In late June, an account launched on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Telegram called Fetrah — the Arabic word for “human instinct.” Soon after, the account posted a Twitter thread in Arabic calling on social media users to spread its message: that there are only two genders, and homosexuality is deviant and a rejection of human nature. Fetrah’s website is plastered with the words “No more LGBTQ+“ in a dozen different languages.
The visual signature of the anti-LGBTQ+ campaign is simple: a rectangle with one half colored bright pink and the other half colored light blue, representing a gender binary. Since the campaign’s launch, the pink and blue rectangle has found its way onto flags, pamphlets, books, videos, memes, and infographics and has been watermarked onto profile pictures. Images including the logo are frequently posted on social media alongside one of Fetrah’s three viral hashtags.
Following a series of political controversies regarding the queer community in the Middle East during international pride month, Fetrah has become a new vehicle for anti-LGBTQ+ online hate speech and harassment against the queer community. Global social media platforms have taken notably different approaches to moderating the campaign. While the primary Fetrah Facebook page was banned by Meta in early July after it generated over half a million likes, the original Fetrah Twitter account continues to operate largely unabated and has over 75,000 followers.
The campaign is the creation of three Egyptian marketing professionals, including Abdullah Abbas, a brand strategist who has designed marketing campaigns for startups. After a month operating the accounts anonymously, in July, Abbas came forward as a creator, appearing on a Jordanian state broadcast to discuss the campaign’s success and criticizing Meta for banning his account in a news segment that largely endorsed the campaign. Many Arabic-language news outlets in the region that have covered Fetrah have been supportive of the campaign.
“It’s essentially a coordinated effort to target the LGBT community from Arabic countries,” Raya, an internet freedom and digital rights researcher based in Jordan, told Rest of World. (She asked to be referred to by her first name, due to security concerns.) Raya said she has seen friends, colleagues, and former classmates post in support of Fetrah on social media. “This has resulted in more people feeling in danger and more posts asking to harm members of the LGBT community,” she said.
In response to a request for comment on Fetrah’s growth on Twitter, a Twitter spokesperson shared the platform’s hateful conduct policy, which prohibits abusive content and behavior targeting people based on protected categories, including gender identity and sexual orientation, but did not confirm if it had removed Fetrah posts based on this policy.
Twitter would not comment directly on how the Fetrah campaign has been using its platform since its was banned by Meta-owned platforms or on testimonies from queer Arab users that they’ve been experiencing increased levels of harassment as a result of the campaign. Abbas said in a written interview with Rest of World that although the account has received many reports, Twitter sent him a notification that it did not violate its community standards. The account’s Twitter following continues to grow.
Mahsa Alimardani, an internet researcher focused on freedom of expression at the international human rights organization Article 19, says platforms like Twitter often fail to contextualize harmful content when considering whether it incites discrimination, hostility or violence. “We find these standards upheld for Western contexts or languages and deprioritized in the MENA region, especially when we see queer communities at the frontlines of harm from inaction by platforms, which is deeply concerning,” she said.
Users across Arabic-speaking countries and globally have been generating their own content in support of Fetrah. Often these images show heterosexual couples and families, with a husband and wife standing on their respective side of the pink and blue banner. The Fetrah Twitter account bio links out to a free image generation service call Twibbonize that will overlay any picture with a frame of the Fetrah flag and the phrase “There are only two genders.” It has been used over 26,000 times, according to the website.
Abbas said the campaign does not have any explicit religious affiliation or rhetoric, in order to appeal to anti-LGBTQ+ supporters around the world. One popular illustrated post shows a man drawn in the style of gendered restroom signs holding an umbrella over a group of women, to protect them from a falling rainbow. Many posts have spoken about the “erosion of the borders between humans and animals” caused by queer people and the pressure from Western countries to normalize what the posters call “human deviation.” Others have called for violence and criminal action against queer people.
Human rights researchers and LGBTQ+ activists described Fetrah as a hate campaign that has been able to gain traction due to a backlash against the increased visibility of queer Arabs, particularly following the spotlight on the community during international Pride Month. Abbas confirmed to Rest of World that he launched the campaign in June for this reason.
On June 2, the U.S. embassy in Kuwait raised the rainbow pride flag alongside the U.S. flag and posted to its social media channels with a quote from President Joe Biden supporting LGBTQ+ equality, which was publicly criticized by the Kuwaiti government. Male homosexuality is criminalized in Kuwait.
Later that month, the Disney animated film Lightyear was banned in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Lebanon for a scene that showed a kiss between two women. A ban followed soon after for Disney’s Marvel film Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness on similar grounds. Much of Fetrah’s rhetoric argues that homosexuality and other expressions of queerness are forms of propaganda by Western media and nations and are targeting children. At the end of June, authorities in Saudi Arabia announced a recall of rainbow-colored toys and clothing for children in Riyadh for “promoting homosexuality,” including backpacks, crayons, and pencil cases. “It’s a domino effect,” said Raya. “It’s hard for me to imagine that these events are isolated.”
On Facebook, the Fetrah account received over a half million likes before it was eventually banned from the platform on July 9. The page administrators were soon banned as well, according to Abbas. Meta, Facebook’s parent company, also banned the campaign’s accounts on Instagram –– though a search on both platforms indicates new posts using the Fetrah symbol and hashtag are appearing almost daily from individual users.
“If you look into the hashtag, you’ll see a lot of people asking to kill members of the LGBT community, not necessarily from the main page,” said Wajeeh Lion, a LGBTQ+ advocate who is openly gay and from Saudi Arabia but now lives under political asylum in the United States. Lion, who has published criticisms of the #Fetrah campaign and reported the account to Twitter Support, said he had noticed an increased level of harassment toward his own account since the campaign’s launch, including DMs and comments in his Twitter Spaces rooms from people saying they wish to throw him off a building, behead him, and burn him alive.
In late June, Fetrah stated on Twitter that it does not condone harassment, but it has in several instances posted slurs for gay men to its main Twitter account, alongside its more general rhetoric casting queer people as primitive and a societal problem.
Fetrah supporters have tried to bypass the automated moderation of platforms like Twitter by altering the Arabic spelling of slurs. Some of these techniques were popularized among Arabic-speaking social media users during the conflict in Palestine in May 2020, when pro-Palestine posts were reported to have been censored by platforms like Facebook, and now have been adopted for Fetrah’s own agenda, according to Raya. “It’s created so much noise and space for … people to hate on the LGBTQ+ community,” she said. Her organization has reached out to Twitter to argue that the Fetrah account and individual posts should be removed for violating the platform’s community guidelines around incitement of hate and hate speech, but has not received a response.
“Twitter’s failures here have real-world impacts,” said Alimardani, the Article 19 freedom of expression researcher, of the company’s decision not to remove the account. “Their human rights and policy teams would be remiss not to be giving this a closer look.”