Offline, you may have difficulty recognizing Esra’a Al-Shafei: The Bahraini human rights activist keeps her appearance a secret, given her geographic location and the sensitive nature of her work.
Online, Al-Shafei is hard to miss. The 31-year-old activist has delivered TED talks, been lauded as one of the world’s bravest bloggers and uses her prominent Twitter account to champion marginalized people.
Al-Shafei is the founder of Majal.org, an 11 year old non-profit operating across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Majal is primarily run by Arab women and has a core mission of “increasing freedom of expression and access to information,” Al-Shafei tells Mozilla.
The organization houses a range of projects. Among them are Mideast Tunes, a platform for MENA musicians who promote social justice; Migrant-Rights.org, a resource for migrant workers in the Middle East and Ahwaa, a social networking site for LGBTQ individuals in the Arab world.
LGBTQ rights factor prominently into Majal’s work. As a result, Al-Shafei has keen insight into the intersection of today’s Internet and the ongoing struggle for LGBTQ equality.
As a small handful of social media platforms have grown in size and influence, the LGBTQ community has encountered a torrent of challenges, Al-Shafei says. “Facebook has consistently shut down or threatened to shut down various pages dedicated to LGBTQ rights,” she notes. Why? “A faulty algorithm that is vulnerable to gaming by trolls, enabling them to report pages that do not actually violate the company’s terms,” Al-Shafei explains.
The LGBTQ community isn’t the only group experiencing online harassment of this type. The same tactic has been used against refugee advocates and Kurdish dissidents, Al-Shafei says.
Still, even as social media grows more centralized, there are pockets of decentralization – and positivity. “Platforms don’t need to be used by millions of people to be effective and influential,” Al-Shafei says. “There’s nothing stopping us from creating our own niche spaces online. The opportunities are limitless.”
One example is Majal’s own Ahwaa. The platform allows its users to interact anonymously, using pseudonyms and illustrations. Positive exchanges with other users unlock new tools – like chat rooms – a feature that keeps trolls at bay.
There are other bright spots online. The global nature of the Web allows previously-isolated LGBTQ communities to talk to, learn from and support each other. Ahwaa garnered the attention of an LGBTQ community in Bulgaria, which later relaunched the platform locally.
Al-Shafei acknowledges technology alone cannot advance the LGBTQ cause – education and advocacy are key components, too. But, the Web can have an outsized impact. “At the core of each of Majal’s projects is an emphasis on creative technological approaches to the problems we’re trying to solve,” she says.
Al-Shafei also acknowledges that the quest for LGBTQ rights, online and off, is endless. “It’s an eternal struggle,” she says. “Just as we have the power and capability to create platforms that celebrate free expression and promote tolerance, those on the opposite side can develop their own means of furthering agendas that run counter to ours.”
So activists like Al-Shafei, and organizations like Majal, have a critical role to play: pushing back against censorship and exclusion. And amid this struggle, there are causes for celebration – even if it’s simply one Internet user standing up for another.
“I’m very happy to see people raising their voices and using their influence to shut down abusive trolls and hate speech,” Al-Shafei says. “I’m grateful that people are speaking up and fearlessly supporting each other, and figuring out creative and sustainable ways to keep one another from being intimidated and silenced.”