SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom - Samir Kassir Foundation

Hate Speech in the Lebanese Media - May 2021 Monitoring Report

Monday , 05 July 2021

The Silence of the Media

  

Introduction

 

The report is a media monitoring endeavor, as part of a larger project entitled “Inclusive Media, Cohesive Society”, which seeks to trace and combat hate speech while ensuring increased representation of marginalized groups. In the pursuit of a more inclusive and open media sphere, this report is the second in a series of studies which aims to monitor segments of problematic speech in various circles of socio-political influence, whether on social media or more traditional means of spreading information. Due to a variety of reasons, including but not restricted to deeply engrained sectarian tendencies and worsening economic hardship, the usage of bigoted and prejudiced rhetoric is recurrently instrumentalized in favor of an exclusionary and “othering” narrative. This reaffirms the necessity for highlighting these instances and bringing them to the fore in order to envision a more promising, ethical, and responsible space for users, producers, and commentators.  

 

Background and context 

 

Before expanding on the implications of problematic, exclusionary, or incendiary speech directed towards marginalized social groups in the country, it is important that the context is carefully detailed in order to highlight the manner in which these events unfold.

 

In this month of May, the expression of Lebanon as a sounding board for the region's developments proved to be particularly true. The Syrian elections resulted in clashes between the Lebanese Forces supporters and Syrian refugees, in favor of Bashar Al-Assad, who were on their way to cast their votes at the Syrian embassy on the outskirts of Beirut. Furthermore, the intensification of Israeli violence against Palestinians led to demonstrations of solidarity in Lebanon as well, with many largely right-wing commentators across social media expressing their reservations about said support. These events were at the origin of intense social polarizations and generated not only hate speech that materialized concretely through physical violence, while also completely monopolizing the media debate.


Samir Geagea, the President of the Lebanese Forces, seized the opportunity to vehemently call on the government and the president to arrange for the return of Syrian refugees to their country. Joumana Haddad, a prominent writer, activist and human rights advocate, expressed her own dismay at the allegedly ‘triggering’ display of support, for the Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, by some of the Syrian refugees voting in Beirut. From then on, the various regional tensions that became national issues in Lebanon took precedence over equally important social issues about marginalized communities.


Therefore, in keeping with the January 2021 report findings, the LGBTQ+ community was largely overlooked, despite ample opportunities and occasions which ought to have sparked a conversation on the subject. While we had seen a slight increase in online support for women on International Women’s Day, the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia (IDAHOT) did not trigger any coverage on the issues facing the LGBTQ+ community. This glaring lack of representation is in stark contrast to the alarming need described by the UN, which states that economic, political, and humanitarian crises have exacerbated the violence experienced by this community, ranging from social isolation, deteriorating mental health, to gender-based violence, domestic abuse, sexual exploitation, and death threats.


As Lebanon sinks deeper into an already dire situation – ranking in the top three of most severe crises episodes globally since the mid-nineteenth century, according to the World Bank’s Lebanon Economic Monitor – it is important to note that among the first victims of this general deterioration of society and the state are marginalized groups such as LGBTQ+ who are not only left out of the conversation, but also victims of systemic hate speech.

 

Methodology


The methods used to locate, collect, and analyze the data pursued in this study, entails a classification based on the three types of platforms examined: Facebook, Twitter, and national television. Moreover, it is crucial to clarify that our study on Facebook specifically monitors problematic speech directed towards one marginalized group, i.e. women. This does not apply to the selection process pursued with Twitter and national television; in both cases, all instances of problematic/hate speech were targeted. Although the manner in which such speech is defined may vary, a flexible umbrella constituting irresponsible reporting, exaggerations, generalizations, incitement, and exclusionary rhetoric is adapted for our purposes.


Traditional Media
For national television, or traditional media, the first step was to tackle all the stories related to marginalized groups (women/gender equality, people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ community, refugees/IDPs, Migrant Workers and Religion/racial) in the media outlets of choice, to see if they are equally represented or overlooked by the media. The second step was to monitor the number of hate speech cases regarding marginalized groups, while taking in consideration the behavior of the host and the guest towards hate speech.


The study monitored the main news bulletin and the content of prime talk shows of seven Lebanese channels in the period from May 1 to 7, 2021. Only the first seven days of each month are monitored.

