Responses to my Salon piece on the video game violence debate.

I wrote an article this week seeking to re-open the video game violence debate with a different set of terms and, as I perhaps should have expected, it got some rather heated responses.

The original article can be found on Salon here: http://www.salon.com/2013/09/27/gamers_demand_better_than_grand_theft_auto/

My response to the comments (also at the bottom of the article) is below. I’m eager to keep the debate up though, so feel free to respond:

I consider the hornet’s nest well and truly kicked on this one.

I’ve read the comments left here and would like to address some of the points raised:

Nope, I’ve not played the torture scene, but I have watched it played through a couple of times – including the dialogue from Trevor afterwards – and I’m not convinced that it was as successful satire as many claim for it. Yes he subverts torture’s place in society in conversation but I think that the games industry has still not figured out what being in control means for this sort of violence. The problem is that developers can’t determine how gamers react to being in control of the torture, and I’ve seen equal numbers of “the torture scene was awesome and cool” comments on youtube as “the torture scene was gruesome social commentary” ones. If satire was the complete point of this scene then the writers could have easily allowed Trevor’s character to subvert it earlier in the scene rather than tacking a message on at the end. By not giving the player choice as to whether to torture or not, I would argue that they open themselves up to criticism by *allowing* some gamers to be either blasé about torture or even enjoy it. That’s the gamer’s prerogative, but we should find it sad at least.

Call me a heavy-handed moralist if you like, but I want the *choice* not to torture in the game. In the article I don’t make a claim as to whether it is right or wrong, but rather that I, and that widening demographic of gamers, are likely to be turned off by this. Even if the satire of torture were successful, I would find it hard to play through. And that is frustrating, as I want to play the rest of the game. (And before someone points out the inconsistencies in the argument when the rest of the game involves mowing down people by the thousand – well the GTA universe is usually full of cartoonish characters and OTT violence. Humanising a single person’s suffering in sharp relief does not fit with that tone, and if Rockstar were trying to do something clever and Brechtian at this point they failed).

My central point is not the one that defensive gamers are used to: I don’t think these things should be banned and I don’t make claims as to some universal morality of these things. My point is simply that I think that as games reach higher levels of fidelity, reach a wider audience, and find their rightful place as equals to other media, I think we should be as demanding of games writing as we are of those other media. I find misogyny, glorified violence, unsuccessful satire (too easily subverted and adopted by the bro-crowd) and over-simplifications of real-world events troubling in films too. It’s a political point. I just happen to also believe that games writing is still in its infancy, and we should be more demanding of it. Just as Zero Dark Thirty was debated by film-lovers for (according to some) depicting torture as a successful tool, we as gamers should internally debate the depiction of suffering in our own media.

This last point is raises what I mean about placing games in our wider critique of violent media in society and is, admittedly, from my own lefty POV. I believe we should be asking what narratives we feed and what impact they have on how people perceive the world. Let’s not pretend we don’t have a ‘good guy vs bad guy’ perception problem, and that media don’t play into that. Games *could* help subvert those narratives though, but real-world set pacifist or non-violent games don’t sell. Where is gaming’s 12 Angry Men? Or Schindler’s list?  Aside from sports games and ‘children’s games’, all our blockbusters are violent. There is hope in the indy scene, but it’s a shame that big developers don’t provide and we as gamers don’t demand these things.

How the Arms Trade Treaty could prevent future Syrias

Here’s my recent article from the Guardian Comment Is Free, on the Arms Trade Treaty (recently passed by the UN General Assembly), and its relevance to wars like Syria.

The original can be found here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/mar/27/arms-trade-treaty-prevent-future-syrias

At the UN this week, states are deliberating over a proposed Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which would regulate the $70bn worldwide trade of conventional weapons, from small arms like the ubiquitous AK-47 rifle, up to tanks and combat aircraft. The treaty would create common standards and rules for arms transfers, including annual reporting from states and systems to monitor exports, with the expressed aim of protecting international peace and security and reducing human suffering internationally.

The proposed final draft treaty text (pdf), released Wednesday 27 March, on which states will soon vote, would prohibit states from selling weapons when they “have knowledge at the time of authorization that the arms or items would be used in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, attacks directed against civilian objects or civilians protected as such, or other war crimes“. As is typical for such negotiations, many states have sought to water down the treaty over the course of its drafting for reasons of realpolitik and, perhaps, through the influence of pro-gun lobbies such as the NRA in the US.

