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SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom - Samir Kassir Foundation

A Social Media Analysis of the Public Debate around Tarek Bitar’s Investigation

Friday , 17 December 2021

On February 20, 2021, the Lebanese Supreme Judicial Council appointed judge Tarek Bitar to replace judge Fadi Sawan in the investigation of the explosion in the Beirut Port on August 4, 2020.


In the course of his investigation, judge Tarek Bitar summoned top politicians for questioning, including former Prime Minister Hassan Diab, MPs and former ministers Nohad Machnouk, Ali Hassan Khalil, and Ghazi Zeaiter, former minister Youssef Fenianos, as well as a number of high security officials.


Backed by their respective political parties or claiming they enjoy parliamentary or administrative immunity, most of these officials did not show up, which led judge Bitar to issue an arrest warrant against former Finance minister and senior Amal Movement lawmaker, Ali Hassan Khalil, who lashed out against the judge, threatening of a "political escalation" if the course of the investigation "was not rectified."


On October 14, 2021, supporters of Amal and Hezbollah organized a protest near the ministry of Justice in Beirut calling for the dismissal of the judge. The protest degenerated into deadly fights, involving automatic weapons and rocket launchers when demonstrators moved close to Ain el Remmaneh, a Christian-majority neighborhood with a strong symbolic value as it was one of the main frontlines during the 1975-1990 civil war.


This study, by Dr. Nasri Messarra, analyses 38,500 tweets, replies, and retweets, from 17,771 users, from October 12 to 16, 2021, containing one of the following words combinations:

  • طارق and البيطار (Tarek & el Bitar)
  • طارق and  بيطار (Tarek & Bitar)
  • قاضي and  بيطار (Bitar & judge)
  • Tarek and Bitar
  • مرفأ  and  بيطار(Bitar & Port)
  • مرفأ  and  قاضي (judge and port)

Based on the analysis of these 38,500 tweets, the study reveals that interest in the investigation around the port explosion has grown outside the limits of the judiciary or even the country. 42% of the users who added their country to their profile declared being residents or citizen of countries other than Lebanon. More than a hundred countries can be found as part of the profiles: from KSA to the USA, the UAE, Egypt, Palestine, Australia, and others.


The other noticeable result is that 3.13% of tweets have been published using professional tools. While this may not come as a surprise knowing that social media has become part of any communication strategy, this result proves scientifically that not all tweets are genuinely true declarations, but that some of them are prepared and thought off, both in terms of content, messenger characteristics and dissemination. A closer look at the professional tool’s usage shows that 1.58% of the tweets of the civil society group were published using professional tools against 3.84% of tweets published by the KSA group. This percentage jumps to 13.62% in the Hezbollah supporters’ group.


The study also showed the scarcity of FPM’s influencers in this period and on this matter, even though FPM supporters are usually very active on Twitter and other social media platforms. However, the majority of FPM accounts who reacted approved posts supporting judge Bitar.


In short, there is a strong majority of local and international influencers and players depicting judge Bitar as a symbol of justice and accusing Hezbollah of trying to bring down the investigation. On the other hand, only 12.75%  of our sample endorse Hezbollah’s accusations against Bitar, with a large number of hubs/disseminators in the group, which leads the standard Twitter user to be under the impression that this group is much larger than it actually is.

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