The media outlet covered in the study are:

  •       Al-Manar
  •       OTV
  •       NBN
  •       LBCI
  •       MTV
  •       Al Jadeed
  •       Télé Liban

A total of 815 items monitored during this period were entered in a database, where 6 stories were identified related to marginalized groups, which included the following information:
  •       Title
  •       Date
  •       URL
  •       Section: prime talk shows, news bulletin
  •       Marginalized groups
  •       Number of hate speech cases
  •       Political affiliation of initiator of hate speech
  •       Hate speech initiator social group
  •       Behavior of the host
  •       Behavior of the guest
  •       Political affiliation of the guest
  •       Guest social group

Twitter
On the second week of each month, from Monday to Friday, the top daily hashtags are monitored at precisely 10 am. In addition, a timeframe of 9:45 am to 10:15 am was chosen, where the top hashtags in Lebanon are monitored. Only the hashtags that were used in tweets of problematic rhetoric have been displayed.


Simultaneously, any tweets found outside this timeframe displaying such rhetoric will be taken note of and an analysis of Twitter as a whole will be conducted. The purpose is to better understand what makes this type of harmful discourse trending. This report also briefly assesses the topics covered, the profiles of the instigators, as well as the potential networks spreading the hashtags and/or tweets. Screenshots may be added when obtainable as well to further demonstrate trends, if necessary. To add another dimension for this study, we look at whether marginalized groups (Women, Refugees, LGBTQ, etc.) are included within the conversation or entirely excluded.


From this month onwards, the monitoring was done using a Twitter extraction tool to collect all tweets on a real-time basis and monitor the top hashtags as well as identify potentially interesting trends. Finally, this report covers the period between May 8-12, 2021 (dates included).

 

Facebook

Despite the complexity and shortcomings of locating generalizable trends across this study, we have focused our method on keeping count of accessible posts and comments which discuss or tackle the LGBTQ+ community in a plethora of ways on a number of platforms related to political parties, newspapers, news stations, news sites, and civil society organizations, especially posts which specifically contain problematic, exclusive, or bigoted speech.

In total, 37 pages were examined via the Facebook search engine too; all in all, 256 reachable posts and comments tackled the community, and around 206 of them constituted problematic speech. The following keywords were used to locate the posts under study: 


المثليين

المثلية
مثليين
مثلي
سحاقية
لوطي
شاذ
“Loute”/”Louti”/”Lout”

As for the time interval in which this information was collected, it strictly included posts and comments made between May 15 to 22, 2021. This interval also represents the range of the context elaborated and described in the first section.


Hate Speech in Traditional Media

 

The main topics of news bulletin and the content of prime talk shows during the monitoring period of seven Lebanese channels: Al-Manar, OTV, NBN, LBCI, MTV, Al Jadeed, and Télé Liban were divided into two categories:

 

Political topics:

  • The country entered a three-day Easter lockdown, implemented to prevent a surge of COVID-19 cases over the holiday period. In a brief visit to Lebanon, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian declared that France would impose additional measures targeting those obstructing the formation of a new government.
  • Lebanon and Israel resumed indirect negotiations over maritime border.

 

Economic and Livelihood topics: Once again, the news bulletins focused on the cash card programme to offer struggling citizens a safety net for buying essential items after subsidies are withdrawn. No concrete advancements were made in that regard.


As a result of the above, topics related to marginalized groups (women/gender equality, people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ community, refugees/IDPs and other marginalized groups) decreased this month which indicates that these groups were overlooked in the Lebanese media. This comes as no surprise and is in fact entirely consistent with the findings of this series of reports thus far.


During the monitoring period:

  • The news bulletins recorded 815 stories, where 6 stories were identified as being related to marginalized groups:
  • Four stories about refugees/IDPs (NBN, TL, Al Manar, OTV). These stories shed the light on the same statement issued by the Syrian Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Abdel Karim Ali regarding coordination between the Lebanese government and the Syrian embassy in Lebanon to ensure a smooth electoral process for the Syrian refugees.
  • One story about women and gender equality (MTV), which focused on the increased number of women around the world who lost their jobs during the covid pandemic.
  • One story about migrant workers (MTV), which shed the light on the decline in Lebanon’s foreign workforce and the financial/economic reasons behind it.


 Figure 1: Breakdown of stories on Lebanese channels - News bulletins



Figure 2: Stories on marginalized groups to total number of stories - News bulletins


The prime time talk shows recorded only eight topics on the whole, as four prime time talk shows were not aired during Ramadan. None of these eight topics were identified as related to marginalized groups, as shown in figure 3. The main topics of discussion in the programs tackled French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s visit to Lebanon, the political and financial crises, as well as the violence perpetrated upon Palestinians in Al-Aqsa Mosque and Sheikh Jarrah in Jerusalem.