The list of arms covered by the treaty, for example, is more limited than many would like. Nevertheless, the final text is a strong one, including provisions – pursued by civil society groups like Amnesty International – that force states not to authorise exports where there is an “overriding risk” that arms will be used to commit serious human rights abuses (such as extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances and torture) inside and outside conflict zones.

While diplomats parley in New York, the war in Syria continues apace. This month saw the number of refugees who have fled into neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan pass the 1 million mark, with warnings that this number could triple by the end of the year. The number of people killed is now estimated to be around 70,000. Throughout the conflict, organisations have documented widespread human rights and humanitarian abuses perpetrated by both the Assad regime and some rebel groups, including deadly attacks on civilian areas such as the military’s recent ballistic missile strikes in Aleppo.

With no political solution in sight, the engagement of other states has tended toward the deeply unhelpful, as they seek to influence events to their own advantage. Russia and Iran have continued to arm the Syrian military, in defiance of international condemnation. Syrian rebels also have a consistent supply of weapons from Saudi Arabia and Qatar(apparently, with the help of the US), despite Russia’s protestations that such transfers are illegal under international law.

Despite the desperate humanitarian crisis in the country, the international community appears more concerned with who to arm than how to aid. As Desmond Tutu pointed out on Monday:

“Weapons, not blankets, are pouring into the country.”

The illicit and under-regulated flow of arms can have a disastrous effect on what are initially limited conflicts. A recent report by Amnesty International highlights how, in Côte d’Ivoire, irresponsible international arms transfers directly fuelled the 2010-11 conflict and facilitated war crimes and human rights abuses on both sides. Similarly, the US-facilitated proliferation of small arms to rebels in Libya‘s civil war is thought to be fuelling conflict in Mali and North Africa as these weapons have been transferred into the hands of jihadist groups.

In Syria, international arms transfers have also played their part in escalating the violence. What started as limited anti-government protests in Damascus erupted into the civil war we see today, as weapons flooded in and the conflict intensified.

If passed, the Arms Trade Treaty could not only help prevent conflict escalating by stemming the flow of weapons and ammunition to opposing forces, but it could also prevent the conditions that create conflicts in the first place. By forcing states to assess whether the weapons they sell may be used to abuse human rights either inside or outside conflict zones, and forcing states not to authorise transfers when they will, the ATT could weaken those regimes that rule by terror and force.

In the case of Syria, by making other states consider the humanitarian consequences of selling weapons, the ATT would have the potential to douse the flames of conflict and make it harder for belligerents to continue harming civilians. Had an effective treaty been in place before 2011, the regime’s appalling human rights record and widespread use of torture might even have resulted in a reduced capacity to crack down violently on its own citizens and engage in protracted civil war.

It is vital that those voting at the UN remember that this treaty is about more than just weapons; it is about human lives. Though most states have publicly stated their support for an arms trade treaty, behind closed doors at the UN, there has been a battle between those who want to see a strong convention and those who have sought to limit its scope and effectiveness.

This treaty has the potential to save lives and prevent conflicts from turning into the carnage we see in Syria. The international community has so far failed the Syrian people, but by adopting and ratifying the Arms Trade Treaty, they could take a critical step towards protecting civilians from such horrors in the future.

Syria’s Slippery Slope: The danger of clichés in Lebanon

John Rentoul, writing for The Independent, has a blog dedicated to “Questions to Which the Answer is No”, where he identifies and deconstructs lazy ‘questioning’ headlines in newspapers. Far be it from me to attempt to muscle in on his work, but there is one question which has dogged Lebanon recently, no more so than in the last few days when it has been asked by seemingly every news anchor in the UK, which deserves similar scrutiny: “Is Syria’s unrest spilling over into Lebanon?

Last Friday, a devastating car bomb ripped through a residential street in Beirut’s Achrafiyeh neighbourhood, killing three and injuring over 100. The following days saw street protests outside the government buildings and Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square, as well as lethal clashes in both Beirut and the northern city of Tripoli. The violence has since died down, as it has countless times before, though the political fallout continues.

No sooner had the dust from the bombing settled, than Western news outlets began touting it as fresh evidence of the creeping infection into Lebanon of Syria’s civil strife. There is certainly a possibility that Syria had a hand in the attack. Its target, Wissam al-Hassan, was an important member of the anti-Syrian March 14th alliance. He was responsible for investigating a series of assassinations in Lebanon in which the Assad regime and its Lebanese allies are implicated, as well as spearheading the arrest of Michel Samaha, a pro-Syrian former minister accused of plotting assassinations in the country, possibly also at the behest of the Syrian regime.

