SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom - Samir Kassir Foundation

Hate Speech in the Lebanese Media - April 2021 Monitoring Report

Wednesday , 09 June 2021

Lebanese Social Fabric in Tatters: Scapegoating Refugees Ensues

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 the context of the persistence of the government formation deadlock, as well as the commemoration of the 46th anniversary of the Lebanese civil war, the month of April 2021 saw the emergence of a coalition of Lebanese civil society groups and parties that called to defeat the traditional ruling elite in the 2022 polls. This hopeful piece of news, a glimmer as opposed to a light at the end of the tunnel, was swiftly overtaken by more pressing matters.


Despite the limited financial help of different organizations such as the European Union, the World Bank, or the United Nations, the economic situation continues to deteriorate and to, understandably, be a major topic of discussion in the media. It is worth noting the plight of marginalized groups who find themselves in a precarious situation as, at best, their suffering is normalized and, at worst, their very existence is unjustifiably deemed to be the cause of the entire nation’s ailments.


The few voices that try to denounce the dire conditions of these groups constitute only a minority and are well overwhelmed by hate speech and disinformation. This report shows a 400% increase in problematic posts toward refugees on Facebook compared to the December 2020 report. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch has denounced unequal access to the vaccine for certain marginalized groups. Despite a small increase in the number of people vaccinated this April, the lack of information around the vaccination program and the distrust towards the Lebanese government, make refugees and migrant workers the groups least likely to be vaccinated.


Finally, in addition to the unequal impacts of the crises in Lebanon, the erosion of the state apparatus has drastic consequences for freedom of expression. Thus, in defiance of state reforms to provide basic public services, entities such as Hezbollah have taken the opportunity to open a chain of supermarkets called Al-Sajjad offering goods at reduced prices for populations in need, primarily within Hezbollah’s own circle of supporters. This action, while meeting basic needs that the government overlook, allows the armed militant group to continue to assert itself, while simultaneously making criticism of its hazardous projects more difficult, and increasingly dangerous.

 

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 April 1 to 7, 2021. 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 909 items monitored during this period were entered in a database, where 10 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 containing problematic rhetoric have been displayed.

 

Simultaneously, any tweets found outside this timeframe displaying such rhetoric will be taken note of and an analysis of the Twitter debate 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 will be done using a Twitter data 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 April 8 to 12, 2021 (dates included) and some of the literature below includes updates from the holidays and weekend (April 13-14, 2021) to add relevance and gain further insights from the monitored trends.

 

Facebook

In this particular case, the methodology pursued does not differ from the one used a few months ago, when the first Facebook hate speech report on refugees was published. While final conclusions from the terms demonstrated below cannot be extracted immediately, the method we have utilized is keeping count of accessible posts and comments which discuss refugees in any way on a number of pages of political parties, newspapers, news stations, news sites, and civil society organizations, alongside posts which may include problematic, exclusive, or bigoted speech directed towards the marginalized community.

 

Although the attitudes in which such a discourse is delimited may vary (“physical incitement” or “bigoted reporting”), a flexible broader conception constituting irresponsible reporting, exaggerations, generalizations, incitement, and exclusivity is put to use for the purposes of this study.

 

In total, 37 pages were examined via the Facebook search engine tool all in all, 233 reachable posts and comments tackled migrant workers and their needs and/or desires, and remarkably, all 233 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 posts and comments made from April 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 bulletins and the content of prime-time talk shows during the monitoring period of seven Lebanese channels, Al-Manar, OTV, NBN, LBCI, MTV, Al Jadeed, and Télé Liban, were divided into three categories:

  • Political topics: The government formation deadlock persisted as the country entered a three-day Easter lockdown, implemented to prevent a surge of COVID-19 cases over the holiday period, followed by a visit of Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in an attempt to help resolve crisis in Lebanon.
  • Maritime border dispute between Lebanon and Syria.
  • Jordan’s royal family crisis

 

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.

During the monitoring period:

 

A- The news bulletins recorded 909 stories, where 5 stories were identified as related to marginalized groups:

  • Two stories about refugees (LBCI, OTV). Both stories shed the light on a statement issued by Human Rights Watch, which warned that the COVID-19 vaccination program risks leaving behind marginalized communities, including refugees and migrant workers.
  • Three stories about people with disabilities (MTV, LBCI, Al Manar). The increase in the number of stories related to children with autism is due to World Autism Awareness Day.





