Digital Battlegrounds: the growing struggle to contest LGBT online spaces

Stephen WoodStephen_Wood200

The meteoric rise in the use of smart phones and the internet over the last ten years, both within the West and in increasing numbers in regions such as South-East Asia and Africa, has brought fresh opportunities by which we can make sense of ourselves as individuals and participate in our communities. There is now recognition amongst politicians and policy actors that these technological advances are shaping public debate in unexpected and interconnected ways.

Nowhere has this transformation been so noticeable and relevant than amongst those sexual minorities building lives in societies whose harsh cultural and legal barriers prevent open expression of non-normative sexualities. For many, lives lived online have become richer, offering resilience and strength in ways impossible on the streets or even within their home.

Opportunities for online growth

The possibilities of social media have facilitated the establishment of discreet and anonymous methods of connecting and meeting up for social support, commercial transactions, sexual and romantic encounters. In places such as China, where family plays an incredibly important part in building and maintaining social capital, there has been a growth in ‘arranged’ marriages between lesbians and gay men organised online that provide opportunities for mutually-assured social acceptance and a freedom to explore identities discreetly, especially in urban settings where kinship networks are policed less. Heavily moderated and secure online spaces on platforms such as Facebook in countries like the Philippines allow for anonymous or open organizing for social and political activism, as well as providing opportunities for HIV prevention outreach work, such as the Adam’s Love campaign in Thailand for men who love men.

As researchers, these virtual spaces provide fresh opportunities for us to engage with and hear from ‘hidden’ populations, providing we remain mindful that any data we might glean could stem from the relatively privileged in society. As my colleague Pauline Oosterhoff writes in her recent paper ‘Research Methods and Visualisation Tools for Online LGBT communities’, there are remarkable possibilities for larger scale quantitative data collection from geographically dispersed and ordinarily inaccessible participants, although not without some concerns about the quality of data and ethical considerations. With the rising expense of conducting research, this also represents a cost-effective mechanism for building research cohorts and disseminating our findings to new audiences.

The double-edged sword

This connectivity, that brings global communities closer together and feeds perceptions of users as private, individual consumers going about their business away from prying eyes, masks very real dangers. The backlash is already with us. Human rights advocate Scott Long has written extensively about the state targeting of sexual minorities communities in Egypt over the last couple of years, with police targeting LGBT people as a result of online postings that even tangentially aid in their identification. Popular gay male smartphone app Grindr (which presents profiles ordered by GPS distance between users and is thereby incredibly popular for organizing hook-ups) has the potential to identify the physical location of users and could have its functionality distorted into a tool for facilitating violence, entrapment or blackmail for unwary users. The illusory freedom of online life sometimes leaves people feeling invincible and unable to gauge the potential dangers.

As researchers and activists, we must recognize that we stand at a crucial crossroads in the maturity of the internet. In the public eye, the fiercely empowering nature of online activity still holds sway, with acres of media coverage of how democratic accountability was ignited in the ‘social media revolution’ of the Arab Spring or domestically during the recent Scottish Independence debate. These dramatic images of societies coming together in online dialogue are much more visible than the more abstract concerns about big data, cyber security, state surveillance and silencing of dissent. But their impact is devastating. In the last month alone, Scott Long has compellingly exposed the Egyptian government tendering out for tech companies able to provide tools for monitoring online traffic in incredibly intrusive ways, including for evidence of “terminology and vocabulary that are contrary to law and public morality or beyond the scope of custom and community ties”. The successful tender came from a sister company of a Californian-based US internet security firm, raising probing questions about the conflicted relationship Western states are playing in ongoing global debates around LGBT equality, as arrests, detention and abuse across Egypt of LGBT people increases dramatically.

Online activism represents a new front for citizen participation, mobilization and (in)visibility. As a relatively new area of research, there is a real need for evidence to elucidate whether or not it facilitates the emergence of voices from those parts of sexual minority communities that are usually rendered invisible, or whether we are exposed to a vocal activist base drawn from the technologically literate, relatively privileged classes in society pursuing campaigns that at times run counter to the needs and priorities of poorer LGBT people. These campaigns in turn run the risk of being unquestioned and mirrored into global policy spaces by the rapidly expanding class of well-intentioned international LGBT activist ‘clickdavists’, whose efforts could exacerbate accusations of Western cultural imperialism.

The potential for online spaces to foster strong communities and civic participation amongst those facing discrimination as a consequence of their sexual identities remains great, yet are being contested aggressively by opponents. Even amongst sexual minorities themselves, the dynamics of social media use are reshaping communities and civil society in under-examined ways that are potentially troubling and warrant further research. With activists and academics pressured on a daily basis to put their energies into the viscerally immediate ‘ground war’ of embattled LGBT communities, we ignore the online ‘air war’ at our peril.

Stephen Wood is a Research Officer on the Sexuality and Development Programme within the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS. He can be found on Twitter as: StephenWood_UK

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Date published: 
15/10/2014