There can similarly be no doubt that events in Syria have a real effect on Lebanon and the radicalisation of certain sections of its population. One only need look at the abundance of ‘Free Syrian Army’ flags (far outnumbering Lebanese flags) in videos of the protests outside the Grand Serail the day after the bombing, or plastered around the Sunni areas of Tripoli, to see the importance of events in Syria to some people in Lebanon. But restricting the discussion of these events to one of whether Lebanon will be ‘sucked into’ the Syrian crisis belies the complexity of what is really occurring in Lebanon. It ignores the historical animosities between Lebanon’s various communities and political units and the current flow of political wrangling, and plays into the hands of those in Lebanon who would seek to use the Syrian civil conflict to justify their own discord-sewing actions. Perhaps most dangerously, such language removes agency from the Lebanese themselves – making them out to be the inevitable victims of someone else’s war, rather than the potential agents for peace and change within the country.

My six months in Lebanon was barely enough time to scratch the surface in terms of understanding the complexity of Lebanese politics and history and how they relate to current events. I also have to admit to similar use of the Syrian conflict as an easy lens for understanding and writing about Lebanon’s problems, and the complexity of Lebanon’s situation means that I understand how journalists fall into the trap of seeing Lebanon purely through the easy, ready-made template of Syria. But there is a real danger to this approach if publics and governments begin to see it in the same terms, and act on the basis of this. Words, as we are often told, have power. Lebanon’s political problems need addressing if it is to remain stable in the face of its current troubles, but discussing these problems as an inevitable consequence of another country’s war will do nothing to help this process.

No Olympic truce in Tripoli

…and here is the second, my final piece for openDemocracy from 29 July – just after returning to London from Lebanon.

Sadly my time in Lebanon has come to an end, at least for now. This week I have returned to the UK at a time when the eyes of the world are on London for the 2012 Olympic Games. I am living close to the Olympic Park, and the spectacle of the Games has electrified not just this area of the city, but the whole country.

Aside from the obvious values of competition and fair play, the Olympics also seeks to carry a message of peace. The tradition of the ‘Olympic Truce’, begun in the ancient Greek games to allow athletes to travel to and from the games safely, was revived by the International Olympic Committee in 1992, so that the Olympics might become an opportunity to promote peace and friendship across the nations. For this year’s games, the 193 UN member states unanimously co-sponsored an Olympic Truce resolution, calling for all nations to cease hostilities and seek reconciliation for the duration of the games.

But there has been no Olympic Truce back in Tripoli, North Lebanon. As the fireworks of the opening ceremony went off in London, gunfire was resounding once again in Tripoli. There has been sporadic shooting in the city in the two weeks since I left, and the most recent fighting, which has injured 12, has once again renewed local fears of escalating deadly clashes in the city of the sort last seen in June.

Granted, these disputes are internal rather than international, but the ideals of the Truce are equally applicable at the local level. The Truce-related initiatives this year have reflected this by seeking to promote “local solutions to local problems”:

“Preventing conflict and building peace requires the involvement of the local communities who are most affected. We are looking for opportunities to work with host governments, communities, faith groups, civil society and the media to build relationships across boundaries.”

The continued violence means that another opportunity for dialogue and reconciliation has been lost. It may be too much to ask that the fighters in Tripoli’s rival neighbourhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen forget their animosity. But just as sport allows for regulated competition through shared rules and structures, Tripoli’s fighters should be encouraged to compete and cooperate though the formalised systems of political participation.

The lack of an Olympic Truce in the city does not, however, mean that there are no peace initiatives in Tripoli. As has happened following previous clashes, some residents have sought to manifest their desire for peace in their city through dignified public demonstration in front of Tripoli’s Serail. The Olympic Games may be of limited relevance to many people’s day-to-day lives, but there are still plenty who embody its values and hope for a peaceful future for the city, and more widely for Lebanon.

Lebanon, Lebanoff: a nation in danger of stagnation

I’m finally updating the blog with my final two columns from the openDemocracy Arab Awakening section so that they’re all in the same place. Here is the first of those, from 16 July:

Sometimes it feels as though Lebanon is programmed to grind to a halt.  Beirut is infamous for its rush hour gridlock, and Lebanese people discuss traffic the way Brits discuss the weather. But recent months have seen this problem exacerbated by a seemingly unending series of road-blocking protests, where assorted protesters burn tyres and restrict traffic to make their voices heard. Barely a day goes by without such demonstrations strangling Lebanon’s traffic, and they cover an astonishingly varied set of grievances, including events in Syria, perceived abuses by the army, workers’ contracts, arrests, prisoner releases, petrol prices and even the eviction of vegetable sellers from their old selling grounds. Sunni Sheikh Ahmad Assir’s on-going sit-in protest on the highway into Saida, against Hezbollah’s arms, has garnered the most attention by virtue of its duration (now entering its third week) and continued aggravation for those living/working in the south. Remarkably, Saida merchants who have lost business due to the sit-in carried out their own road-blocking counter-protest this week.

