A bright moment for online activism in Lebanon | #speakup barometer | Lebanon | DW | 07.05.2019

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#SPEAKUP BAROMETER | LEBANON

A bright moment for online activism in Lebanon

Civil society organizations and activists in Lebanon are increasingly using the internet to express their ideas and raise awareness of issues. But some groups need greater protection in the digital sphere.

DWA DW Akademie speakup barometer

The overall level of digital participation for Society in Lebanon is advanced

Key Findings

— Digital activism is playing a greater role in Lebanon
— Internet penetration has increased; more than 80 percent of the population has a smartphone
— WhatsApp and Facebook are the most widely used apps in Lebanon
— Digitalization has proved especially beneficial to refugees.


Lara and Marwan are a couple, and they’re interested in spicing up their love life with online erotic messages. But there’s a problem. Neither of them trusts Lebanese Internet providers, nor any of the various international messaging services. But they’re determined to fulfill their desire, so they look for advice on the web page for SMEX, Social Media Exchange. The Beirut-based organization is committed to a free, open, diverse and dynamic internet.

 

A digital campaign

What sounds like an excerpt from the life of a real couple is actually a comic, part of an educational campaign by SMEX on the topic of sexting and sextortion. On a poster titled "Aleph Ba Nudes," — the ABC of nude images — Lara and Marwan talk in little speech bubbles about how they should approach sexting. There’s another poster about the data security of dating apps. But the campaign extends beyond posters. "When you finish reading the comic, it takes you to a guide that you can download on your phone and is shareable with your friends on WhatsApp and so on. It tells you how you can maintain your privacy while using a dating app and it also gives you information about what kind of data each of the dating apps collects about you," says Azza Al Masri, a researcher at SMEX. According to a new  mobile connectivity study by the Pew Research Center, WhatsApp is the most popular messaging app in Lebanon, used by at least eight out of ten people.

 

Protecting yourself against extortion

Intimate videos, voice messages or photos sent in confidence to a partner do not always remain with that person. Sextortion – extorting someone by threating to publicize intimate data about them unless they pay money – is a growing problem in Lebanon. "There’s approximately one case of sextortion reported every day in Lebanon," says Grant Baker, a researcher at SMEX, citing statistics from the country’s Internal Security Forces. "The main targets are women and LGBTQ community members," says Baker.

Libanon Barometer | Grant Baker

Grant Baker is a researcher at SMEX in Beirut

The hashtag campaign #MeshAyb (not shameful) aims to educate people by showing them how to protect themselves without leaving the digital sphere, resorting to self-censorship, or abandoning the internet to those with nefarious intentions. Since women are among the most affected, the posters can be found in the women’s toilets of cafes, bars and restaurants all over Beirut.

 

Activists profit from digitalization

While there is still no discernible digital journalism strategy in Lebanon, activists have long benefited from digitalization. In recent years, both civil society organizations and individual actors have used the Internet as their crucial tool for expanding the reach of their campaigns and enhancing awareness of their issues.

With the help of digital activists, issues such as the plight of migrant and domestic workers have received more attention in the media. Even Lebanon’s ongoing trash disposal problem achieved global notoriety thanks to the 2017 hashtag #youstink, which increased pressure on the government. The problem has yet to be resolved, however.

Libanon Beirut Barometer Libanon Digitale Rechte

Lebanese often sit in coffee shops and do their work

There have also been victories for freedom of expression. In 2018, for example, the Lebanese band The Great Departed accused iTunes’ Middle East platform of blocking uploads of some of their songs, ostensibly because their lyrics were deemed "inappropriate for the Arab world." A content aggregator in Dubai is thought to have blocked the upload. In response, SMEX and The Great Departed launched a petition on Change.org. Two days later, an iTunes employee made the songs available for upload via an alternative route.

 

Smartphones, a constant companion

Digital participation in social processes has had many positive effects for Lebanon’s population.According to the Pew study, 66 percent of Lebanese adults agree that the internet has positively impacted education. Darine, a young Syrian woman who fled her country’s civil war and has been in Beirut since 2018, agrees: She has benefited greatly from the freedom she has in Lebanon to use the internet in all its diversity, including for school and for researching her eventual course of studies. She also appreciates having access to different sources of news and information. Unlike many other countries in the region, the Lebanese government has only blocked around 50 websites. For Kholoud H., who was born in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon and has had access to the Internet via her smartphone for the last seven years, digitalization offers many benefits. She is able to stay in touch with her family, which was scattered across the globe after their 1948 expulsion from Palestine. She uses platforms such as Facebook as well as messaging apps to stay in touch. "I also get job offers via email and am able to respond to them much faster," she says.

 

Growing concern about social media

In 2018, Internet penetration across Lebanon’s population was at almost 80 percent, while some 86 percent of those over the age of 18 own a smartphone – including a large percentage of people over the age of 50. With such a high number of smartphone users, it’s no surprise that social networks also play a significant role in people’s digital lives. Facebook, Google and YouTube are freely accessible, and thus among Lebanon’s most frequented websites – even if a growing number of Lebanese are concerned about the negative impacts of social media. As the Pew study concludes, "Lebanese are notably less positive about the impact of social media on society." That concern stems in part from the fact that in the last year, the number of arrests made in response to critical statements about politicians or religion has increased dramatically. Those arrested included activists and journalists, but also regular citizens.

 

What experts say:

Libanon Barometer | Mohamad Najem

Mohamad Najem, director of SMEX

Mohamad Najem from SMEX: "While the Internet is a space for freedom of expression, it's also a space for many people to spread rumors through their Twitter armies. This is something that we have seen a lot of in Saudi Arabia. In Lebanon, it also happens, but on a different level. I mainly see people who are trying to organize themselves around certain issues."

 

Libanon Barometer | Hicham Kayed Al Jana

Hicham Kayed, director of Al Jana organization based in Beirut

Hicham Kayed from Al Jana: Lebanon has a very diverse population, both in terms of ethnic origin and religion. The youth organization Al Jana, based in Beirut, brings young people of different backgrounds between the ages of 16 to 34 together. "Working together on short film projects gives them a chance to get to know one another," says the organization’s head, Hicham Kayed. Not only do they learn about each other’s culture, they also get to publish their films on YouTube, Kayed says.

 

Recommendations:

 Protecting people on the Internet
Organizations like SMEX are working to promote the equal participation of women, members of the LGBTQ community and other minorities in the digital sphere. At the same time, such groups require greater protection so that they can withstand the critical discourse online.

Raising awareness of privacy on the Internet
Digitalization and society have become inextricably linked and there is no going back. "I think we have issues with the legal framework, and I think we have issues with our own perception of privacy," says Mohamad Najem, director of SMEX. Lebanon is a small country with six million inhabitants. "We have a patriarchal society, where everyone knows everything about the people in the same building; kids share the same room. There's no privacy. This is part of a social norm that we are trying to change within society: your content and the exchange of your data are deserving of privacy."

 

The #speakup barometer is a DW Akademie project that examines the connection between digital participation, freedom of expression and access to information. Learn more at www.dw.com/barometer

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