Social media both a blessing and curse for LGBT community, ‘Sapiens’ author says

At Israel’s first-ever LGBT confab, bestselling philosopher-historian Yuval Noah Harari reflects on being gay in a time when the online world can be a lifesaver or a danger

Historian, professor and author Yuval Noah Harari. (Courtesy)
Historian, professor and author Yuval Noah Harari. (Courtesy)

Social media has drastically changed what it means to be a young person struggling with your sexual identity, philosopher and historian Yuval Noah Harari said at the first National Conference for Israel’s LGBT Community, on Tuesday in Tel Aviv.

As thousands of rainbow flags fluttered across the white city, ahead of the Middle East’s largest gay pride parade this Friday, Harari noted that social media can be an essential lifeline for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people who live outside of liberal bubbles like Tel Aviv. But the bestselling author of Sapiens warned that there is a dark side to social media, which can be used for government surveillance, manipulation, and control.

“All of the online world has done some wonderful things, like enabling people who have no immediate community to be part of something,” Harari said after the panel session with musician Ivri Lider and journalist Ilana Dayan. “When I grew up [in Kiryat Ata, near Haifa], there was nowhere I could go, no one I could meet.” Harari, met his husband of 17 years on one of the first gay online dating websites, called CheckMeOut, a long-defunct website that predated the popular gay meet-up app Grindr.

The fight for gay rights is different from other social struggles, such as black activists fighting against racism or native activists fighting for rights and representation, Harari said. In those situations, you are born into a community of people who are all oppressed, and your family intrinsically understands the challenges you face, and often supports you or even fights together.

But LGBT people are usually not born into gay families, which means that they must first overcome a sense of isolation and actively make a community for themselves, hopefully gaining the support of their families, before they can join the public struggle. Social media helps diminish this isolation by providing a tool for people on their personal journeys to start reaching out and finding allies and like-minded people, he said.

Yuval Noah Harari, left, with journalist Ilana Dayan and musician Ivri Lider at a panel discussion at the first Conference for Israel’s LGBT Community in Tel Aviv on June 11, 2019. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

But using technology to build these bridges also has a dark side.

“[Social media and the internet] also means that LGBT people are extremely vulnerable to surveillance and abuse,” Harari said. “I just read an article about Christian fundamentalist groups who are targeting LGBT teenagers with advertisements for conversion therapies, which basically play on their insecurities. They target people using the Facebook algorithm, so you don’t even have to identify as gay, it’s enough if you clicked on some gay related news issues or stories and they target you.”

Beyond manipulative advertising, social media surveillance of LGBT people can also be life threatening. “In Egypt, there was a case where the police used Grindr to arrest people. You have more and more regimes today around the world which target LGBT people. With the new technologies coming along, the danger is that as the political climate worsens, there is no way you can even hide.”

“The option that once existed, to hide yourself in the closet, had some terrible consequences, because it meant that people did not fight against the oppressive system, but at least it was a survival mechanism on a personal level,” Harari added. “In the future, there might not be any option of going back to the closet because the technology makes the closet completely transparent.”

Tel Aviv is in the midst of the 2019 Pride Week celebration, which culminates on Friday in a parade expected to attracted 200,000 people winding through the streets of rainbow-drenched Tel Aviv to a beach party, complete with party floats and dozens of DJs along the seaside promenade.

About 250 000 revelers take part in the annual Gay Pride Parade in Tel Aviv, on June 8, 2018. (Miriam Alster/ Flash90/File)

In the past, Tel Aviv’s party has been accused of focusing on the glitz and glam, while neglecting the ongoing struggle for equal rights for LGBT people in family planning and marriage licenses.

“I think parties are also important, just the visibility in the public sphere is a very important part of the LGBT struggle,” Harari said. “I grew up when you hardly ever saw any gay person or lesbian in the media, and if there was somebody it was some miserable caricature. So the mere visibility is important. It’s not enough — we need political and legal responsibilities also — but I wouldn’t discount the importance of having public events and parades. And if people are having fun on the way, then wonderful, why not?”

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