Out in the World: Rights group takes Meta to task for not protecting LGBTQ people

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Thursday February 8, 2024
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Meta founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, right, stood in front of parents holding up pictures of their dead children and offered an apology during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing January 31 about online child safety. Photo: Susan Walsh/AP
Meta founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, right, stood in front of parents holding up pictures of their dead children and offered an apology during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing January 31 about online child safety. Photo: Susan Walsh/AP

Human Rights Watch called for social media network giant Meta to lead the industry in protecting LGBTQ people around the world with the launch of its #SecureOurSocials campaign.

The human rights organization and a coalition of digital social justice groups further called for transparency in Meta's safety policies, especially in the Middle East and Africa.

Meta, which owns social media networks Facebook and Instagram and messaging app WhatsApp, and other social network leaders came under fire for their role in child exploitation before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., January 31, reported the Washington Post.

Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Meta, along with CEOs of Snapchat, TikTok, and X, were among those who testified before the committee. Some parents present in the audience held photos of their dead children.

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) told the tech leaders, "You have blood on your hands."

Zuckerberg stood up during the hearing and turned to the parents and apologized.

"I'm sorry for everything you have all been through," he said. "No one should have to go through the things that your families have suffered."

However, officials from HRW and the coalition of digital social justice organizations believe that LGBTQ social media users are at times victims of states around the world that use the sites to entrap, harass, and prosecute queer and gender-nonconforming people simply for being who they are. Yet, they aren't receiving an apology or even the protection they deserve on and offline, the organizations maintain.

Children — queer and gender-nonconforming youth among them — are not the only victims of social media companies' mismanagement of when things go horribly wrong on social media platforms, HRW officials believe. That's why HRW launched the #SecureOurSocials campaign January 23, calling on Meta to do more to protect the safety of LGBTQ people of all ages, according to a joint news release.

HRW works in about 100 countries around the world defending the rights of people, according to the organization's website.

#SecureOurSocials was launched after HRW sent a second letter to Meta raising its concerns after working with the social media giant for a year. HRW sent its first letter February 2, 2023, prior to the publication of its report, "'All This Terror Because of a Photo': Digital Targeting and Its Offline Consequences for LGBT People in the Middle East and North Africa," about the harm social media was causing for LGBTQ people in the Middle East and North Africa.

The letter posed specific questions that had stemmed from the organization's research and presented the report's findings to Meta.

Meta executives at the time declined to provide a written response, though the company continued to engage with HRW on the issues it raised, according to the release.


#SecureOurSocials is spearheaded by HRW along with Social Media Exchange, INSM Foundation for Digital Rights, Helem, and Damj Association. The campaign aims to engage Meta to be "more transparent and accountable" in its publication of "meaningful data" about its investment in user safety. The organizations stressed safety to include content moderation around the world, especially in the Middle East and North Africa region.

According to the HRW's release, the organization found in its report, which served as the basis of the new campaign, that Meta's policies and standards prohibiting abuse on its platforms are inconsistently applied. The result is content targeting LGBTQ people violating Meta's anti-abuse rules remains online while documentation of human rights abuses was removed from the platforms, even after it was reported. This led to no protection or action, HRW claimed.

The report focused on Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Tunisia. It details the use of digital targeting by security forces and its "far-reaching offline consequences — including arbitrary detention and torture," according to the release. The release stated researchers found that police use social media — like Facebook and Instagram — to "entrap and harass LGBT people, as well as to gather and create evidence to prosecute them."

"In all these cases, Meta either did not respond to their complaints or found that the content they reported did not violate its policies, and the content remained online," the release stated.

The fallout of this targeting beyond prosecution led to endangering some LGBTQ people to the extent that some fled their home countries and suffered related mental health consequences, officials said.

HRW acting LGBT Rights Deputy Director Rasha Younes told the Gay Times that while people have the right not to hand over their phones to authorities, the reality is "when you have, basically, a gun to your head you're going to hand over your phone."

As the "largest social media company in the world," Meta "should be a global leader in making social media safe for everyone," Younes stated.

"When LGBT people, who already face insecurity offline, use Facebook and Instagram for connection and organizing, they deserve certainty that Meta is doing everything in its power to ensure their security," she added.

Engaging Meta

According to the release, HRW's LGBTQ leadership addressed its concerns with Meta staff in conversations for about a year and sent a letter to the company last February. It took nearly a year for Meta to respond in a seven-page letter, linked to in the release, from Miranda Sessions, director of Meta's human rights policy team, to Lama Fakih, HRW's Middle East and North Africa director. Sessions' letter is dated January 22, 2023, but HRW said it only received it last month after sending a second letter dated January 8 to the tech company.

Sessions pointed out to Fakih that Meta is working on several of the issues HRW pointed out in its letter. She stated Meta is paying attention to users' and human rights defenders' usage of Facebook and Instagram, and creating policies to protect vulnerable groups.

She also wrote that Meta is working with stakeholders in the MENA region and around the world through its trusted partner program. She noted that Meta is implementing recommendations from a commissioned independent human rights report — especially end-to-end-encryption in its messenger products — strengthening human rights defenders' accounts and content enforcement. The company is also providing safety resources, training, tools, and case studies and reports for human rights defenders and journalists.

The trusted partner program works with more than 400 non-governmental organizations, humanitarian agencies, human rights defenders, and researchers from 113 countries — including LGBTQ organizations in the MENA region, Sessions wrote in the letter.

Launched in 2021, Meta's human rights policy team and fund focused on end-to-end encryption of its messaging products first. The team commissioned an independent human rights assessment report and has been following its recommendations. The team's first program focused on human rights defenders and journalists in Asia launched in November 2021.

Meta previously worked on human rights projects on the continent, according to the Facebook blog. Since then, Meta reported its progress defending human rights in its two annual reports, the latest available was published in September 2023.

"Our continued engagement with HRW and other global and regional organizations on this topic has been fruitful; we hope to expand this work and deepen our collaboration with you on the issues outlined," Sessions wrote.

Meta did not respond to follow up questions from the B.A.R.

Not enough

HRW thinks Meta's efforts are not enough so it launched the #SecureOurSocials campaign.

"Meta has underinvested in user safety and underestimated the role its platforms play in facilitating abuses against LGBT people in the region," Younes stated. "Meta should always be accountable for the security of users on its platforms, but especially when it can protect them from egregious harm."

#SecureOurSocials provides a variety of solutions for Meta to keep LGBTQ people safe on its platform based on its researchers' recommendations. The organizations are also asking for annual transparency and disclosure in the investment in user safety and security. The organizations want to know specifically "how trust and safety investments are proportionate to the risk of harm, for each region, language, and dialect in the Middle East and North Africa," the release stated.

Meta's Sessions stated in her letter she could not provide that information, citing the complexity entailed and that Meta has a large team working on that aspect in the Middle East.

HRW also published an explainer about why it is focused on Meta and answered some questions detailing the campaign's objectives and its recommendations to Meta.

Additionally, HRW partnered with Lebanese drag pioneer Anya Kneez to create a video with tips on how LGBTQ people can stay safe online when using social media.

Got international LGBTQ news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp/Signal: 415-517-7239, or [email protected]

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