SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom - Samir Kassir Foundation

Hate Speech in the Lebanese Media - December 2020 Monitoring Report

Tuesday , 09 February 2021

INCENDIARY RHETORIC, FLAMMABLE SOCIETY

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 start of a series of studies which aims to monitor segments of hateful speech in various circles of socio-political influence, whether on social media or more traditional means of spreading information. Due to a plethora 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 ethical and responsible space for users, producers, and commentators.  


Background and context 

Prior to understanding and elaborating on the role and extent of problematic, exclusionary, or incendiary speech directed towards marginalized groups in contemporary Lebanon, it is crucial that the background is carefully detailed in order to contextualize the manner in which these events unfold. Specifically, Lebanon is in constant political flux, given the deteriorating (and collapsing) economic situation on one hand, and security-related turmoil on another. The latter encompasses growing intra-elite tensions as a result of the cabinet deadlock and socio-economic crisis. 

 

Adding to the already existing sect-based considerations for the cabinet make-up, the Beirut blast probe has charged the caretaker Prime Minister as well as three former ministers with negligence over the August 4 Port blast, which led to more than 200 deaths and thousands wounded, with many more rendered homeless. Politicians across the spectrum have called to review and/or cancel the probe itself, as French President Macron delayed his arrival to Lebanon. A freeze in the current cabinet formation is expected to further worsen Lebanon’s economic crisis, with no solutions in sight amidst the exacerbating COVID-19 pandemic heading into the holiday season. Tragedy would strike towards the end of the month, as Syrian refugee camps near Tripoli in north Lebanon were set ablaze.

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 hateful speech directed towards one marginalized group, i.e. refugees, in this case. 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 with regard to hate speech

The study monitored the main news bulletin and the content of prime talk shows of seven Lebanese channels in the period from December 1 to 7, 2020. Only the first seven days of each month will be monitored.

The media outlet covered in the study are:

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

A total of 817 items monitored during this period were entered in a database, and only 5 stories were identified related to marginalized groups, which included the following information:
  •       Title
  •       Date
  •       URL
  •       Section: prime talk shows or 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

Facebook

Despite the complexity of locating generalizable trends across this study, we have limited the method by keeping count of reachable posts and comments which discuss or tackle “refugees” in any way on a number of pages of political parties, newspapers, news stations, news sites, and civil society organizations, alongside posts which specifically contain problematic, exclusive, or bigoted speech directed towards refugees on all the aforementioned platforms.


While it may be key to understand how large these numbers are relative to the total population, manually counting all posts made by all examined pages is unfeasible. In total, 38 pages were examined via the Facebook search engine too; all in all, 43 reachable posts and comments tackled refugees, and 36 of them constituted problematic speech. The following keywords were used to locate the posts under study: 


نازحين
النازحين
لاجئين
اللاجئين
الفلسطينيين
فلسطيني
فلسطينيين
سوريين
سوري
السوريين 

As for the time interval in which this information was collected, it strictly included news, posts, tweets, and comments made from December 15 to 22, 2020. This interval also represents the range of the context elaborated and described in the first paragraph.


Twitter
Finally, the Twitter section of the report briefly assesses the topics identified through the use of hashtags, problematic rhetoric, hate speech filled tweets, or trends, which appear within the monitoring timeframe. The profiles of the instigators will also be assessed, as well as the potential networks spreading the hashtags and/or tweets. Screenshots may be added when obtainable as well to further demonstrate trends. 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 Monday to Friday, the daily hashtags are monitored at precisely 10 am, for tweets posted from 9:45 to 10:15 am according to the top trending hashtags in Lebanon at that particular moment. Even if relevant tweets outside this timeframe are found, they will not be included, in order to maintain the integrity of the data. This report will contain a sample of the hashtags monitored and not the entire available data for brevity.

For this month, the monitoring of the data on Twitter was done manually, as illustrated above, and without the benefit of a Twitter data extraction tool. In the upcoming months, the report will take on a further dimension as it becomes equipped with the data and accessibility of the Twitter extraction tool. Such a development will provide opportunities for more in-depth analysis as well as wider scope of work.