B- The prime time talk shows[1] recorded 20 topics, two of them were identified as related to marginalized groups, as shown 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 are presented weekly in the program (It's About Time on MTV). The main topics of discussion in the programs tackled the Egyptian efforts to help resolve the political crisis in Lebanon (Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry’s visit to Lebanon) and the ongoing political deadlock that is affecting the country, economically and financially.

  • One story about refugees (MTV), focused on the increased sufferings of Syrian refugees in Lebanon due to the ongoing economic and political crisis in the country.
  • One story about people with disabilities (MTV), focused on the importance of giving them the priority to receive COVID-19 vaccine, as they are isolated due to the pandemic, particularly since children with disabilities cannot access remote education on an equal basis with others.








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


During the week of monitoring 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 from April 8 to 12, 2021 (dates included).


None of the tweets monitored used any of the trending hashtags. It was a somewhat slow month overall compared to the previous ones and this was reflected even in the number of problematic tweets recorded.










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

 

Key Insights

As mentioned in the introduction, due to the proliferation of a number of noteworthy events this month, without the dominance of a singular polarizing one, the topics of the tweets were dispersed. However, it is safe to conclude that women were the most targeted marginalized group on Twitter, followed by individuals opposing Hezbollah. Tweets attacking journalists/media as well as spreading inflammatory rhetoric received an equal amount of attention.

On April 10, the remains of a female Bangladshi worker were found in a bag, which caused a significant uproar especially among the progressive circles on social media. Her husband was later identified as the murderer but this is where the information trail comes to a halt. Many Twitter accounts strongly condemned the crime, reigniting the conversation about women’s rights while bringing the topic of migrant workers’ rights to the table once more. Regardless, migrants’ rights remains a multifaceted topic in Lebanon for there is a lot to unpack and unlearn as seen in Img. 1 below. The author tweeted that the Lebanese should make migrant workers Members of Parliament (MPs) so that politicians begin working long hours and receive low pay (as the Lebanese MPs are notorious for getting absurd benefits while putting in minimal effort). While there was not necessarily any ill intent in the tweet, the suffering of migrant workers has become normalized and that is where the issue lies.




The majority of the problematic tweets were written by Hezbollah supporting accounts followed by a single tweet by a Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) supporting account. The rest could not be identified as they were written by random individuals, the political affiliations of whom were not identifiable at the time of monitoring. It is important to note that none of the tweets by Hezbollah supporters attacked women this time. Only the FPM account did so in the Img. 2 below.



In Img. 3, the author states that the very media and journalists that Hezbollah protected by fighting in  Syria are working against them. This demonizes any media that critizes the party and further polarizes readers. It also plays into a discourse that the media and journalists who critize Hezbollah only exist because the party allows them to, hinting that they could be eradicated instantly. All this futhter solidifies the growing concerns for journalist safety and the status of freedom of expression in Lebanon.



Finally, multiple accounts posted tweets inciting violence against women or simply spreading sexist misinformation as below and one author used the word “disabled” as an insult. Even though all the tweets were removed, the Twitter data extraction software had archived the text the moment it was posted. Far more vulgar tweets were monitored but the below tweet will suffice as a sample:

“having multiple sexual partners damages the biochemistry of a young woman downstairs” ???? https://t.co/mzynmTUxT0 - Author

 

Hate Speech on Facebook

 

In light of the aforementioned crises in the country, refugees face a major issue concerned with their very well-being on an economic and health-based level. Whilst the economic situation has been further deteriorating, partially due to political contentions preventing the formation of a cabinet, not all social groups are facing the burden of the crisis in the same way or at the same level. This is exemplified by the fact that the state and its institutions have been lobbying for receiving refugee aid (in hard currency) instead of supplying it to refugee organizations directly; this particularly applies to all works related to humanitarian support. On the other hand, a report released by Al-Ghad TV emphasized that Palestinian residents in Lebanon are currently earning $3 a day on average.


On the level of both security and health, refugees continue to face extended hardships. A meeting was held this month led by the Ministry of Social Affairs and involving the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Lebanese General Security. The proposed purpose of the meeting was in laying the foundations and implementing a plan which could see the return of Syrian refuges, with the aid of the international community. The initial step would see all parties involved work together to initiate a survey which details the number of refugees in the camps across Lebanon. However, as the current incapacitated caretaker government has failed to make, if not impeded, any progress on matters such as the financial crisis, the investigation into the Beirut Port explosion or the dire fuel shortage, it remains unlikely that any of its proposed plans on refugees or otherwise will come to fruition. This has not prevented proponents of this agenda to champion the meeting’s intent on Facebook pages such as those of FPM or LF, thereby feeding into anti-refugee rhetoric. Also, news reports have indicated that refugees have been excluded from the government-sponsored vaccination campaign, leaving them vulnerable to the virus without accessible or affordable means to ensure protection.

