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SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom - Samir Kassir Foundation

Hate Speech in the Lebanese Media - June 2021 Monitoring Report

Wednesday , 20 October 2021

THE LONG ROAD AHEAD: STEMMING THE TIDE OF HATE SPEECH


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 seventh 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.


According to the latest World Bank Lebanon Economic Monitor report: “Lebanon’s financial and economic crisis is likely to rank in the top 10, possibly top three, most severe crises episodes globally since the mid-nineteenth century.” While the report highlighted the fact that the current multifaceted crisis in Lebanon “is usually associated with conflicts or wars,” it also qualified the situation as a “deliberate depression” where the country’s authorities purposely mounted defective policy that benefited them.


This self-inflicted crisis is thus increasingly decried by the international community which, following the example of the visit of the head of foreign policy of the European Union, Josep Borrell to the Baabda Presidential Palace, denounced the political impasse of the formation of a government, and the lack of sustainable reform that could help unlock aid and international funds. On the other hand, the political elite continue to blame each other or accuse external actors of bringing the country to its knees. President Michel Aoun was accused by the Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri of “preventing the formation of the government.” The president also renewed his call for the return “of the Syrian refugees back to their country.” Coupled with the increasingly difficult living conditions, the shirking of responsibilities among the ruling class has led to a polarization of society that is expressed in a violent manner within the media spheres, and acts as a social time bomb.


Once again, this report shows that marginalized communities are the first victims of this collapsing situation. On the surface level, in addition to suffering from shortages of electricity, water, and medicine, women suffer from lack of access to menstrual health products which have quadrupled in price within the space of a year. The many hate speech tweets or Facebook comments showed that women continue to be the victims of a patriarchal system that has control over their bodies and their own freedom of expression. At the same time, the situation seems to have become increasingly precarious for refugees as shown by the latest UNICEF report which indicates that 99% of Syrian refugee households do not have enough food or enough money to buy food. Despite the hardship, Syrian refugees are not only the object of hate speech and stigmatization, but are left out of the system, as in the case of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM)-affiliated Strong Lebanon parliamentary bloc’s bill which excludes non-Lebanese residents from the compensation provided by law for all victims of the Beirut explosion.


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 religious/racial denominations) 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 content study monitored the main news bulletin and the content of prime talk shows of seven Lebanese channels in the period from June 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 965 items monitored during this period were entered in a database, where 7 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 will be 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.

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 from June 8 to 12, 2021 (dates included), some of the literature below may include updates from the following days (June 13 and 14, 2021) to add relevance and gain further insights from the monitored trends.

 

Facebook

Regardless of the inability to arrive at conclusive findings solely by looking at one week of data via the Facebook search option, the method we have mainly fixated on is keeping count of available posts and comments tackling women in any way on a number of pages of political parties, newspapers, news stations, news sites, and civil society organizations, alongside content which particularly include problematic, exclusive, or bigoted speech directed towards the community on such platforms. 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, 39 pages were examined via the Facebook search engine too; all in all, 570 reachable posts and comments tackled the very concept of women’s rights, autonomy, or subtle descriptions of women, and 412 of them constituted problematic speech. The following keywords were used to locate the posts under study:

 

  • المحكمة الجعفرية

  • العنف الأسري

  • حقوق المرأة

  • الحضانة

  • شرموطة

  • المرأة الجنسية

  • المرأة

  • “Sharmuta”

 

As for the time interval in which this information was collected, it strictly included posts and comments made between June 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: Again, Lebanon’s ruling class failed to form a new government, as Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri continued to push forward an initiative to divide the cabinet seats in three equal parts among the country’s main coalitions. This initiative is supported by several political parties in Lebanon, including Hezbollah and the Progressive Socialist Party. Meanwhile, tensions escalated between the President Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Hariri, blaming one another for political deadlock. In addition, Lebanon urged the United Nations and the international community to explore alternative mechanisms to finance the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, a day after the UN-backed court announced it was halting legal proceedings over a lack of funds.


Economic and livelihood topics: the fuel shortage is the latest in a series of crises that are hitting the country. The electricity crisis is aggravated gradually, as Lebanon plunges into total darkness with no funds for fuel.  Lebanon’s economic collapse is likely to rank among the world’s worst financial crises since the mid-19th century, according to the latest World Bank Lebanon Economic Monitor report that was released in the beginning of June.


As a result of the above, topics related to marginalized groups (women/gender equality, people with disabilities, LGBT community, refugees/IDPs, and other marginalized groups) decreased this month, which indicates that these groups were overlooked in the Lebanese media. This trend comes as little surprise and in fact is consistent with the findings of this series of reports: the greater the crisis, the less room there is in the conversation for those who had stood by the threshold to begin with.


During the monitoring period:

  • The news bulletins recorded 965 stories, where 7 stories were identified related to marginalized groups:

 

Six stories about refugees/IDPs (NBN, TL, Al Manar, OTV):

  • TL: UNHCR’s Representative in Lebanon Ayaki Itowith visited Army chief General Joseph Aoun discussing the situation of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

  • NBN: The Syrian embassy in Beirut compensated Syrian refugees attacked while attempting to vote in Lebanon in last month’s election.