Hate Speech in Traditional Media

Political, health and repetitive economic crises in Lebanon are overwhelming the headlines of the main news bulletin and the content of prime talk shows of seven Lebanese channels: Al-Manar, OTV, NBN, LBCI, MTV, Al Jadeed, and Télé Liban (TL). This report on problematic rhetoric via the traditional media covers the first week of December. The news and talk shows’ main topics during the monitoring period were divided into four categories:

  • Economic and livelihood: Lifting subsidies on essential goods, decline in the economic situation and withholding the money of Lebanese depositors amid dollar shortage.
  • Political: Formation of the Lebanese government and the French initiative.
  • Security: Fear of security incidents.
  • Health related topics: The struggle and challenges in the health sector during the spread of the Coronavirus in the country.


As a result of the above, topics related to women/gender equality, people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ community, refugees/IDPs and other marginalized groups decreased, which indicates that these groups were overlooked in the Lebanese media.


During the monitoring period:

A- The news bulletins recorded 817 stories, where 5 stories were identified related to marginalized groups:
  • One story about women and gender equality (MTV).
  • One story about refugees/displaced people (NBN).
  • Two stories about people with disabilities (Al Manar and TL). One of these reports was presented on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, and another topic was a case of an individual with special needs demanding to withdraw money as the bank withheld his money.
  • One story about migrant workers in Lebanon (LBCI), as shown in Figure 1, which took a negative turn with inciting content towards these workers.





B- The prime time talk shows[1] recorded 20 Two of them were identified as related to marginalized groups, in figure 3, but they were not among the main topics of discussion in the program; rather, as part of initiatives on human rights issues that will be presented weekly in the program. (It's About Time on MTV):
  • One story about women and gender equality (MTV).
  • One story about people with disabilities (MTV).




It is worth mentioning that stories on LGBTQ+ were clearly overlooked in both prime time talk shows and news bulletins monitored.


The only problematic content identified was mentioned on LBCI during the news in a report tackling migrant workers in Lebanon as illustrated in figure 7, where the report stated that "80% of the labor force in Lebanon are foreigners at a time when the Lebanese are suffering from high unemployment rate and difficult living conditions." The report held foreign workers responsible for the high unemployment rate and the economic crisis Lebanon is experiencing lately, while ignoring the real reasons behind the economic and political crises. It also failed to provide any credible source for the figure it shared. The latent content can lead to hate speech and escalate towards aggressive attitudes against migrant workers.



Hate Speech on Facebook

The anti-refugee sentiment went on a crescendo in previous years as the war raged on in Syria. Though this has seen a slight dip – as will be elaborated upon in due course – with the dying ambers of the war in Syria, the exclusionary rhetoric shows itself to be if not thriving then surviving in the hospitable environment of Facebook pages. The data gathered across the third week of December, via the aforementioned method, is illustrated below in a number of relevant graphs and figures. A brief yet critical comparison follows between different outlets, parties and their corresponding roles, which further elaborates upon the important aspects of each figure and the story being told overall. Indications stemming from this data cannot be taken as conclusive or final due to the limited range in which the data is being examined.









Comparative indicators

Despite the above-mentioned limitations, we retain the ability to bring about particular comparative indications which may be useful for the purposes of our week-long examination. Most evidently, one may hypothesize that certain news sites have become a hub for discussion regarding quick news on recurrent issues, and so the availability of such a space has encouraged exclusionary or problematic expressions of despair in the Lebanese context. As has been made apparent in figure 13, this is gradually replacing the formerly vibrant role played by newspapers and televisions in encouraging conversations on such sensitive issues. 

 

On the level of political parties, content on pages belonging to conservative Christian-majority parties such the Free Patriotic Movement and the Lebanese Forces explicitly constituted speech which directly targeted Syrian and Palestinian refugees, as evidenced in figure 8.

 

The comments and results indicate, particularly when compared to the former political context in the country (especially during the 2014-2015 era), that the issue of refugee presence in Lebanon is no longer an easy target for xenophobes. It is to be deduced that due to many Syrian refugees returning back to their country and/or travelling abroad, alongside the crisis of legitimacy for ruling class narratives, one may suggest that anti-refugee sentiment has plausibly taken a backseat in the past year. It is not unreasonable to predict that the pointed resentment towards refugees of the previous years would come bubbling back up under the right circumstances with the evidence in figure 8 suggesting that persistent anti-refugee rhetoric is very much alive and well.