Figure 3: Stories breakdown on Lebanese channels - Talk shows



Figure 4: Stories on marginalized groups to total number of stories - Talk shows



Figure 5: Comparison on story types in prime talk shows and news bulletins


It is worth mentioning again that stories on LGBTQ+ were clearly overlooked in both news bulletins and in prime time talk shows that were monitored, despite International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia falling on the May 17. It remains to be seen whether traditional media will respond in any way to the fact that June is designated Pride month. On the evidence of this and the last five reports, it remains entirely unlikely.


This month no hate speech or problematic content was identified in both news bulletins and prime time talk shows.

 

Hate Speech on Twitter


The nature of Twitter, and the methodology detailed earlier for extracting data from this platform, allow for a more panoptic view of the subjects pertaining to Lebanese society and daily life. With a turbulent context of assassinations, bullying, and harassment dominating the public debate, Twitter unravels the daily anxieties attitudes of the population’s response. This report covers the period between May 12 to 8, 2021 (dates included).


Hashtags and statistics

Hashtag

Explanation / Meaning

9-May-21

#صباح_الخير

Good morning

10-May-21

#القدس_تنتفض

Jerusalem rises up

#فلسطين

Palestine

12-May-21

#فلسطين_تنتفض

Palestine rises up

#القدس_تنتفض

Jerusalem rises up

Figure 6: Hashtags, March 8-12



Figure 7: Language of tweets



Figure 8: Gender of HS source



Figure 9: Political affiliation of HS source



Figure 10:  Gender of HS victim



Figure 11: Types of marginalized groups[1]


Figure 12:  Problematic tweets within trending timeframe

 

Key insights

Before discussing the trends and findings from May’s report, it is important to outline some events that led up to them. On May 2, an Israeli court ruled that the houses of over 20 Palestinian families living in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood would belong to Israeli settlers, after the death of the original owners. The Palestinians refused such an unjust and ill-conceived deal as well as any other of its ilk which facilitates displacement and the cultural erasure of Palestinians. That same day, Israeli settlers broke into Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, violently beating and harrasing Palestinians. This was followed by local as well as international vigils and protests in solidarity with the Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah, laying bare the apartheid system at the heart of the Israeli state and leading to accusations of attempted ethnic cleansing. Only escalation followed from there as Occuptation forces’ crack downs continued, with Israel launching dissproportionately aggressive airstrikes against Gaza leading to the eventual death of more than 200 Palestinians (including no less than 60 children).

Meanwhile, the political deadlock in Lebanon remained amid government silence towards the suffering in Palestine. Protesters, in Lebanon, made their way to the southern border and attempted to climb over the walls separating Lebanon and the Occupied Territories and were met with firepower, resulting in the death of a 20 year old man. Several rockets were launched as well from the south and some did not even make it far, landing within Lebanese territories. In addition, many Lebanese expressed solidarity with the Palestenian people and several marches were organized. However, several commentators highlighted the country’s inability to bear another destructive war with Israel, turning the very topic of solidarity with Palestinians from a humanitarian cause into a contentious debate to do with the civil war (Img. 4).

This month, foreign and international media/journalists were subjected to intense criticism by Arab activists online, including Mohamed El-Kurd, Noura Erakat among others, who accussed said media of deliberately misrepresenting the situation in Gaza. The international media’s use of terms such as ‘confllict’, ‘battle’ or ‘war’ which implied parity – along with the often opportune employment of the passive voice –  to describe the largely one sided torrent of Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, grated with activists. They regularly called out international media outlets such as The Washington Post and The New York Times for their percieved biases, unprofessionalism or outright silence.

Such lopsided reporting only fed into the preexisting discontent among Hezbollah supporters whose entire existence is supposedly tied in with the Palestinian issue, thereby increasing hatespeech directed at those with different opinions, as seen in the Img. 1 and Img. 3 below. While there is no evidence concerning the author of Img. 1’s political affiliation, his tweet is a perfect example of how any opportunity for debate is negated. The user then immediately labels the journalist as a traitor for attempting to have a discussion. Regardless of the perceived facetious nature of the original tweet, the danger in the response lies in normalizing rhetoric built on erasing and silencing discussions in the media. Self-censorship, as a means of self-protection, is one of the intended effects of hate speech or inflammatory rhetoric. Employing such discourse is a means with which to suppress freedom of expression, as illustrated in Img. 1.