But it’s not just traffic that isn’t flowing as it should. This month has seen the worsening of the country’s chronic electricity crisis, with blackouts exceeding 20 hours per day in some areas, due to severe power rationing from the state-owned Electricite du Liban, and faults at power plants. Only the privileged can afford to pay for generators to guarantee uninterrupted power supply, and so many have no choice but to accept darkness. As the summer heat starts to swelter here, power outages also mean it is hard for poorer families to keep food and their homes cool.

Even the internet ceased to function this month when almost the entire nation was knocked offline for the better part of three days after an undersea cable ruptured. That this happened on the same day that a UN report declaring access to the internet to be a human right only served to make the timing of this outage more embarrassing for the powers that be (though admittedly the UN report focused more on the intentional blocking of the internet for political ends). Lebanon’s internet is notoriously slow at the best of times, and provision exists in a state of near-monopoly. In a service-based economy like Lebanon’s, such problems cause not only frustration for the inhabitants, but also notable harm to businesses. From my own work I can testify to the loss of productivity that organisations such as NGOs can face with long internet outages.

Lebanon’s infrastructure has been damaged by repeated conflict, with the country even now still reeling from the destruction of civilian infrastructure (including power and water plants and transport infrastructure) by Israel in the 2006 war. A lack of investment, institutional inertia and crippling political gridlock mean that a solution to these problems is not immediately in sight.

People here generally discuss these difficulties with remarkable good humour, albeit with a tinge of exasperation and frequent curses directed at a government incapable of solving them. But in truth such stagnation is starting to bite, not only in terms of day-to-day frustration, but also the economic woes to which it is both contributor and symptom. Solutions need to be found, not least because in conflict-stalked countries like Lebanon such frustrations can get all-too-easily tangled up with political grievances and stir resentment and unrest.

 

Lessons from Lebanon: need for reconciliation after the Arab Spring

Once again, my latest column for openDemocracy (original here, other columnists’ articles here). This piece owes a large part to my SOAS thesis on the topic of the ‘how and why’ of mobilising forgiveness in post-conflict societies. It was a bit difficult to cram my thoughts into a short article as I think there’s a lot to say on this subject, including questions about why reconciliation is so little discussed and how to mobilise these concepts in the post-revolutionary states of the Arab Spring. Thoughts, as ever, still evolving, so if you have any ideas on this please get in touch.

 

With the swearing in of a new president in Egypt last week, many were quick to point out that this step is just the beginning of the country’s transition towards being a functioning democratic state. This is true not only because of the emerging power struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, but also because of the challenges the new government will face in bonding former adversaries together into one viable nation.

The post-revolutionary states of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia have exacted punishment on their previous dictators – be it through exile, imprisonment or death – but autocracies are made up of more than one man. The ousted presidents were held in place not just by the security infrastructures they built around themselves. They were also endorsed by significant proportions of the populations who supported them for a multitude of reasons, including economic benefit, political ideology, and tribal loyalty.

Consequently, the memory of abuses does not fade with the removal of the figurehead, and the existence of large numbers of supporters of the previous dictators is a considerable problem for the new governments. Seeking out and punishing all those involved in the oppressive machinery of the old regimes can crumble state institutions (as in the case of the ‘de-Ba’athification’ of Iraq), and breed further grievance and perceived victimhood amongst these sympathy pools. Conversely, a lack of public recognition of their roles in abuses will create dissent among those who suffered under the old regimes.

Lebanon’s long history of conflict serves as a powerful example of the danger of failing to reconcile former enemies. This country has never recovered from the divisions and mistrust, along axes of religious and political identity, bred by decades of war and foreign occupation. Enmity therefore continues to simmer, and each community here believes that they have suffered the most. This is a considerable part of the reason why political groups in Lebanon refuse to disarm, and why the country is seemingly never free from political crisis and violence. The recent clashes in Tripoli are as much a symptom of the failure to reconcile as they are anything to do with Syria. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon, set up to investigate the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, is the country’s only real attempt to deal with past political crimes. But by focusing only on the offences committed against one political bloc it breeds discord and grievance rather than building national unity.

