April 23, 2020 / 5:24 PM / a month ago

Gay Moroccans face blackmail, bullying after they were outed online

TUNIS, April 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Moroccan men on gay dating apps have seen their pictures leaked online in recent weeks, rights groups said, in an ‘outing’ campaign targeting LGBT+ Arabs that has raised concern about vulnerable users of apps like Grindr.

Gay men in Morocco, where homosexuality is illegal, were tricked into sharing intimate pictures of themselves by users who posed as potential dates and then shared the images online, according to LGBT+ rights group Nassawiyat.

“These men are being bullied and blackmailed. With a coronavirus lockdown in place some of them have no place to turn,” said a Nassawiyat spokesperson.

The closure of gay bars and other LGBT spaces around the world due to measures curbing the novel coronavirus pandemic has led to a surge in the use of LGBT+ dating apps like Hornet.

Some apps have taken steps to protect users from contracting the virus but developers are under pressure to protect the identities of users in countries like Saudi Arabia where gay sex can be punishable by death.

The outing of men in Morocco was sparked by a model, Sofia Taloni, who in a series of Instagram live streams told her 620,000 followers to download dating apps to locate gay men.

“[These apps] will show you the people who are near to you. It could show you your husband in your bedroom, it could show you your son who might be in the bathroom,” Taloni said in video seen by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Taloni’s account, which was suspended on Friday, did not explicitly call on viewers to out gay men but LGBT+ rights groups say men were targeted by users who cited her.

MALICIOUS PROFILES

“We’ve disabled the influencer’s Instagram and Facebook accounts and we’re taking proactive steps to find and remove other content like this,” said a Facebook spokesperson.

Grindr, the world’s best known gay dating app, allows users in so-called high-risk countries like Morocco to use premium features including a screenshot blocker and photos that automatically erase a few seconds after being shared with others.

But those carrying out so-called catfish attacks by cultivating a fake persona can circumvent screenshot blocks by using a second phone to film the screen of another device, rights groups say.

A Grindr spokesperson told TRF: “As we learned of the troubling reports in Morocco, we responded quickly with warning messages in both the Moroccan dialect of Arabic and French to let our users know to take extra caution at this time.”

Christof Wittig, founder and CEO of Hornet, which has 30 million regular users worldwide, said his company used community moderators to flag malicious profiles and algorithms to ensure the authenticity of its users.

Meanwhile, some LGBT+ Arabs say they are caught between using dating apps - one of the few remaining avenues to meet other people - and avoiding them and ending up lonely.

“I’ll continue to use dating apps but I’ll be very cautious,” said Nasser, a gay Qatari man who declined to give his second name.

“I’m not going to let fear stop me from dating.” (Editing by Tom Finn (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly)

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