I saw how social media posts in Jordan sparked violence. I wasn’t surprised by the riots in Washington

Tuesday, 12 January 2021 16:53 GMT

Pro-Trump protesters clash with Capitol police at a rally to contest the certification of the 2020 U.S. presidential election results by the U.S. Congress, at the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, U.S, January 6, 2021. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As a LGBT+ advocate in the Middle East, I’ve seen first-hand how politicians can incite violence through social media, and how quickly it can lead to actions on the ground.

Hasan Kilani is a writer and international LGBT+ activist.

The world reacted with complete shock when extremist groups rioted and attacked Capitol Hill in Washington DC.

However, as an LGBT+ rights activist in the Middle Eastern nation of Jordan, I have witnessed first-hand how some politicians can incite violence through social media, and how quickly it can lead to actions on the ground.

To me, it wasn’t surprising but predictable that comments on social media platforms by U.S. President Donald Trump might have spurred his followers to act.

Even though Trump has now been banned from Twitter and other platforms, it was too late to prevent the violence that took place.

My discussions with Facebook and Twitter about content moderation date back to 2015 and my conclusion – which many others are now reaching – is that these platforms haven’t yet grasped the relationship between online hate speech and violence.

In 2017, a former Jordanian lawmaker used a well-followed Twitter account to harass the LGBT+ community.

The account published photos of gay Pride marches in western countries and images of gay weddings with insulting captions.

In addition, the lawmaker gave themselves credit on Twitter for the cancellation of a concert in Jordan by rock band Mashrou’ Leila, due to the sexual orientation of the lead singer Hamed Sinno, who is openly gay.

The politician elaborated in a discussion with local news:  “We regard homosexuals from a moral and religious perspective. They are a community that is completely rejected, alien to our religion and tradition and the Jordanian people's cultural norms."

The politician used discriminatory language and referred to the LGBT+ community as the “bats of darkness” and “heretics”.

As a feminist queer activist, I express my opinion on topics such as gender equality and social justice on social media.

In posts on Facebook and Twitter, I highlighted that these posts were spreading hate speech against LGBT+ people and risked inciting violence against an already vulnerable community.

The politician’s supporters immediately sent me threats in tweets and direct messages on Facebook.

After these tweets, I heard from several people who had faced violence from their family because they are fans of Mashrou’ Leila.

My organisation received reports of a spike in increased violence and harassment in the streets experienced by transgender people in Jordan after the social media posts.

So where did social media platforms fit in to all this?

When LGBT+ activists like me in Jordan reported the politician’s social media posts, we were told by Twitter and Facebook that the posts did not violate their community standards, which include a ban on hate speech.

I even met with Facebook and Twitter staff in 2017 and 2018 and explained to them that this was not an issue of freedom of speech but of inciting violence on the ground.

Since those conversations, I have not seen any meaningful action taken by Facebook or Twitter to combat hate speech against the LGBT+ community in the Middle East.

Facebook says it has teams reviewing reports of hate speech 24/7 in more than 50 languages, including Arabic, and that its AI tools found nearly 90% of the hate speech it removes before users reported it.

"We know we have more work to do here and we'll continue to work closely with members of the LGBTQI+ community in the Middle East and North Africa to develop our tools, technology and policies," Facebook told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in emailed comments in 2020.

Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In the past few years in the Middle East, we have witnessed many politicians and social media influencers using Facebook, Instagram and Twitter as platforms to attack LGBT+ people on social media.

Politicians are in positions of power and authority, so their words, tweets and social media posts are taken as orders.

While several social media platforms have banned Trump, there are many other politicians globally using social media to incite violence.

Now is the time for online platforms to hold politicians and anyone spreading hate speech anywhere to account and listen to affected communities to make social media a safe space for all. 

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