 

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. This section of the report dwells upon the pressing issues which occupied the public sphere, with attacks on Al Jadeed network, multiple protests, the COVID-19 pandemic, and a political stalemate very much at the forefront of the Lebanese consciousness. This report covers the period from December 14 to 18, 2020 as well as from December 28 to 30, 2020 (dates included). Some of the literature below includes updates from the holidays and weekend (December 31, 2020 – January 1, 2021) to add relevance and gain further insights from the monitored trends.

 

Hashtags and statistics

 

Hashtag

Explanation / Meaning

14-Dec-20

#بقلق_الطلاب_والمثقفين

Worried students and intellectuals

#لبنان

Lebanon

#Liban

Lebanon

#LBCINews

 

#صباحو

Good Morning

#صباح_الخير

Good Morning

15-Dec-20

#وليد_جنبلاط

Walid Jumblatt

#بايدن

Biden

#تركيا

Turkey

#صباح_الخير

Good Morning

16-Dec-20

#دجاجه_حسين

Hussein’s chicken

#الدولار

The dollar

#قاطعوا_مجرور_الجديد

Boycott the Aljadeed sewer

#دكانه_الجديد

Aljadeed minimarket

#بايدن

Biden

#حزب_الله

Hezbollah

#حركه_المرور

Traffic Control

#ترامب

Trump

#صباح_الخير

Good Morning

#صباحو

Good Morning

#كورونا

Corona

17-Dec-20

#باخر_هال_السنه

At the end of this year

#صباح_الخير

Good Morning

18-Dec-20

#ذكري_هلاك_قاسم_سليماني

Memory of Suleimani's Death

#اليوم_العالمي_للغه_العربيه

World Arabic Language Day

#صار_الوقت

It is time

#لبنان

Lebanon

#كلن_يعني_كلن

All of them means all of them

#صباح_الخير

Good Morning

#Christmas

 

#جمعه_مباركه

Good Friday

Figure 14(a): Hashtags and statistics Dec 14-18

Hashtag

Explanation / Meaning

28-Dec-20

#نصرالله

Nasrallah

#ع_غير_كوكب

On another planet

#حوار_العام

Talk of the year

#الدولار

The dollar

#السعوديه

Saudi Arabia

#LBCINews

 

#صباح_الخير

Good Morning

#فلسطين

Palestine

29-Dec-20

#مرقت_سنه

It's been a year

#فاطمه_صديقه_شهيده

Fatima - A friend - A martyr. Fatima Azzahraa is a religious figure, Prophet Muhammad's daughter.

#الحريري

Al Hariri

#الدولار

The dollar

#فاطمه_الزهراء

Fatima Azzahraa

#بيروت

Beirut

#لبنان

Lebanon

#Saudi

 

#صباح_الخير

Good Morning

30-Dec-20

#حربي_بالاجواء

 

#القرض_الحسن

Al Qard Al Hassan (Association created by Hezbollah to provide financial support/loans).

#دمشق

Damascus

#Syria

 

#Beirut

 

#صباحو

Good Morning

#Lebanon

 

#صباح_الخير

Good Morning

Figure 14(b): Hashtags and statistics Dec 28-30

Out of the 31 monitored hashtags in figure 14(a), none were used in tweets explicitly containing hate speech. However, some noteworthy events took place this week which certainly contributed towards the fermentation of an environment now increasingly ripe for hate speech.


For instance, Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) supporters attacked Al Jadeed TV station after the channel criticized the president of the Republic (FPM’s founding leader) for falling asleep at inappropriate times in one of their reports. The channel filed a lawsuit against MP Gebran Bassil, leader of the FPM, due the incident. The on-ground attack on the channel explains why the hashtags against Al Jadeed (“Boycott Al Jadeed sewer” and “Al Jadeed minimarket/corner shop”) as well as the channel’s director were still trending the following morning, on December 16. However, the hashtags had too many sources to count one in particular as the progenitor. They also go back as far as October and earlier, but none of the tweets, though insidious, appeared to call for the explicit destruction of the channel.