Troublingly, despite encouragement from the UN there has been a similar lack of focus on reconciliation across the post-revolutionary societies of the Arab Spring. As the sheen of revolution starts to tarnish, the harsh realities of reconstructing a nation in the face of economic and social challenges will stir memories of suffering and abuse. Resentment will not just be held by those who suffered under the old regimes, but also those who lost out in the revolutions and even those revolutionaries who find themselves side-lined in new democratic governments. This is equally true for Tunisia and Libya, and should the rebels win in Syria, they would similarly have to placate Assad’s many supporters to have any hope of building a stable nation.

One way for new governments to walk the tightrope of competing grievances and victimhoods after such political sea-change is through the establishment of truth and reconciliation commissions. In South Africa, after the fall of the apartheid government in 1994, the TRC provided a platform to air and admonish the crimes of both sides, and to grant amnesties for some of those who confessed their roles in abuses. Such an approach gives a platform to not only provide some restorative justice to victims, but also to highlight remarkable cases of personal forgiveness and build a new, inclusive and forward-looking national narrative.

If the revolutions of the Arab world are to succeed in building prosperous, egalitarian nations, then the revolutionaries must find a way to bond former oppressors and oppressed together in this process. The alternatives, a grievance-fermenting ‘victor’s justice’ or attempts to forget or repress the past, may doom states to emulate Lebanon and spiral into dangerous cycles of competitive victimhood and potentially even future violence.

Palestinians in Lebanon: Weathering Syria’s encroaching storm

Another article from my openDemocracy Arab Awakening column a couple of weeks back (original here and the other articles here). Regarding the clashes in Nahr el Bared following the shooting of a young man by the Lebanese army, the situation has now returned to relative calm and the suggestion is that Palestinians will no longer require a permission to enter the camp (though the blockade continues and they will have to produce ID) as of July 15th. We shall see…

 

The effect of Syria’s conflict on its 486,000 Palestinian refugees has been largely unreported since Assad’s crackdown in the Latakia camp last year, though several hundred are thought to have fled the country to Jordan last month. In Lebanon too, the Palestinian camps are starting to feel the shockwaves emanating from Syria.

According to UNRWA, the main provider of assistance to Palestinian refugees, there are some 455,000 Palestinian refugees registered in Lebanon, with most distributed among the 12 refugee camps across the country. One camp in particular is afflicted by the tensions affecting the north. Beddawi camp, with a population of approximately 16,500 – not including the many thousands still displaced from nearby Nahr el Bared camp, which was largely destroyed in fighting between the Lebanese Army and Fatah al Islam in 2007 – sits atop a hill a bullet’s fly from Jabal Mohsen, one of the communities at the centre of the June clashes in North Lebanon.

For an outsider, the blasé reaction that many residents have to the fighting on their doorstep is startling. While watching a football match with a friend in the camp, a couple of days after the major clashes of June 1-3, I could hear gunfire ringing out from the neighbouring community. His low-key response was simply to duck down behind a concrete wall to watch the match, tutting slightly, and the game went on as normal.

As it turned out the salvoes I heard were the result of the Army firing back at shooters from the Jabal Mohsen area, aiming in the opposite direction to the camp. But when intense fighting erupts in Tripoli, the camp’s proximity puts the residents’ safety at considerable risk. After each round of clashes, the next day’s topic of discussion usually includes tell of where bullets have come down on the roofs and streets of the area. In the last round of clashes one 11 year old girl was shot in the back (according to rumour, by a sniper) and another resident was injured by shrapnel.

I have written before about the differing opinions of the camp residents regarding events in Syria (and by extension Lebanon). Yet despite containing both vehement (and often armed) supporters and opponents of Assad, Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps have stayed largely free of the pro/anti Assad turmoil affecting some Lebanese communities.

Perhaps this is because they have enough problems of their own to contend with. Restricted employment and property ownership rights in Lebanon, combined with UNRWA’s continued budget deficit, mean that Palestinians here face considerable and chronic socioeconomic, educational and health challenges. Last Thursday’s attempted car bomb in Ain el Hilweh, and Friday’s clashes between Palestinians and the Lebanese Army in Nahr el Bared camp – which left at least one dead and several injured – also demonstrate the distinct internal and external security issues facing camp residents quite aside from Lebanon’s wider troubles.

