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.


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