World

Barbaric conversion therapy content still ‘thriving’ on Arabic Facebook despite so-called ban

Emma Powys Maurice June 4, 2021
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Posts promoting conversion therapy are commonplace on Arabic Facebook in spite of a ban (Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty)

Traumatising conversion therapy content is still “thriving” on Arabic Facebook, despite the platform promising a ban last year.

Arab LGBT+ activists say harmful posts claiming to “cure” homosexuality continue to proliferate on the platform, where practitioners broadcast their services to millions of followers through verified accounts.

This content is reportedly pushed onto the profiles of closeted young LGBT+ people who turn to social media for information and advice.

“Facebook led me to conversion therapy, and I’m not alone,” Omar, a 24-year-old Egyptian, told Reuters. “I didn’t start out looking for treatment, I wanted to understand, is it normal?”

Last year Facebook, Twitter and Instagram all vowed to pull down any content deemed to promote conversion therapy after the social media giants were pressured to crack down on the debunked practice.

While Facebook has taken action against English-language pages claiming to “cure” LGBT+ identities, it appears there is a major loophole in the company’s policy: It doesn’t seem to be enforced in Arabic.

Not only do pre-ban posts advocating conversion therapy remain visible, but new posts continue to flood the site every day, activists report.

“From our experience, these posts are almost never taken down, no matter what the rules say,” said the executive director of one Egypt-based LGBT+ rights group, asking to remain anonymous.

All efforts to change sexuality or gender identity so have been rejected by every mainstream medical and mental health organisation for decades. The devastating practice is often compared to torture and has been linked to higher risks of depression, suicide, and drug addiction.

None of that is clear from Arabic Facebook, said Nora Noralla, an Egyptian LGBT+ researcher.

“If you are a parent who only speaks Arabic you open up Facebook, you search for information, and what you’ll see is posts from people who say they are doctors, and that it’s a disease that can be cured,” she said.

One of the most prolific Arabic conversion “therapists”, Awsam Wasfy, has over 150,000 followers on a page where he advertises his abilities to “cure” homosexuality.

Also active on Facebook is Heba Kotb, who has over 2 million followers and performs anal exams as part of a “sexual assessment”.

She said Facebook was a key “channel” to interact with patients, particularly during the pandemic, and has dedicated staff who respond to Facebook inquiries.

“I have treated no less than 3,000 cases of gays, all over the Arab world,” she claimed, boasting a “100 per cent success rate”.

Incredibly, Facebook told Reuters that neither Wasfy nor Kotb’s pages had any “active” violations.

“It’s a game of whack-a-mole,” said Mathew Shurka, an LGBT+ activist in the US who has worked with Facebook on conversion therapy. “They’re constantly shifting language and tactics.”

Facebook has a troubling history on the issue, having previously been caught taking money from conversion therapy promoters.

In 2017, PinkNews revealed that an evangelical gay ‘cure’ group, Anchored North, had used Facebook to target LGBT+ people with adverts warning they face “eternity in hell”.

At the time Facebook assured PinkNews that the ad in question “violates our advertising policies, and has been removed”. But subsequent investigation by a national newspaper more than a year later flagged that near-identical ads from the same group were still appearing on Facebook.

Responding to the latest concerns, a Facebook person said that “content that explicitly provides or offers to provide products or services that aim to change people’s sexual orientation or gender identity is against our Community Standards and is not allowed on our platform”.

When the Thomson Reuters Foundation provided Facebook with more than a dozen examples of conversion therapy promotion on the platform, Facebook subsequently removed most of the posts, including one by Wasfy promoting a Zoom event on “curing” homosexuality.

The spokesperson said other posts were under review and Facebook found that some content did not violate its standards.

Related topics: conversion therapy, Facebook

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