The Beddawi and Nahr el Bared residents I speak to are largely vocal about the need to maintain stability and unity in the camps in the face of Tripoli’s current woes, but see the current fighting there as a predominantly ‘Lebanese problem’. That being said, posters from Assad supporters and opponents can be seen throughout the camps, and reports that several Fatah al-Islam members escaped Ain el Hilweh camp last month, allegedly to fight with the Free Syrian Army in Syria, suggest that Palestinians are not wholly disconnected from this context. Whether they desire it or not, if Lebanon continues to be drawn into Syria’s deepening crisis, the Palestinians may find it increasingly difficult to maintain their current distance.

More ruminations on nations’ rumours

It’s fair to say that my last article got a lot more attention than I was expecting. I just came across this piece from the Beirut Spring blog which raises some of the criticisms and concerns about it, and thought it worth trying to clarify some of my arguments. My response is below:

Hi Mustapha,

I just came across your blog regarding my article and thought I would take my opportunity to respond to some of your points. Better late than never I suppose! Let’s get stuck in:

I’d first like to point out that no, I don’t think the ‘battle for the narrative is more dangerous than the battle on the streets’. Neither do I think that the problems of people’s histrionics on twitter and facebook are the ‘biggest problem’ as you suggest I do. But even as side-issues to Tripoli’s (and Lebanon’s) woes last month I think they are deserving of comment. I would agree with you that these platforms can allow a way for people to release steam and discuss politics. This is a vital aspect of democracy, and wherever people are using social media to debate views and open dialogue way this should be applauded. But the issue I was seeking to address is more the problem of people taking what they have seen online and on twitter as ‘truth’, and the problems of deliberate and accidental misinformation in spreading fear and discord.

Take the recent trouble up at Nahr el Bared as an example – at the time twitter was acting as a game of ‘Chinese Whispers’, meaning that after a few hours the truth (clashes between Palestinian youth and Lebanese Army after a funeral leaving one killed and several injured) had become a ‘Palestinian youth uprising in Lebanon’ (with death tolls above 10) in the eyes of some on twitter.  Others had reported that the Lebanese army had started firing on the funeral precession. I’m sure you can see how this might be a problem – the lack of fact-checking, and people’s willingness to spread rumour can increase fear and feelings of urgency, causing people to get restless and potentially feed into cycles of violence. I’m not suggesting that twitter and facebook cause violence, or even that they are the major contributor – but I would say that they can act as a force multiplier, and help limited clashes metastasise unnecessarily. Thankfully the violence in Nahr el Bared soon calmed down, but in sensitive events where tensions run high, a rumour can be a dangerous thing. You raised a good example of the Rwandan genocide, so here’s a quote regarding the events leading up the genocide from this history of the country:

“In this mood ethnic violence increases steadily, and is often ratchetted up a sudden notch – as when, in March 1992, Radio Rwanda spreads a deliberately false rumour that a Tutsi plot to massacre Hutus has been discovered.”

I’d also like to point out that my article was not suggesting that facebook and twitter are flat out forces for disharmony, though they run the risk of being used this way – the article is rather a response to the excessively glowing report that social media has received over the last year, certainly with regards to its use as a vector for political change. I was trying to point out that twitter is just an extension of people’s psychology and can be used for antisocial as much as pro-social ends. It can be a powerful tool to help people mobilise protest and bring change and progress, but there are plenty of messages of hatred spread on there too. These things might ‘balance out’ over time, but in times of fear or crisis, the demonising voices are often much louder.

I think the most important thing to point out is that I do not, in any way, endorse censorship. That was not the focus of my article (or mentioned anywhere in it), but I do believe that there problems exist for social media and there are things we can do to help this. Social media and the internet more widely are vast new sources of news and information that we, as human beings, are still learning to get to grips with even decades after their inception. The fact is that the sheer volume of information that is available means that entirely new skills are needed to sort fact from fiction.

(I should also point out that the suggestion by one of your readers that I somehow think that there are some cultures that are not ‘ready’ for social media is pretty dreadful mis-reading of my article. The truth is that this is a problem everywhere – and these problems of social media were just as evident in the London riots of last year, for example. Here’s a great interactive piece on that from the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/interactive/2011/dec/07/london-riots-twitter)

I seem to remember a study in the UK which found that young people believed that google ranked results by accuracy – a basic mistake, but it shows a need for better internet literacy. I therefore don’t argue for ‘self-restraint’ so much as better teaching of critical thinking and analytical skills (in schools) to help everyone be able to fact-check what they find online. I don’t want to hammer this point too much (but it’s easy to be misinterpreted as having some sort of colonialist agenda when working abroad!) but I believe these skills are necessary absolutely everywhere as we run to catch up with sweeping technological and communications change. Furthermore, with effort I believe it would be possible to build a norm of healthy scepticism or fact-checking in Twitter etc. Some people’s attempts to get tweeters to put #TBC on unconfirmed rumours during some of the clashes in May and June are a great example of this, and should be encouraged.

