[Produced alongside Thomson Reuters Foundation’s digital correspondent Avi Asher-Schapiro and published here on June 3, 2021]
When he was growing up in a small Egyptian town outside Cairo, Omar began feeling sexually attracted to other men. Too afraid to talk to family or friends, he turned to Facebook for help, shielding his identity with a false name.
Scouring social media for information and advice is a common recourse for young men and women who think they may be gay and live in socially conservative Arab societies.
But it can lead them to therapists, spiritual leaders and influencers promising to “cure the affliction” of homosexuality through so-called conversion therapy – practices that aim to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
“Facebook led me to conversion therapy, and I’m not alone,” said Omar, 24, who only wanted his first name used because he lives at home and has not come out to his family.
As a teenager, he stumbled on the Facebook page of Awsam Wasfy, who now has nearly 150,000 followers and still says his therapy sessions can “treat” homosexuality.
Wasfy did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Omar read Wasfy’s posts, connected with other followers, and eventually began sessions with another therapist he found through Facebook, which last year announced a global ban on any content promoting such services.
“I didn’t start out looking for treatment, I wanted to understand, is it normal?” Omar told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
But after feeling threatened by the way the therapist interrogated him, Omar stopped the sessions – describing it as a narrow escape.
“I am lucky the so-called doctor wasn’t violent towards me. He definitely had the potential to be,” said Omar, now an activist who has moderated several Arabic Facebook groups created by LGBT+ activists.
In recent years, a number of countries, including Brazil, Ecuador and Germany, have imposed total or partial bans on conversion therapy, which can include talk therapy, hypnosis, electric shocks and fasting.
In July 2020, a United Nations special rapporteur concluded that conversion therapy practices – long shunned by the mainstream medical community – can amount to torture and ill-treatment when conducted forcibly.
Despite increased global scrutiny, conversion therapy remains legal in most countries including in the Arab world, where LGBT+ people often face persecution or discrimination.
In many Arab countries, homosexuality is not strictly illegal, but activists say police often persecute LGBT+ citizens using other laws, such as those covering public indecency.
In Egypt, medical professionals offering conversion therapy services are part of the mental health care system, local LGBT+ groups say.
Following its ban on content promoting conversion therapy, Facebook took action against several English-language conversion promoters.
But Arabic-language conversion content still thrives on Facebook, where practitioners post to millions of followers through verified accounts.
Not only do pre-ban posts advocating conversion therapy remain visible, but new posts continue to flood the site, and conversion therapists appear to promote their services freely.
“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 due to the sensitive nature of its work.
A Facebook spokeswoman said in emailed comments 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”.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation provided Facebook with more than a dozen examples of conversion therapy promotion still on the platform, including a post by Wasfy promoting a Zoom event on “curing” homosexuality. Facebook subsequently removed most of the posts, including one by Wasfy promoting a Zoom event on “curing” homosexuality.
The spokeswoman said other posts were under review and Facebook found that some content did not violate its standards. The company said Wasfy’s account did “not have active violations as of right now”, and the account remains active.
Facebook, by far the most widely-used social media network in the Arab world, did not say why users could still see multiple Arabic-language conversion posts, including some that LGBT+ activists had already flagged to Facebook.
‘DANGER TO SOCIETY’
This year, Arab LGBT+ group Ankh compiled a spreadsheet of more than 50 posts, pages and videos promoting conversion therapy, half from Facebook and the rest from YouTube or individual websites.
Many advertised conversion services at what they said were medical institutions, providing contact details.
Others were videos with up to 3 million views.
“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,” said Nora Noralla, an Egyptian LGBT+ researcher.
One video, posted on Facebook after the platform’s ban, encouraged parents who think their children are gay to “detain” them at home until they get help because they pose “a danger to society”.
Facebook said on May 27 that it removed the video after receiving a link from the Thomson Reuters Foundation, but the video remained on the platform as of June 3.
Taha Metwally, an Egyptian LGBT+ activist who helped compile Ankh’s database, underwent several conversion sessions with Heba Kotb, an Egyptian sex therapist with more than 2 million followers on her verified Facebook page.
Facebook did not respond to a request for comment about Kotb’s account.
During the sessions, which Metwally says took place almost a decade ago, Kotb performed an anal examination – an experience Metwally said was traumatic.
Kotb told the Thomson Reuters Foundation she performs anal examinations with patient consent as part of a “sexual assessment”.
Metwally said he has watched with dismay as Kotb has become increasingly popular on Facebook in the years since she tried to treat him, regularly posting videos to millions of followers.
Kotb said Facebook was a key “channel” to interact with patients, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, and said she has dedicated staff who respond to Facebook inquiries.
“I have treated no less than 3,000 cases of gays, all over the Arab world,” said Kotb, claiming a “100% success rate”.
She said she was currently conducting online conversion therapy for 30 people, and Facebook had never removed her posts on the subject or warned her about them.
In February, she posted a Facebook video promoting her conversion therapy business, in which she says homosexuality is caused by childhood abuse. The video, which is still visible on her page, has racked up 1.7 million views.
The Facebook spokeswoman said Kotb’s account did not have any “active violations”.
Facebook uses artificial intelligence (AI) and people, including Arabic-speakers, to moderate content that may violate its rules.
Mathew Shurka, an LGBT+ activist in the United States who has worked with Facebook on the issue, said conversion therapists had learned to use indirect phrases like “unwanted same-sex attraction” that Facebook might not immediately catch.
“It’s a game of whack-a-mole,” he said. “They’re constantly shifting language and tactics.”
Frustrated with big tech’s response, 28 LGBT+ and women’s rights groups in the Middle East published a letter in March urging Facebook, its picture-sharing app Instagram, as well as Twitter and YouTube, to rein in the “myths” on Arabic conversion therapy posts.
Facebook held workshops with the LGBT+ groups to explain its policies, Metwally said, but declined their request to create a page dedicated to countering the misinformation.
The spokeswoman said “we remain open to future proposals and will continue to work with and support members of the LGBTQ+ community in the Middle East and North Africa.”
In the meantime, resource-strapped local LGBT+ groups try to fill the gap – flooding therapy pages with comments or reporting posts to Facebook en masse.
It is a formidable task, said the executive director of one Egypt-based LGBT+ organisation who asked not to be named.
“It would be too hard for us to gather all the posts and report it – it’s too vast,” she said.
The least Facebook could do, Metwally said, is to accompany content promising “cures” with warning labels, as it does for inaccurate posts about COVID-19 or elections.
“Why can’t we have that? This is very dangerous content to us – but to Facebook it doesn’t seem to be a priority.”