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Digital Persecution: Surveillance in Queer Digital Spaces 

While digital spaces have often been a haven for queer communities and movements in the MENA region, governments are increasingly compromising these spaces through entrapment, blackmail, arrests, and persecution.

The internet has been a catalyst for change in many of the region’s human rights and social justice movements, as it provided a platform for those groups to organize behind their common causes. This was most apparent in 2011 when social media enlivened the Arab Spring, a series of protests that brought down authoritarian regimes across the region. LGBTQ+ people, a group often discriminated against and persecuted in the region, took advantage of the internet to create safe spaces and build a community and movement to demand their rights amid the region’s sociopolitical changes. However, as queer people grew in digital visibility, authorities and conservative social actors took notice and started cooperating to enact policies and actions that would slowly shrink queer digital spaces in the region.

Growing up as a queer kid in the 1990s in Egypt, I experienced first-hand how digital spaces can offer queer people a haven away from their hostile realities. I have also witnessed how what was once free digital spaces have slowly fallen into the long arms of state surveillance. Over the past several years, especially following the Arab Spring, authoritarian regimes across the region have moved to increase their control over the internet by shutting down “undesired spaces.” These spaces include those of political dissidents, human rights defenders, and anyone the state deems subversive. Naturally, states moved against queer people and spaces, which they viewed as immoral and challenging to its carefully-crafted moral protector image—an image that gives them legitimacy as the ones protecting society from moral corruption and upholding family values. “After the Arab Spring, authorities realized there was a gap in their surveillance network, [particularly] digital spaces such as social media. They quickly established massive cybercrime divisions, not to protect the people from online criminality but to ensure that their positions of power would not be challenged in this space. A massive digital surveillance network was established to complement the existing offline surveillance network [and] tighten the authoritarian grip on people’s livelihoods,” says Tarek Zeidan, the executive director of the Beirut-based LGBTQ+ NGO Helem. 

Queer people are an easy target for maintaining this image of the moral protector of social and familial values and tradition, as social acceptance remains low across the region

Queer people are an easy target for maintaining this image of the moral protector of social and familial values and tradition, as social acceptance remains low across the region. Queer identities are either explicitly or de facto criminalized through a complex web of morality law such as Egypt’s Law 10 of 1961, Tunisia’s Penal Law Article 230, Morocco’s Penal Code Article 489, and Lebanon’s Article 534, among others in the region. Historically, these legal articles have been used to criminalize queer offline behavior; with the advent of the internet in the region, they were combined with cyber and telecommunication laws with explicit articles that criminalize any act of “digital immorality.” Such vague terms have allowed the authorities to extend its offline prosecution to digital spaces of anyone they deem immoral, including queer people. 

Mariam Chaine, a Cairo-based lawyer, talked to TIMEP about the rise of digital morality in Egypt: “The state has heavily monitored digital spaces, but the target was usually political dissidents. In recent years, that has changed: now, the state monitors everyone, especially those the state deems immoral, such as queer people. Queer people became the target of moral arrest campaigns targeting their spaces on Grindr and other dating apps.” 

In recent years, entrapment has become a popular method among security forces to enforce these laws in the region, during which a security agent creates fake accounts to trick queer people on Facebook groups or dating apps such as Grindr into going out on a date. When the queer person arrives, they get arrested. This method is especially used in Egypt, where a report by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Freedoms (EIPR) found that, between 2013 to 2017, 232 people were arrested due to their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, 129 of whom were detained through social media or dating apps. A more recent report from Human Rights Watch outlines that this method is used primarily by Egyptian authorities but not exclusively, as it also documents 20 cases of digital entrapment on Grindr and Facebook in Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq. Another 2022 report from Article 19, an international human rights organization with a focus on digital freedoms, shows that the entrapment method has been slowly reaching Tunisia and Lebanon. “Building on Article 19’s research, Human Rights Watch documented how online abuses against LGBTQ+ people have offline consequences that reverberate throughout their lives, in some cases for years after the online abuse, and can be detrimental to their livelihood, mental health, and safety,” says Rasha Younes, LGBTQ+ senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. 