One other point (from one of your readers) re: internet penetration. I’d respond that not everyone needs to be online for social media rumours to have a negative effect. The nature of offline social networks means it will only take one person connected to twitter/facebook to spread those rumours to the rest of their cluster. We all do this, everywhere – think about any conversation where you tell a group of friends about something you read online and it sparks up conversation on some political issue. I’ve seen the process at work here up in Beddawi too – it’s common for one person to show everyone else in a café some picture from Syria that got posted on facebook. Certainly tends to start some lively political discussions.

Anyway, I hope this clears up some of my thinking. As your readers have pointed out, I’m certainly no journalist! There were lots of thoughts to get into 500-ish words and I’m eager to continue fleshing them out through dialogue.  I would say, again in response to your readers, that I have been living in Jabal Beddawi, on the outskirts of Tripoli, for six months working for a local NGO. My background is as a researcher focusing on, among other things, political violence and (offline) social networks. I can’t pretend to have learned enough in my time here to comment with any great authority on Lebanese society or politics, and so my writing is simply a reflection on my observations since I’ve been here. I’m eager to keep learning though, so please keep the dialogue up!

Hwyl fawr,

Rohan

Lebanon: The dark side of the Twitter revolution

This is my second article for openDemocracy’s ‘Arab Awakening’ section. The original is available here, and the other columns from the ‘week’s window on the Middle East’ are here. This article has since also been published on The Guardian’s Comment is Free site.

The past fortnight has seen a series of potentially incendiary events that continue to cause Lebanon to hold its breath. Following from the clashes centring around last month’s arrest of Shadi al-Mawlawi in Tripoli (he has since been released on bail), there have been the following flashpoints: the shooting of Sheikh Ahmad Abdel-Wahed by the army in Akkar, thekidnap of 11 Lebanese Shia pilgrims in Syria, the shooting of a Bsharri man by the army, the fighting between the army and armed men in Caracas, Beirut (either a personal spat or al-Qaida-linked militant, depending on who you ask), the kidnap and arrest of two Lebanese men by Syrian troops in the border regions, and the horrifying events of theHoula massacre in Syria. Each incident has been met with tyre-burning and road-blocking protests, along with the clashes in Beirut that killed two and injured several others.

This weekend in Tripoli (Lebanon’s second largest city), some of theworst fighting the country has seen for several years took place. From my vantage point on a hill just north of the city, at the height of the violence – around 3am on Sunday morning – I could hear almost constant gunfire, and explosions every five minutes or so. During the night there were no updates from any of Lebanon’s major news outlets, and frustrated citizens turned to social media to share what they were experiencing, and vent at the lack of news. On Twitter, some suggested the media blackout was by design – a political request not to cover the clashes. Others joked that reporters simply didn’t know where Tripoli was, and tweeted driving instructions to major news channels. There is a real feeling among people here that those in the capital – politicians and journalists alike – are woefully uninterested in Tripoli’s woes. The army has once again mobilised in Tripoli, and on Sunday morning the city returned to relative calm.

Media – old and new, foreign and local – have continued to be pessimistic in interpreting the meaning of these events for Lebanon’s future. Each incident has brought new headlines, blogposts, status updates and tweets proclaiming that Lebanon is unavoidably slipping into Syria’s conflict. This was typified by the frankly histrionic twitter hashtag trending at the time of the Beirut clashes: #LebanonOnFire.

Lebanon is not on fire, though a battle for the narrative is in full swing. With each new provocative event, accusations fly between the pro- and anti-Assad camps. Both highlight the others’ crimes (real or imagined), and accuse their opponents of attempting to provoke strife in Lebanon for their own nefarious purposes. As an example, over the past week I have heard (by mouth and online) many theories about who kidnapped the 11 Lebanese pilgrims and why – including mafia gangs seeking ransom, the Free Syria army seeking to influence Hezbollah’s stance towards Assad, and pro-regime groups seeking to draw Lebanon into the conflict. Similarly, rumours of their destiny have varied wildly, with hearsay that they were safely in Turkey, still in Syria, killed by their kidnappers, or had been injured by government shelling.

