WhatsApp, Grindr, and Facebook used to entrap and persecute LGBT citizens, says report

Social media, communication, and dating apps are being used to lure lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) citizens of Middle Eastern countries, who are then subjected by police to sexual assault, torture, and detention without trial, according to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The human rights watchdog said it documented “20 cases of online entrapment on Grindr and Facebook by security forces in Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan”.

It added: “In these cases, security forces apparently targeted LGBT people online for the purposes of arresting them. The immediate offline consequences of entrapment range from arbitrary arrest to torture and other ill-treatment, including sexual assault, in detention.”

Authorities across the Middle East had systematically used social media and dating apps to lure LGBT citizens, often posing as members of their community to catch them unawares before taking them into custody, where they were subjected to human rights abuses, HRW said.

The ‘case’ presented by police in countries covered by the study, which also included Lebanon and Tunisia, 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”.

In some cases, victims were allegedly held for up to three months without trial, before being sentenced to prison terms “ranging from one month to two years”.

HRW says its study revealed repeated cases of what it called “digital targeting” of LGBT people, both by state actors and private individuals. The human rights body defines such targeting as “using digital media to select an individual or group as an object of an attack [...] and when done by state actors, to prosecute, LGBT people.”

It further describes the practice as entailing “entrapment on social media and dating applications, online extortion, online harassment and outing, and reliance on digital information in prosecutions”.

HRW said it had monitored cases of 40 LGBT people arrested in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Tunisia – in every instance, it said, the victim’s phone had been impounded and scoured, with personal data such as photos forcibly taken and used in evidence against them.

“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,” said Amar, 25, a Jordanian citizen who identifies as transgender and was interviewed by HRW.

“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 some cases, HRW claims, police went one step further, even using victims’ devices to fabricate incriminating evidence against them.

Online extortion

Not only do LGBT people have to fear their digital profiles being used against them by state oppressors, but also unscrupulous private individuals who prey on their vulnerabilities by pretending to be ‘fellow travelers’ before extorting them, said HRW.

It said it tracked 17 such cases of digital extortion, on same-sex dating applications such as Grindr as well as more mainstream platforms like Facebook and Instagram.

“Extortion is another form of digital targeting that LGBT people are particularly vulnerable to, because of the mostly hidden nature of LGBT identities and relationships across the [Middle East] region, due to social stigma and the criminalization of same-sex conduct,” said HRW.

“Across the five countries, individuals trick LGBT people on social media and dating applications and threaten to report them to the authorities, or out them online, if they do not pay a certain sum of money (at times more than once),” it added.

“Extortionists often pretended to be LGBT people in order to gain their victim’s trust, along with details about their personal lives – particularly digital information relating to their sexual orientation or gender identity – that can be used as blackmail.”

HRW warned that this type of crime is increasingly sophisticated, with “organized gangs in Egypt and armed groups in Iraq [...] among the perpetrators of extortion”.

Reporting such crooks to the authorities availed victims little, instead landing them in deeper water.

“In six cases, victims of extortion reported the perpetrators to the authorities, but all six were themselves subsequently arrested,” said HRW. “In one case, the victim of online extortion in Jordan was prosecuted and sentenced to six months in prison based on a cybercrime law criminalizing ‘promoting prostitution online’.”

Though the sentence was reduced to one month upon appeal, to the best knowledge of the victims, not one of the alleged extortionists they reported was prosecuted.

"Across the five countries, individuals trick LGBT people on social media and dating applications and threaten to report them to the authorities, or out them online, if they do not pay money."

Human Rights Watch

Big Tech turns a blind eye

HRW also tracked online harassment targeting LGBT people in the five Middle Eastern countries, observing that of the 26 cases it observed nine appeared to have been singled out for internet activism over freedom of sexuality.

“As a result of online harassment, LGBT people reported losing their jobs, suffering family violence, including physical abuse, threats to their lives, and [religious] conversion practices, being forced to change their residence and phone numbers, deleting their social media accounts, fleeing the country for risk of persecution, and suffering severe mental health consequences,” said HRW.

Nor did reporting the offenders to social media platforms seem to do much good, with tech companies choosing instead to look the other way on what appears to have been a regulatory technicality, it added.

“In most cases, LGBT individuals harassed with public social media posts reported the abusive content to the relevant digital platform,” said HRW. “However, in all cases of reporting, platforms did not remove the content, claiming it did not violate company guidelines or standards.”

HRW said this refusal to act had led to the creation of a “chilling effect” on the self-expression of LGBT people living in the five countries, with victims it interviewed saying they had begun “practicing self-censorship online, including whether they use certain digital platforms and how they use digital platforms and social media”.

It added: “Those who cannot or do not wish to hide their identities, or whose identities are revealed without their consent, reported suffering immediate consequences ranging from online harassment to arbitrary arrest and prosecution.”

“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,” said HRW.

“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.”

As part of the study, HRW conducted more than a hundred interviews between February 2021 and January 2022 with 90 LGBT people and 30 experts, including digital rights specialists and lawyers.

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