Lebanon: Is Politics a Social Media Taboo?

There has been much discussion in the Lebanese blogosphere in response to my Global Voices article of Wednesday March 16, 2011, entitled “Lebanon: Bloggers Snub Hariri Rally“.

I argued that the lack of blogger coverage of the rally organised by former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri on Sunday 13 March, was due to a general sense of apathy among bloggers.

This was met with criticism from blogger Beirut Spring, who suggested that bloggers were not losing interest, but were fearful of losing social media friends and networks if they were to express their political opinions.

Political taboo?

Here is Beirut Spring's contention:

There is one big omission that would have completely changed Antoun’s conclusions: Bloggers didn’t stop writing about politics in Lebanon because they are no longer influenced by politicians. Bloggers stopped writing about politics because they are becoming Twitter friends, and they are realizing that their sharp divisions are making it awkward to write their real point of view in polite social media company.

In the old days, bloggers didn’t care about what they wrote because they were almost anonymous. They felt free to write their real, controversial points of view. But now, there’s timidity in the air and tremendous peer pressure to say what is SocialMedially acceptable (I just invented that phrase). Perhaps GVO [Global Voices Online] should start looking more at Facebook. Over there, people say what they really think.. They are social media members too, aren’t they?

Protestors young and old in Beirut on March 13, 2011. Image by George Haddad, copyright Demotix (13/03/11).

Protestors young and old in Beirut on March 13, 2011. Image by George Haddad, copyright Demotix (13/03/11).

Beirut Spring highlighted the case of blogger Ali Seif, who came under fire on Twitter for tweeting supportive comments of controversial Lebanese political figure Samir Geagea. Geagea is the leader of the right-wing Christian Lebanese Forces, and achieved notoriety for crimes in the Lebanese Civil War 1975-1990 and a war-time alliance with Israel.

Seif responded to the criticism on his blog, SeifAndBeirut:

Lebanon is in turmoil all the time for one reason – the people DO NOT know how to talk, or accept, the opinions of others in the nation. Simple enough. You support March 14 you get bashed. You support March 8 you are bashed. Stop bashing the shit out of everyone, and just accept the fact you do not share opinions! Canada has 4 main political parties – we do NOT judge the other person because they vote for Conservatives or for the Liberals. That's just stupid.

Look at Twitter yesterday, for heavens sake look at the chat rooms and Facebook – the Lebanese were bashing eachother back and forth all night (or all day for them). So this brings me to yesterday.

I tweeted the following: I am actually only waiting for Samir Geagea’s speech. I love his charisma, and I love how he delivers his speeches. That is MY opinion. I was not jumping up and down tweeting about how I think he’s amazing, how I want everyone to like him …

Whilst Seif's example demonstrates an element of political taboo on the Lebanese blogosphere, it does not imply that the entire Lebanese blogosphere is shying away from political debate.

Indeed, there is a thriving online Lebanese political blogosphere, with renowned political bloggers such as Qifa Nabki, Angry Arab,  Nadine Moawad, Land and People, and Beirut Spring himself. The bloggers themselves are not only an indication of an active political discussion. One simply needs to look at the number of comments their posts generate to capture a greater sense of the conversation.

Easier to avoid debate

There is, however, the counter to this argument – as put forward by Beirut Drive By – that only political bloggers are free to post their opinions, thus making a distinction between political and apolitical blogs:

Politics is largely off-limits unless you are a political commentator/blogger. There are a few political angles, women’s rights, or palestinian rights that seem to be acceptable to talk about, that is as long as you agree with what’s being said. It’s just easier to avoid politics and just stick to talking about ads or restaurants or what the traffic is like today.

Reinforcing this point of view is Craig commenting on Beirut Spring‘s post, who remarks that social media compels users to flock to the most popular point of view for fear of exclusion:

Yes, I’ve noticed that too. I’m not a big twitter fan but I was following some of the feeds for some of these uprisings. Seems to me that people feel compelled to adopt the most popular/socially acceptable position. And not only that, once they adopt that position they engage in a kind of competition to see who can repeat the talking points the most often and the most places. It’s more like an experiment in the dynamics of real time group-think than it is “social media”.

Blogger Sietske in Beiroet attended the rally on Sunday, but did not blog about it for the reasons mentioned by Beirut Spring:

Totally agree. I went to the rally but did not write about it because I do not believe it is very helpful to the situation these days to profile yourself politically.

The above accounts indeed suggest that an element of caution exists on the Lebanese blogosphere when it concerns political debate.

A portion of Lebanese bloggers define their work on their political expertise, whilst others engage in a variety of topics and thus may avoid political discussion so as to not offend their readership, as Seif experienced.

However, to argue that Lebanese bloggers generally avoid debating Lebanese politics is to narrow the definition of what is deemed political.

Is discussing politics confined to participating in the repetitive bickering of sectarian factions ad nauseum?

