Lebanon's social media looks like the Wild West, and women journalists are in the crosshairs

Lebanon's social media looks like the Wild West, and women journalists are in the crosshairs
In-depth: The well-connected citizens of protest hit Lebanon have been turning to alternative news sources online amid distrust in mainstream media. But there's a catch, writes Gaia Caramazza.
7 min read
04 December, 2019
Weaponising online ‘fake news’ could prove lethally efficient in silencing journalists [Getty]
Since protests erupted in Lebanon on October 17, Dima Sadek, a famed Lebanese broadcast journalist, was subjected to an online harassment campaign that almost caused her mother to lose her life.

The journalist has experienced ample harassment before, but the situation escalated last month when fake pictures of her in compromising situations were sent to her mother.

Sadek's mother had to be hospitalised after suffering a stroke shortly after receiving the images.

In fact, weaponised 'fake news' is being used in Lebanon to silence journalists, especially women, like Dima Sadek, at a time when it is crucial for the Lebanese to access credible reporting as the country continues its popular uprising

Read more: 'The revolution is female': Why feminist issues are driving Lebanon's protests

This is all happening amid a growing distrust in mainstream news outlets in a country desperately trying to rid itself of its old sectarian baggage. For this reason, many are turning away from trying to get their daily news from outlets associated with the regime's corrupt politicians.

Many broadcasters and print newspapers are directly owned by the ruling political parties or by businessmen with links to local and regional governments.

Some of the most notorious examples include OTV, owned by associates of President Michel Aoun; Al-Manar, the mouthpiece of the powerful Iranian-backed group Hezbollah; NBN, controlled by the country's perennial Speaker Nabih Berri; and Al-Akhbar, a pro-Hezbollah leftwing newspaper that has been hit by a string of resignations over its hostile coverage of the protests.

Representing the status quo ante, the editorial line of these outlets has painted the protest movement as 'bandits', 'foreign agents' or 'seditionists' who want to bring back sectarian strife and civil war.

Over the past few weeks, Al-Jadeed has been banned by cable operators in Hezbollah-dominated areas, after running coverage critical of the group's leader Hassan Nasrallah. Its offices were also attacked by an angry mob in November.

Read more: Lebanon protests enter second month as demonstrators dig in

Even more independent outlets, such as MTV and LBCI are seen as compromised, as they are mostly owned by tycoons friendly to politicians.

The same Dima Sadek chose to resign from her full-time post at LBCI, because she felt she was being 'sidelined' for her political activity on her Twitter account. The broadcaster said Pierre Daher, CEO of LBCI, 'surveilled' her tweets and said she could return to the network only after she stopped her online activity.

"The reasons for my exclusion are political, something I do not accept in times of revolution or any other time," she said on her personal Twitter account after announcing her resignation last week.

"People in Lebanon are highly literate when it comes to knowing which outlets are partisan, and which outlets are owned by which powerful business elite," Dr Zahera Harb told The New Arab.

Harb is a Lebanese journalist, and an ex-anchor for the state-owned Tele Liban. She now teaches journalism at the University of London.

She remembers all too well the Lebanese civil war which lasted a full fifteen years before ending in 1990: "Media organisations are exaggerating the comparison between the ongoing protests and the civil war in 1975. Outlets are playing on emotions and fears through a systematic campaign.

"People are scared, and the chaos is similar to that which occurred in the civil war, so outlets are taking their chance to demonise protesters."

Outlets are playing on emotions and fears through a systematic campaign

Enter social media

Instead of mainstream outlets, the well-connected citizens of the country have been turning to alternative sources online, both on open social media platforms and closed messaging apps, to get their news as well as organise protests.

Already, over three-quarters of people in the Middle East have got news on their phones, and almost two-thirds said they use social media daily to access news, according to a 2017 study conducted by Northwestern University in Qatar.

But the explosion of social media brings with it risks of harassment and disinformation, much of which has targeted journalists – especially women like Dima Sadek – and this is what we have seen happen in Lebanon, with cynical campaigns of disinformation deployed by opposing camps.