Even in cases where the entrapment method is not used, digital evidence is critical in prosecuting cases against queer people, as it is easier to obtain than other types of evidence by accessing their digital devices after the arrest. However, the legality of obtaining such evidence is highly questionable, as it often happens through illegal searches conducted by the authorities, violating due process and constitutional rights that protect the privacy of individuals. Fabricating digital evidence is also common, where fake chats and pictures are planted to create the façade of the queer person’s criminality. “The fabrications and coercive methods used show how ad hoc and illegal methods are used by authorities throughout the persecution of queer people, where the aim is to pursue a conviction by any means, not to conduct a genuine investigation or ensure a fair trial,” says Afsaneh Rigot, a senior researcher at Article 19. 

While not everyone is prosecuted after their arrest, they suffer from ill-treatment amounting to torture in detention, including forced anal examination, verbal abuse, and sexual violence. The punishment for those convicted varies; for example, it can be anywhere from three months to three years in Egypt. In recent years, judges started giving light sentences in Lebanon, including only fines. In Tunisia and Morocco, it is on a case-by-case basis, with sentencing ranging from a few months to a few years. 

State prosecution is not the only threat to queer people in the digital and real world. Social actors have also started identifying queer people online to entrap, blackmail, and attack them online and offline

State prosecution is not the only threat to queer people in the digital and real world. Social actors have also started identifying queer people online to entrap, blackmail, and attack them online and offline. Earlier this year, the Lebanese queer community reported that rogue security officers have started to entrap them on dating apps and social media—not to arrest them, but instead to blackmail them financially. Meanwhile, in Egypt, criminal gangs began copying the police’s entrapment method, where they trick queer people into meeting, only to beat them, rob them, and film them naked to blackmail them later. In Iraq, digital spaces became deadly, as social actors and informal militia use them to identify queer people and later kidnap, torture, and kill them.

Another form of digital violence queer people endure is forced outing and doxxing, where a queer person is identified and outed to their friends and family, which can come with significant risks. In Morocco, during COVID-19, an influencer based in Turkey initiated a massive forced outing campaign when she told her more than 600,000 followers how to search for their relatives on Grindr. This led to dozens of queer people being expelled from their homes, outed on social media, fired from their jobs, and attacked by family members. “This incident was a reminder of the danger of social media, misinformation, and hate speech. Photos and addresses of queer people were shared in hateful groups on social media such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and even WhatsApp. It was able to spread and become as dangerous as it did because it happened during the time of COVID-19 lockdowns when people were only able to connect through social media. This allowed homophobic and transphobic people to organize through social media and dating platforms such as Grinder to identify and force out people as queer,” says Moroccan sociologist Dr. Achary Lamyaâ. 

Doxxing can also be mixed with online hate speech campaigns, especially against activists who support LGBTQ+ rights. In 2021, LGBTQ+ activists were doxxed in Tunisia after raising a rainbow flag in a protest and suffered large-scale hate offline and online campaigns as a result. In 2023, Jordanian queer and feminist activists suffered doxxing and online hate speech campaigns by Islamist groups for their work in the country. In Lebanon, in 2023, LGBTQ+ activists were informed by state actors that their social media accounts were under surveillance. Authorities may also resort to blocking access to queer websites and apps, such as MyKali, a Jordanian queer magazine that was blocked for “inappropriate content.” In Lebanon, meanwhile, the dating app Grindr has been blocked in the country for several years. 

Those who target LGBTQ+ people online or offline do so with impunity, knowing that the authorities will not offer protection to a queer person and that, most of the time, queer people will fear reporting such incidents to the police as it exposes their identity

Those who target LGBTQ+ people online or offline do so with impunity, knowing that the authorities will not offer protection to a queer person and that, most of the time, queer people will fear reporting such incidents to the police as it exposes their identity. “Accessing justice for queer people is limited because of their identity; even if a queer person wishes to file a report, they may risk reprisals, intimidation, and even arrest just because of their queer identity. Thus, the authorities create an environment where the culture of impunity is dominant among the abusers. If you get any online harm that translates to offline harm, the only course of action is to spread awareness among the community to contain such harm. However, there is a limit to this awareness. Sadly, when harm eventually happens, there are no avenues to justice for queer people who suffer it, as the legal environment strongly discourages queer people from reporting such incidents. The legal framework has not been updated to effectively compensate people suffering from such harm and tackle online violence generally,” says Zeidan from Helem. 