Img. 1: Tweet calling the journalist a traitor as well as other insults for creating a poll asking whether or not Israel’s attacks are justified.

 

Another striking feature in the data involves the type of marginalized groups. Most of the problematic tweets were targeted towards women or spread general inflammatory rhetoric. In contrast, the majority of the problematic tweets were posted by men. Previous reports have reaffirmed this trend, irrespective of the context. Even in light of the Sheikh Jarrah coverage all over Twitter, mysoginist tweets could still be found, albeit not necessarily as
campaigns but by individual accounts as seen in Img. 2 below.


Img. 2: Tweet stating that God and Prophet Muhammad do not accept women acting like men by protesting outside AlAqsa Mosque.

 

Jews were also targeted and although it was a single tweet this time, it does reflect a rhetoric that is all too familiar, where Jews are automatically grouped with Zionists, knowing that many Jews do not support the ideology. This is seen in Img. 3 below.

Img. 3: Tweet stating that there are no civilian Jews as they’re all Zionist terrorists.

 

That is not to say that problematic tweets only came from Hezbollah supporters as 26% tweets came from accounts with an unclear political affiliation. However, an equally significant portion (37%) came from Lebanese Forces supporters whose problematic rhetoric saw them target Palestinian and Syrian refugees in particular. A considerable portion of the tweets were explicitly hateful and openly displayed xenophobic tendencies. In Img. 4 below, the author said that he will not stand in solidarity with those who destroyed the Damour Church and displaced its residents. In doing so, the author of the aforementioned tweet lays the blame on all Palestinians for atrocities committed in the civil war, painting them all as violent and merciless, regardless of context. Another user also responds to the author in English saying “Screw the Palestinian.” The large number of interactions with the tweet proves that there are many twitter users who openly support the xenophobia propagated here.

 Img. 4: Tweets explicitly amplifying hateful rhetoric against Palestinians.

 

In general, minorities still only seem to be mentioned depending on the circumstances and current events, if at all. For example, the LGBTQ+ and the people with disability did not make much of an appearance this time and that is, in part, because of the focus on Palestine. Having said that, many attempts at “pinkwashing” the crimes of Israeli forces, by painting Israel as a haven for LGBTQ+ rights in opposition to Palestine, were rebuffed by openly gay Palestinian activists, such as Elias Jahshan. Palestinian members of the LGBTQ+ community were quick to highlight that Israel had sought to strategically conceal the ongoing violations of Palestinians’ human rights behind a supposed image of modernity. Elias Jahshan, for instance, pointed out that the “homonationalism” of Western, or in this case Israeli, LGBTQ+ movements are often bound up with upholding the racism of the nation state. He also made it clear that this does not excuse the homophobia on the Palestinian end either. The issue infiltrated the Lebanese Twitter-sphere with many Lebanese journalists, activists and academics getting involved.


Continuous advocacy, awareness campaigns and discourse are necessary to change societal views when it comes to minority rights and combatting hate speech. Occasional, temporary social media clout is not enough to protect disenfranchised groups and more sustainable, proactive initiatives will be required.

Hate Speech on Facebook

 

In order to better understand the encompassing reality of hate speech against the LGBTQ+ community, it is crucial to examine the context in which this speech is used, as we have done in previous reports within this larger study. This allows us to situate the language and terminology put forth by users on social media. On the one hand, IDAHOT was celebrated by the community and their allies in Lebanon, as displayed by some particular alternative media outlets (e.g., Megaphone News) on May 17. Besides that, the 2020 Annual Awards for the Indiex Film Fest featured the nomination of “Ah” by Lebanese filmmaker Alex El Dahdah for the best LGBTQ+ short. In addition, the heightening of the Israeli bombing of Gaza reintroduced a conversation around “pinkwashing” and its detrimental effects on the Palestinian queer population.

 

On the other hand, while the past few months in Lebanon did tackle some instances pertinent to gender, sexuality, and the LGBTQ+ community as a whole, with some advancements and shortcomings, the country has been overwhelmed with other political, social, and economic developments. These range from regional insecurity enabled by the conflict in Palestine to the economic anxieties of the population as a result of the potential lifting of subsidies as well as external and internal crises caused by the cabinet deadlock and diplomatic shocks. While certain judicial developments do bring some hope to marginalized groups, the general atmosphere centered on population intolerance, authoritarian religious clerics, and little-to-no societal and media-based prioritization of the cause provides very few guarantees to the community. 