If we are to use such a narrow definition, then yes, fewer Lebanese bloggers feel the need to comment on Lebanese sectarian politics, and not only because some are fearful of the repercussions of expressing partisan views, but also from deep apathy.

Evidence of apathy

Liliane, blogger at From Beirut With Funk, highlights her blogging history as an example of growing apathy:

I agree that we are much more away from politics, but not about the reason. Personally, I stopped writing politics because I supported X during a period, then Y during another period, and then none. Reached a point where I felt watching/discussing politics did not help in anything and that’s that. This is when I decided to change my blog’s name. For me I care no more about these things, because it only seems they keep repeating the same mistakes, and nothing is changing in this country when it comes to trying to change things using politics. For me, change will come in a different matter, and it’s by education, and that is something I prefer to find methods to implement and encourage others to join.

Some responses on Twitter to the conversation appear to share the same view:

@LebanonLucy: @antissa @Beirutspring apathy is something the young, en masse, do now but also there is a lack of political education.

@frencheagle: @antissa I guess we are tired of politics, a matter also of stating that we can't change and that we were betrayed during the past 6 years

Role of social media

Social media may have constrained political debate in some corners, but overall it has expanded discourse and given new meaning to what is considered political in Lebanon.

Political debate is no longer confined to the daily ritual of politicians insulting each other for a greater slice of the pie, whilst the country wallows in corruption, high unemployment, and a lack of basic services.

Indeed, Lebanese citizen journalists have broken the limits of political discourse originally defined by politically engineered mass media and the country's sectarian system.

Lebanese bloggers may not be responding to Hariri's rally as they have moved beyond the sectarian nature of Lebanese political life, and have grown increasingly cynical of local leaders who evoke the universal slogans of freedom, reform and democracy.

Liliane's and @frencheagle's responses reflect the widespread disappointment in the failure of the 2005 “Cedar Revolution” to engender real change, and have thus lost faith in the political system altogether.

A positive development out of the failed Cedar Revolution has been the emergence of online activism in tackling the issues Lebanon's sectarian elites refuse to entertain. There are blogs now on a plethora of issues ranging from migrant workers, gay rights, and women's rights, to local governance and poor basic services.

Social media has also been instrumental in organising and promoting important political campaigns, such as the recent rally for secular reform in the state – a platform no political party has taken seriously. Civil society and social media again recently joined forces to raise awareness of Beirut's vanishing architecture at the hands of corruption.

These are but many examples of political activity in the Lebanese online community. To not recognise such discourse as political is to fall victim to the confining, reductionist sectarian definition of Lebanese politics.

Fadi from Life with Subtitles offers a similar viewpoint:

Don’t be sensitive over the use of “snub”.

Let’s say instead: Bloggers chose not to cover the rally.

The fact is, what got the most coverage from the rally on Lebanese blogs was the stripping scene, and the huge picture of the Saudi king (both with very little commentary).

Go back a few weeks and look at the secular marches. Those got a heck load of coverage, even though part of the message was political and accused the ruling political class of being rotten.

Here’s what I think happened: Bloggers aren’t writing their thoughts on the march 14 rallies (and other M8 or M14 activity) because, just like the majority of the population, they’re sick of old fashioned Lebanese politics. Give them something fresh, and they will (as they did) write about it. Case in point: the “From Beirut with Funk” blog.

Riham of Thread of Desire also sees social media as having surpassed the old-fashioned political bickering:

Well, this disgusts me for more than one reason, but I will only mention the most important one. Before I left Lebanon, I had reached a stage of my Lebanese existence where politics became very clear to me. I realized that politics was the reason I was so stressed, pissed off and cynical. I saw that politicians kept arguing with each other, agreeing and disagreeing, changing sides and giving speeches full of hate and most importantly bullshit. & when things got bad, the only people who were being negatively affected were us.

It was us who were stuck at home when they take the streets. It was our young men and women who were taking the streets and killing each other while our beloved leaders were sitting in their well lit homes –while we drown in our 3 hour long daily darkness– enjoying the view and occasionally making speeches asking us to stop it. No matter how much they fight, we are the ones who were getting screwed. So I stopped listening. I stopped going to demonstrations, watching the news or discussing politics with anyone, regardless of whether or not they were on “my side”

The optimistic part of me likes to believe that people from my generation, those who are well educated, those who are part of the social media community and are exposed to the same information that I am exposed to, are the same way. So whenever I hear someone mindlessly repeating the same bullshit we hear on tv, the same bullshit being fed to us by our “leaders”, all I want to do is puke.

Nevertheless, Sunday's Hariri rally failed to generate a significant response from neither the resident political analysts nor the generalist bloggers. That even the majority of Lebanese political bloggers felt no need to comment on it suggests a failure by Hariri to attract interest.

Or perhaps it is indeed an indication that the Lebanese blogosphere has fallen deaf to old-fashioned Lebanese political rhetoric, and is in the process of defining a new political landscape that transcends sectarianism and nepotism.


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