In the week prior to December 14-18, students supporting a secular change all over Lebanon announced that they would take to the streets to protest against unjust university policies such as dollarization of tuition and lack of transparency. The hashtag meaning “worried students and intellectuals” (December 14), in figure 14(a), was made by traditional sectarian parties, primarily Amal Movement, as part of a campaign for counter-protests, showcasing themselves as the face of anti-corruption activism. In reality, it is the secular movements in Lebanon that are seen as the true threat to the status quo which is best represented by Amal Movement’s head and House Speaker Nabih Berri. The secular-driven protests erupted over the weekend and as they reached the gates of the American University of Beirut at Bliss street, military and security forces were deployed. In stark contrast to the Amal protesters, secular protesters were met with excessive violence as well as teargas.

In terms of COVID, the government eased lockdown measures for the holidays and the curfew has been extended until 3 AM every day. This will take effect from December 3, 2020 and January 3, 2021. Furthermore, French President Emmanuel Macron has tested positive for COVID-19. He was set to visit Lebanon on December 22-23. However, it is unclear whether his visit will be rescheduled or canceled altogether.

Finally, the Beirut Blast investigations have been suspended after former Ministers Ghazi Zeaiter and Ali Hassan Khalil submitted a request for the removal of Judge Fadi Sawwan from the case. Judge Sawwan has been actively attempting to bring them to justice, as well as others involved in the blast.

Out of the 26 monitored hashtags in figure 14(b), none were used in tweets explicitly containing hate speech.  Again, however, the context seemed to present a more hospitable environment for hate speech, as sectarian divides deepened further.


For example, a memorial for Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi Popular Mobilization Unit leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was erected in the southern town of Arabsalim. In addition, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps announced that Lebanon is its first line of defense, should conflict with Israel arise. This sparked a massive debate concerning Hezbollah’s dominance as well as its goals for Lebanon. Protesters who disagreed with the discourse took to the streets and burned pictures of Soleimani. They also raised photos of late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and President Bachir Gemayel, each of whom had been assassinated on Lebanese soil. Despite the controversial nature of both events, as well as the sectarian-charged disputes from different sides, monitored posts and hashtags on social media did not amount to overt hate speech. Furthermore, hackers broke into the database of Hezbollah affiliated financial organization Al Qard Al Hassan. The group called SpiderZ leaked info that the association is involved in financial scandals as well as Hezbollah financing.


Hashtags related to Syria, Damascus, Palestine or KSA were primarily focused on disseminating news rather than opinion, let alone problematic rhetoric or even hate speech. It is also worth noting that marginalized groups were not mentioned at all this week, neither in the hashtags nor in the monitored tweets. The is noteworthy as the more marginalized groups in society are excluded from conversations yet again.


Also, rather unsurprisingly perhaps, there was no mention, in the top trending hashtags, of the Syrian refugee camps which were set ablaze on December 26, in the north of Lebanon. A row between Syrian refugees and their Lebanese employer over pay instigated the conflict. This exclusion of refugees was highlighted earlier in the traditional media section of the report. By and large, the fact that this incident was not reflected in the top trending hashtags speaks to the priorities of the Lebanese Twitter community, as marginalized groups are excluded once more.

 

Conclusion

This report exemplifies the methods and means through which problematic and/or hate speech is propagated in the Lebanese sphere of media and political influence. While top-down channels of propagation, such as affluent and relatively powerful national television, are regularly pursued, a bottom-up reaction by average citizens on social media (particularly Facebook and Twitter) is increasingly noticeable.


Most importantly, this incitement manifests materially and socially. A pressing example would be the burning of Syrian refugee camps in Tripoli on the night of December 26. Though this particular incident did not feature significantly in the report, due to its timing which escaped the attention of both traditional media and Facebook sections of this report, it is, nevertheless, emblematic of the incendiary nature of the rhetoric in the build-up to the incident. That rhetoric of this kind should, directly or indirectly, end in literal flames is not altogether unexpected. As this report clearly points out, whilst overt and blatant hate speech is somewhat hard to come by for the moment, the incendiary rhetoric eventually resulted in an act of violence born unequivocally out of the exclusionary and divisive speech evidenced throughout the month, via various means.

This very correlation induces us to reiterate the importance and purpose of this monitoring project, especially when followed by an adequate training program capable of spreading a counter-culture to exclusionary and problematic speech for the vast majority of media outlets and platforms.

 



[1] 7 prime time talk shows monitored: It's about time (MTV), And now what (New), Twenty 30 (LBCI), Lebanon Today (TL), Today's Discussion  (OTV), Talk of the hour (Al-Manar) and The Fourth Estate (NBN)

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