Figure 13: Total number of problematic comments/posts vs. type of page


Figure 14:  Number of problematic posts/comments on news stations’ Facebook pages 


Figure 15: Number of problematic posts/comments on news sites’ Facebook pages 


Figure 16: Number of problematic posts/comments on newspapers’ Facebook pages 


Figure 17: Number of problematic posts/comments on political parties’ Facebook pages 


Figure 18: Percentage distribution of problematic comments/posts across types of pages

Comparative indicators

When compared to the findings of our first report on hate speech directed towards the LGBTQ+ community on Facebook back in January, much of the conclusions of the above statistical data remain the same. Although, Helem’s (a Lebanese NGO focused on LGBTQ+ Rights) recent Facebook posts have received some positive feedback, the ongoing barrage of homophobic language found its way into the comments as well. For instance, a video which featured the Lebanese activist, Shaden Fakih, in a satirical news segment detailing the societal challenges facing the LGBTQ+ community, received both admiration from allies of the community (Image 5), and the ire of homophobic online users.

 

Below are some of the findings for the month of May:


1. Extreme political contention resulting from elite friction and regional developments polarized the national conversation, allowing users to use supposedly “derogatory” comments which intend to frame the opposing party, faction, or individual as someone who is gay or part of the LGBTQ+ community. This also intersects with concepts of toxic masculinity, taking into account that male members of the LGBTQ+ community are often perceived as pejoratively effeminate by an overwhelmingly heteronormative society.

 

2. Protection of the LGBTQ+ community has yet to be perceived as an item of public debate. It is worth noting that very few posts directly tackle the issue as a rights-based matter. Nevertheless, while previous claims in our earlier January report relate this absence to the overwhelming socio-economic crises faced by all residents in the country, one ought to re-examine the sustainable role of education and media in “reproducing the silence,” and consequently reinforcing hegemonic cultural norms which are considerably antagonistic towards the community. 

 

Conclusion

 

In keeping with the lack of representation of women in the media on International Women's Day, once again Lebanon fell short on matters to do with the LGBTQ+ people on the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia. This report shows that the lack of coverage concerning those communities is a systemic trend. While this month of regional political events may have supported the dynamic, there is a core problem in Lebanon in the way that marginalized groups are deliberately left out of the media sphere.


More specifically, the ‘invisibilization’ and stigmatization of the LGBTQ+ group is further aggravated by the fact that public policies, which ought to safeguard this community, are absent and even discriminatory toward them. In fact, the legitimization challenge is even more difficult considering that articles 534, 521, 526, 531, 532, and 533 of the Lebanese penal code, which are still in effect, are interpreted by law enforcement bodies as criminalizing same-sex relationships and are the cornerstone of various gender-based discriminations.


At the same time, the resounding silence of the media, or the very low engagement of civil society regarding the many issues facing the LGBTQ+ community are indicative of Lebanon’s lack of interest in this marginalized group, and feeds into a heteropatriarchy system in which the reference norm is the straight, cisgender, man. Following the guidelines of the third Universal Periodic Review launched by the UN could be a great step forward in the promotion of LGBT+ rights and the decrease of hate speech toward this community in Lebanon.


Altogether the first six hate speech monitoring reports in the Lebanese media between December 2020 and May 2021 show an alarming ongoing trend in the country in which marginalized communities are either systematically subject to online abuse or altogether ignored. Whether they are consciously or unconsciously ostracized like LGBTQ+, or regularly scapegoated like refugees or migrant workers, marginalized groups are the most vulnerable. The same is true for victims of hate speech such as women, or those who denounce the abuses of certain entities, such as journalists who question the legitimacy of Hezbollah’s activities.


For perhaps the first time, the Palestinians, subjected to a hostile, Israeli apartheid regime in Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem, received worldwide attention with many calling for an end to a system which robbed Palestinians of their basic human rights. Protests which had started via social media quickly spread across various cities around the world urging the international community to act against Israeli attempts at ethnic-cleansing of Palestinians and calling for the return of Palestinian refugees to their homeland. Islamophobia and antisemitism reared their ugly heads on the international stage, spreading hate speech as a means to, once again, promote self-censorship and suppress freedom of expression. In Lebanon, xenophobia and anti-refugee sentiment found their way into the discussion bringing with them a resentment which exposes the fragile and uneasy post-civil war landscape, lacking in any real attempt at national reconciliation.





[1] Inflammatory rhetoric: sectarian/hate-charged tweets that do not target any marginalized group in particular.

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