Generally speaking, online anti-LGBTQ+ hate speech is widespread in the region, with social, religious, and political actors championing it on their social media accounts. 2022 saw the most extensive anti-LGBTQ+ social media campaign in the region; Fetrah, as it was known, was a campaign that a group of Egyptian youth launched as a reactionary anti-LGBTQ+ movement to the portrayal of queer characters in Disney movies. The campaign reached millions of followers before finally being shut down by Facebook for violating its policies.

Tech companies have yet to find an effective plan to tackle digital violence against their users in the MENA region

However, this action by Facebook is relatively rare from a social media corporation, as tech companies have yet to find an effective plan to tackle digital violence against their users in the MENA region. These companies, most of which are based in the U.S., often boast about their global commitment to LGBTQ+ rights. Still, given their track record in the region, this commitment seems to have been neglected in favor of economic gains. For example, even in countries with somewhat better regulations against LGBTQ+ hate speech, such as the U.S., watchdog group Media Matters found that Meta—Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram’s parent company—has failed to curb anti-LGBTQ+ in the country. “We’ve seen Facebook purposely decide not to tweak an algorithm so that [platforms like] The Daily Wire are not upset […] profit is very clearly their number one priority,” Kayla Gogarty, the deputy research director for Media Matters, in a 2022 interview with METRO WEEKLY

In 2020, LGBTQ+ groups across the MENA region slammed Facebook for failing to act swiftly and effectively against such violence. At the same time, a 2021 Thomson Reuters report found that Facebook has been unable to apply its policies regarding the ban on advertising conversion therapy to Arabic content. “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,” according to a 2023 Human Rights Watch report on the digital entrapment of queer people in the region.

On the other hand, Grindr, one of the few apps that holds direct responsibility toward individuals entrapped through the app, has used its charity arm “Grindr for Equality” to skirt its own responsibility. It has claimed that it has taken steps to improve its security, including introducing security tips to its users in sensitive areas. However, according to Ahmed, who was a victim of entrapment through the app in Egypt in 2018, “These messages and tips have no value for me; yes, you can see it every time you open the app, but you can easily skip it.” He further added: “Grindr and other apps need to have better verification methods to clean their apps from informants, gangs, and police.” Meanwhile, Yasser, entrapped by Egyptian police in 2022, believes that “if I was in the U.S. or any other Western nation and this happened to me, Grindr would have compensated me. Grindr should take its money where it is worth and start actively paying out compensation to its victims and contribute to the legal fees of such cases.”

Grindr did start a small fund for LGBTQ+ groups in the region, amounting to $5,000 per group in 2019. While a step in the right direction, more should be done, from increasing funding to local LGBTQ+ groups to providing more direct services to the users who fall victim to such practices, e.g., providing legal aid or shelter. Tech giants such as Grindr, Meta, Twitter, and others operating in the region should not tailor their policies to meet authoritarian regimes’ needs but commit to their LGBTQ+ policies globally and not only in Western settings. “While governments in the MENA region should protect individuals from online attacks, digital platforms are also responsible for preventing online spaces from becoming tools for state-sponsored repression. Corporations such as Facebook and Grindr should engage meaningfully with LGBTQ+ people in developing policies and features that consider their realities, from design to implementation,” says Human Rights Watch’s Rasha Younes.

Despite the shrinking of safe queer spaces in the region, virtual spaces remain fundamental for the flourishing of queer communities and political movements. A 2018 report from Article 19 found that 60 percent of research respondents said they would continue to use apps despite the risks. “Queer people, like many other marginalized and oppressed communities, are creative, diligent, and skilled at navigating the risks that befall them. However, this burden should not only fall on those using these technologies to keep themselves safe,” says Article 19’s Afsaneh Rigot.

Queer digital spaces will continue to grow in the region, despite social and governmental attempts to limit them. While tech giants always claim to be allies of LGBTQ+ people globally, actions speak louder than words, and so far, those tech giants have failed to show sufficient allyship to the queer community. LGBTQ+ people will continue to fight for their digital spaces, but such a fight should not be waged alone, tech giants should be up to the task and work with national LGBTQ+ actors to implement practical plans to provide safe digital queer spaces.

Nora Noralla is a Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on gender and sexuality in the Middle East and North Africa region.


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