In order to summarize and visualize the data gathered, a few charts and graphs are found below. It is crucial to take into account that indications stemming from this data cannot be taken as conclusive or final due to the limited range in which this is being examined, alongside other variables which may reinforce bias.












Noteworthy Indicators & Comparison

 The first hate speech monitoring report constituted an examination of the discourse on refugees for one week during the month of December 2020. Since then, many developments have occurred within this domain, allowing for a jump in both data, numbers, and events concerned with refugee well-being. First and foremost, in April 2021, important political and administrative meetings were held to discuss refugees’ presence in Lebanon. As elaborated above, a willingness to push for the “return” of refugees is currently being evoked by government institutions and security forces.

Coverage of this plan to implement the “return” of refugees to their homeland has been poor in news televisions and non-existent in newspapers, as corroborated in the data within the aforementioned section. Free Patriotic Movement’s website, Tayyar.org, managed to cover the meeting when other more mainstream outlets or networks appeared not to deem it worthy of airtime or exposure. The outlet even remarked that the move ought to have been initiated much sooner. Their Facebook page was quick to pounce on the matter. Indeed, when brought to the table, particularly by news sites and news pages on Facebook with a populist and nativist bend, the audience response has been extremely aggressive. Taking into account the economic crisis, which is still ongoing in the country, many have alluded that refugees are majorly responsible for the hardships being faced. Others have expressed relief that the deportation mission is “finally being pursued”. This perception does, however, remain peculiar given the overwhelming distrust which the population has justifiably displayed towards the government's ability and capacity to implement said plans or promises. As mentioned previously, it is doubtful that this debilitated caretaker government will be able to follow through with the plan proposed and sketched within the Ministry of Social Affairs.

In contrast with only 43 reachable problematic posts for the month of December, the month of April witnessed a jump to more than 200 reachable problematic posts, most of which are responses to the declared deportation policy. Since this policy is being directly encouraged and directed by leaders of the Free Patriotic Movement, the party’s Facebook page witnessed an unusually high amount of bigoted comments (28) encouraging the policy. While there has been a considerable jump in bigoted comments on the Facebook pages of political parties when comparing December and April (5 in the former, 29 in the latter), the pages of the Lebanese Forces and Free Patriotic Movement remain the primary sources of such content in both months.

 

Conclusion

 

Overall, the crux of this report continues to be the marginalization of those for whom equal opportunity remains elusive. The piling up of crises in Lebanon has, if anything, placed marginalized communities either in the outright dangerous position of presumed scapegoats, or the precarious position of being indefinitely sidelined.

 

Even a month before the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia, issues related to the LGBTQ+ community were largely overlooked, even nonexistent. Moreover, while some stories have raised the importance of access to vaccines for all people, including refugees, migrant workers, and people with disabilities, this media coverage is no match for the hate speech propagated against them. In this regard, Facebook offers a clear picture of the stated dynamic. Despite the vulnerability of refugees in Lebanon, this community is systematically targeted as responsible for Lebanon's multifaceted crises, especially by political forces such as the Lebanese Forces, or the Free Patriotic Movement. 

 

At the same time, despite a slight increase in coverage of gender issues on Women’s Rights Day last month, it seems that the common trend has resumed. Even if one can point to the general outrage over the murder of a female Bangladeshi worker, hate speech against women is still consistently present. Thus, the mention and positive representation of marginalized communities in the media is only done on an ad hoc basis at times when it cannot really be avoided. Otherwise, marginalized communities continue to be stigmatized, vehemently rejected or subjected to online violence.

 

The crises make daily life difficult for a majority of the Lebanese. It is, therefore, crucial that issues related to marginalized groups be addressed in order to ensure that no community is left behind, or worse deliberately held back. The lengthy, multifaceted crises are stretching the Lebanese social fabric and bringing it closer to a breaking point; the impact that hate speech can have on said society could tip the balance one way or the other.

 

[1] 7 prime time talk shows monitored: It's about time (MTV), And now what (Al Jadeed), 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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