Sadek believes that she was targeted due to her anti-government stance and her defiance of the country's sectarian lines, making her a perfect target for pro-government online trolls.

The women of Lebanon have been on the front-lines of the
popular uprisings [Video: Gaia Caramazza]

Rachel Karam, Nancy Sabeh, Halima Tabiaa, Ramez Qadi ou Layal Saad and other journalists at TV station Al-Jadeed also received thousands of messages and phone calls harassing them.

Some were accused of being Israeli agents, whilst others received threats of sexual assault.

"Female journalists have been subjected to several instances of sexual harassment. They receive nasty messages like 'this whore needs to be raped' which has intimidated many into withdrawing from reporting the truth," said Dr Harb.

Read more: The new patriotism in Lebanon and Iraq

Ali Sibai, a consultant at SMEX, a Lebanese organisation that works on issues of intersection between digital platforms and human rights, has been in charge of dealing with complaints about online activity especially those targeting women.

"Out of all the cases that were reported to SMEX during the protests regarding harassment and doxing (the practice of putting someone's private information online), 70 percent of these cases regarded women," said Sibai.

"I had to block more than 1,500 people. Many of them had as profile photos images of Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah or Speaker Nabih Berry. Some even had foreign or masked numbers. One of the masked numbers called me over 50 times. When I finally answered he copiously insulted me," Layal Saad, another Lebanese TV journalist, told the Lebanese publication, L'Orient-Le Jour.

Meanwhile, joining a long list of countries where 'fake news' has been weaponised by political parties, from Brazil to India, Lebanon is already seeing its fair share of rumour warfare, especially on messaging app WhatsApp.

Yet while it may seem like social media in Lebanon has become as unregulated as the old Wild West, people are starting to take the role of online sheriffs into their own hands.

"False information doesn't come from one source or group…everyone actually participated one way or another in spreading false news, not to mention also rumours that were spreading like wildfires in WhatsApp's voice notes," Mahmoud Ghazayel, a Lebanese volunteer fact checker, told The New Arab.

Ghazayel calls himself a "Verificationista". He says he has helped fact check and debunk hundreds of pieces of fake news in the 40 days since the protests started.

He says misinformation has been causing further fragmentation since the start of the protests: "I witnessed an increase in Lebanese people's demand for more news verification, in which several parties started to gather around and form groups or alliances in order to fight back the flow of misinformation, which protestors saw as bullets targeting the protests to break it up."

Read more: More than reform, Lebanon's system needs a complete overhaul

Ghazayel has debunked online statements, videos, and WhatsApp audio messages all contributing to the growing cluster of chaos across the country. 

Catching misinformation before it spreads like wildfire could be a matter of life and death for the raging revolution, he argued.

The Lebanese protests have been raging since October 

Social media giants

With social media platforms being under scrutiny recently over their role in the propagation of fake news, there have also been questions about what this could mean for Lebanon.

"The way the protests have been covered in the media owned by politicians, several parties were trying to deviate that protest for their benefits, not only by spreading false information, but also by the words and action taken during the protests, but of course the main group that is being targeted are the protesters themselves," said Ghazayel.

Sibai, the consultant from SMEX, added, "Pro-government agents have been attempting to trick social media platforms into removing protesters' activity online. This is dangerous because it is a form of rogue censorship of protests which is erasing their efforts online."

Sibai said that he works with social media giants to make sure protesters are not being stifled while reporting on the protests.

This is crucial for the battle that is equally raging on Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp and which could change public perception of the protesters if they are silenced by pro-government manipulation of platforms, he offered. 

Despite these challenges, Dr Harb echoed the hopefulness with regard to social media as a credible alternative.

"Mainstream media outlets are pivoting the discourse to be demoralising, to lull the protesters by making them believe there is no hope for their cause," she said.

"I am hopeful social media provides a new opportunity for people to fight back."

Gaia Caramazza is a journalist at The New Arab. 

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