBT people

(Beirut) – Government officials in the Middle East and North Africa are targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people based on their online social media activities, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Security forces have trapped LGBT people on social media and dating apps, subjected them to online extortion, online harassment and outing, and relied on illegally obtained digital photos, chats and similar information for law enforcement, in violation of the right to privacy and other human rights .

The 135-page report, ‘All This Terror Due of a Photo’: Digital Targeting and Its Offline Consequences for LGBT People in the Middle East and North Africa, examines the use of digital targeting by security forces and its widespread offline consequences – including arbitrary detention and torture – in five countries: Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia. The results show how security forces are using digital targeting to collect and create evidence to support law enforcement.

“Authorities in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia have incorporated technology into their surveillance of LGBT people,” said Rasha Younes, senior researcher on LGBT rights at Human Rights Watch. “While digital platforms have enabled LGBT people to express themselves and speak out, they have also become tools for state-sponsored repression.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 90 LGBT people affected by digital targeting and 30 experts, including lawyers and digital rights experts. Human Rights Watch also reviewed online evidence of attacks against LGBT people, including videos, images, and digital threats. The research was supported by members of the Digital and LGBT Rights Coalition: in Egypt, Masaar and an LGBT rights organization in Cairo, whose name is withheld for security reasons; in Iraq, IraQueer and the Iraqi Network for Social Media (INSM); in Jordan, Rainbow Street and the Jordan Open Source Association (JOSA); in Lebanon, Helm and Social Media Exchange (SMEX); and in Tunisia Damj Association.

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Human Rights Watch documented 45 instances of the arbitrary arrest of 40 LGBT people targeted online in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia. In every arrest, security forces used force or threats of force to search people’s phones to collect — or even create — personal digital information to enable their prosecution, Human Rights Watch found.

While reviewing court files on 23 cases of LGBT people based on digital evidence under laws criminalizing same-sex conduct, “incitement to debauchery”, “debauchery”, “prostitution” and cybercrime laws in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia were prosecuted, Human Rights Watch noted that most of the defendants were acquitted on 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 pre-trial detention, in one case for 52 days at a police station in Lebanon.

Detained LGBT people reported facing numerous violations of due process, including officers confiscating their phones, denying them access to a lawyer and forcing them to sign coerced confessions. LGBT prisoners have reportedly been denied food and water, family and legal assistance, medical attention, and verbal, physical and sexual assaults. Some were placed in solitary confinement. Detained transgender women were routinely held in men’s cells, where they were subjected to sexual assault and other ill-treatment. In one case, a transgender woman held in a police station in Egypt said she had experienced repeated sexual assaults for 13 months.

Human Rights Watch documented 20 instances of online incursions on Grindr and Facebook by security forces creating fake profiles to pose as LGBT people in Egypt, Iraq and Jordan; and 17 cases of online extortion by individuals on Grindr, Instagram and Facebook in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, including by organized gangs in Egypt and armed groups in Iraq. The six people who reported the extortion to the authorities were themselves arrested.

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Human Rights Watch documented 26 incidents of online harassment, including doxxing and outing, on Facebook and Instagram in Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia. As a result, LGBT people reported losing their jobs, experiencing domestic violence, being forced to change their place of residence and phone number, deleting their social media accounts, fleeing the country and suffering severe psychological consequences. Most reported the abuse to the appropriate digital platform, but none removed the content.

Targeting LGBT people online is made possible by their precarious legal status, according to Human Rights Watch. In the absence of legal protections or adequate regulation of digital platforms, both security forces and private individuals have been able to target them with impunity.

According to the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, social media companies have a responsibility to respect human rights, including the rights to non-discrimination, privacy and freedom of expression. Digital platforms like Meta (Facebook, Instagram) and Grindr are not doing enough to protect users who are vulnerable to digital targeting, according to Human Rights Watch.

Digital platforms should invest in content moderation, especially in Arabic, by quickly removing abusive content as well as content that could put users at risk. Platforms should perform human rights due diligence that includes detecting, preventing, terminating, mitigating, remediating and addressing potential and actual adverse human rights impacts of digital targeting.

Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia are obliged under international and regional human rights law to address violations against LGBT people. The five governments should respect and protect the rights of LGBT people instead of criminalizing their expression and attacking them online, Human Rights Watch said. They should introduce and enforce laws that protect people from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, including online.

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“Online abuse against LGBT people has offline repercussions that can reverberate throughout life and adversely affect their livelihoods, mental health and safety,” Younes said. “Governments across the MENA region should stop targeting LGBT people online and offline, and social media companies should mitigate the negative impact of digital targeting by better protecting LGBT people online.”