Much has been made of the positive role of social media in the Arab spring, and no doubt it has provided a valuable platform for mobilising protest against the corrupt and oppressive regimes of Mubarak, Ben Ali, Gaddafi et al. During Tripoli’s weekend violence, Twitter provided an invaluable source of information for some residents, also a way for people to feel connected at a distressing time. But it is easy to discern a darker side to it in Lebanon. The fighting here is no doubt alarming, and the country’s long history of violence naturally means that such incidents loom large in the public consciousness. But on social media here pro-social voices for positive responses are being drowned out by those spreading hearsay, exaggeration and conspiracy.

Rumour moves fast in Lebanon even without technology, but there is a danger that Twitter, Facebook etc, may increase the infectious spread of tensions in the country. If it continues to be a vector for the narratives of those attempting to provoke disharmony in Lebanon, social media may become a force for discord and oppression rather than unity and peace.

Lebanon: The trouble with Tripoli

This is my first bi-weekly column for the Arab Awakening section at openDemocracy.net. You can find the original here, and I strongly suggest taking a look at the excellent articles from my fellow columnists here: http://www.opendemocracy.net/arab-awakening/this-weeks-window-on-middle-east-may-21-2012. I’ll be posting my columns on Lebanonsense after they go up there, and will hopefully still have time to update this blog with other thoughts and photos as I go.

 

Last week clashes erupted across Tripoli, North Lebanon, killing nine and wounding over 50 more  . At the time of writing the fighting has abated, with the army presiding over a fragile peace, but some fear these hostilities are a sign of Lebanon’s infection by the violence in neighbouring Syria and consequent descent into conflict.

When I went through Tripoli as the initial protest was just starting up, Sunni Islamists were beginning a sit-in on Tripoli’s al Nour square, blocking the main road through the city. They were demonstrating for the release of Shadi al-Mawlawi, an activist who had purportedly been lured by security services under false pretences  and arrested for association with a terrorist group.

Road-blocking protests are common here, and it is often possible to tell whether there are problems in Tripoli by the increased traffic diverted through the road outside my workplace northeast of the city. This protest, however, unravelled into a series of fire-fights centred on the pro-Assad Alawite community of Jabal Mohsen, and the opposing Sunni community of Bab al-Tabbaneh. These two districts, separated appropriately enough by ‘Syria Street’, have a Montague and Capulet-esque history of violence between them, and such clashes are treated by locals as a fact of life. Nevertheless, the increased intensity, duration and spread of the fighting this time are cause for concern.

International media have tended to frame this as ‘spill-over’ from Syria  . The civil conflict there certainly has an impact here, and the two communities justify their fighting with reference to events unfolding across the border. Nevertheless the story in Tripoli is more complex than simple metastasization of Syria’s violence. North Lebanon is home to a majority-Sunni population who suffered considerably under the Syrian occupation of Lebanon that ended in 2005. Animosity and resentment therefore existed toward the Syrian-associated Alawites long before the uprising across the border. But a more important root to the current violence is the poverty blighting these communities. It is no secret that Tripoli is neglected in terms of investment, education, public services and employment compared to Beirut. Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen are not just the centre of ideological animosity, but also among the most deprived communities in Lebanon, with approximately 20% of men  there being unemployed.

Ideological difference, competitive victimhood, cramped geography and socioeconomic deprivation make for a dangerous mix, and many here see the fighters as pawns of higher political powers seeking to secure their influence in Lebanon ahead of next year’s elections. Of those I have spoken to, some regard al-Mawlawi’s arrest as intentional provocation by pro-Assad interests seeking to goad Lebanon towards supporting the regime, and its associates in Lebanon, by fomenting strife in the north. Others suggest that the protesting Salafists were awaiting an excuse for a show of strength, and al-Mawlawi’s arrest provided just such an opportunity. Whoever is seen as the main agitator, people fear that increasing brinksmanship is a sign that both groups perceive zero-hour as fast approaching, and that wider conflict is unavoidable.

Lebanon’s population has almost incalculable variation – and polarisation – along religious, political and community lines. Tripoli is a microcosm of that, and the stark economic and social realities for many living here make these divisions all the more salient. The chances of Lebanon-wide conflict remain low, restrained by the still-fresh memories of the destruction of the civil war. Nevertheless Syria’s turmoil will continue to cause ripples, as disenfranchised and frustrated communities frame their distress in terms of political grievances. If Tripoli is to avoid spiralling into further chaos, efforts must be made to understand and deal with underlying issues, rather than dismissing the violence as an unavoidable side-effect of Syria’s internal strife.

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