Technology has proved a mixed blessing for LGBT+ people in Asia, advocates said on Wednesday, opening opportunities to connect, but fanning hate speech, death threats, and attacks.
Social media companies must do more to keep LGBT+ people safe online, human rights campaigners from across the region said, at the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s annual Trust Conference in London.
“We get death threats and online harassment all the time, which affects … the mental health of our members,” said Rhadem Morados, a gay, Muslim filmmaker, from Mindanao in the Philippines.
“But we should also embrace the idea that there are more advantages than disadvantages,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“We can… bring the message directly… to the fingertips of the people who need it.”
The ‘LGBT Philippine Community’ Facebook page, for example, has more than 10,000 followers, while Morados said he often gets messages from fellow LGBT+ Muslims on Instagram and Twitter, seeking advice.
The increasing availability and affordability of smartphones, and emergence of digital savvy, has allowed many LGBT+ people to connect with others across the region, activists said.
“Internet is really important now,” said Tushar Kanti Baidya, an LGBT+ activist based in Bangladesh.
“(People) from very rural areas, they can also have (a smartphone) and they can get connected to each other… they can share their crisis.”
[Homosexuality] remains illegal in Bangladesh, and LGBT+ people often face discrimination and violence in the conservative, Muslim-majority country.
In 2016, two prominent campaigners in Bangladesh were murdered, in an attack claimed by Al Qaeda.
One of them, Xulhaz Mannan, was the editor of the country’s first LGBT+ magazine, available in print and online.
Baidya says that since the attack, activists have had to reduce their activities, while many have become reticent to publish any writings about LGBT+ issues online.
Given the risks, technology companies should do more to crack down on hate-speech, and improve security for vulnerable people, campaigners said.
The messages sent to activists are often graphic.
Morados, from the Philippines, said he had once received a message saying:
“Prepare yourself… you will be beheaded soon”.
“The potential for harm is so terrible,” said Ryan Figueiredo, founder and executive director of Equal Asia Foundation, an LGBT+ innovations incubator.
“(Tech) organisations constantly gloat about the potential of digital media to do good, but I feel there is very little done,” he said.
Figueiredo cited recent church-sponsored advertisements on Facebook for conversion therapy, a widely discredited attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, through psychological or spiritual means.
According to Figueiredo, even if conversion ads are taken down with speed, his organisation’s suicide helpline often sees a spike in calls.
“Communities cannot unsee what they have already seen – and the trauma is deep,” Figueiredo said.
“It creates so much trauma that it takes many, many years to repair the damage of even 24 hours of such a terrible ad campaign.”
Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.
-Oscar Lopez with additional reporting by Rachel Savage and Hugo Greenhalgh – Thomson Reuters Foundation