  • TL, Al Manar, OTV: Lebanese President Michel Aoun met with a delegation of the World Bank Group headed by Vice President for Middle East and North Africa Farid Belhaj at the Baabda Presidential Palace. Aoun presented “the difficult conditions which Lebanon has been passing through, as a result of the accumulation of crises over the past years, in addition to the spread of the Corona virus and the Beirut Port explosion, not to mention the Syrian war and the resulting massive displacement of Syrians to Lebanon.”

  • Al Manar, TL: "Maharat Li Loubnan 2" project, 1,165 vulnerable people (50% of whom are women and 30% refugees) will benefit from short training courses and skills development in four regions: Beirut/Mount Lebanon, North, Bekaa, and South. 550 entrepreneurs (start-ups or established small businesses) will benefit from multidimensional support.


One story about women and gender equality:

  • TL, Al Manar: "Maharat Li Loubnan 2" project, 1,165 vulnerable people (50% of whom are women and 30% refugees) will benefit from short training courses and skills development in four regions: Beirut/Mount Lebanon, North, Bekaa, and South. 550 entrepreneurs (start-ups or established small businesses) will benefit from multidimensional support.

 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[1] recorded 20 sections, none of them were identified as related to marginalized groups, as shown in figure 3. The main topics of discussion in the programs tackled the political initiatives that have reached a dead end, as well as the economic and livelihood crises, the fuel shortage and electricity crisis, and the smuggling of resources into Syria.


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 that stories on LGBTQ+ were totally overlooked again in both news bulletins and in prime time talk shows that were monitored.


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 June 8 to 12, 2021 (dates included).

Hashtags and Statistics

Figure 6: Language of tweets

Figure 7: Gender of hate speech source


Figure 8: Political affiliation of hate speech source




Figure 9: Gender of hate speech victim


Figure 10: Types of marginalized groups


Figure 11:  Problematic tweets within trending timeframe


Key Insights

The week began with a controversial announcement by the Nahr Ibrahim municipality as they decided to impose a nightly curfew on “foreigners and Syrians,” threatening to deport anyone who does not comply. The municipality made the decision in light of the “current security and health” situation in Lebanon. Unfortunately, no significant tweets concerning the matter were monitored, let alone any trends or relevant hashtags. On a separate note, one monitored tweet used the word “gay” in a derogatory manner


The majority of the tweets monitored spread inflammatory rhetoric. Often times, this included attacks on figures opposed to Hezbollah as well as journalists and the media. By looking at the profiles behind the tweets, it is evident that the accounts belong to Hezbollah supporters (including fake accounts at times). Interestingly, 88% of the authors of inflammatory, hate-speech filled tweets monitored here were men, while it was not possible to determine the gender of 88% of the “victims” as the tweets were often general rather than directed at a specific person. One tweet likened journalists that work for Gulf-based outlets to mercenaries. Although both the tweet and the account were removed, our tool was able to record the text. In addition, Img. 1 below shows the author demonizing any media that opposes Hezbollah or is funded by the Gulf.

Img. 1: Tweet calling any media funded by the Gulf or opposing Hezbollah an enemy agent and calling for their annihilation

 

Lebanese journalist and activist Luna Safwan was the target of attacks for criticizing Minister of Public Health Hamad Hassan’s attire. Safwan had stated that a shirt he had been wearing was similar in style to that of Iranian religious and political officials. The minister, being a Hezbollah affiliated politician, received the support of his political base, which up until now has shown to be the most active on Twitter in terms of spreading inflammatory rhetoric as well as online attacks. In Img. 2, below, the author calls her sexist slurs then publishes her private contact information for the public to harass her, immensely risking her physical as well as her mental wellbeing. Many other tweets come in the form of generic hints at how Hezbollah Opposition or journalists and the media that criticize the party are ruining the country or part of a greater conspiracy to be vanquished.

Img. 2: Tweet spreading Luna Safwan’s mobile phone number as part of the campaign

 

Other problematic tweets did not have a clearly politically affiliated source but spread antiquated notions regarding women. In Img. 3 below, the author dictates how women should dress at the beach. In Img. 4 below, the author responds to a tweet inquiring about the age at which men stop staring at women, by asking why women allow men to do so and stating that only when a woman “respects herself” will men stop staring. This is highly problematic and misogynistic discourse that remains all too common to this day as it perpetuates victim blaming in cases of harassment and rape. It absolves men of blame or responsibility for their actions at the expense of women’s freedoms and their basic human rights. Img. 5 shows a poll with 59 respondents, 49.2% (29 responses) disagree that women can work in any domain without discrimination. One tweet in response to the poll is striking as the author, using the hashtag “just an opinion,” states that women belong in the house to raise the children. This thread truly highlights the long road ahead, especially as it pertains to discourse on women’s rights.


Img. 3: Tweet of a Sheikh (the author himself) detailing what is acceptable for women to wear at the beach


Img. 4: Tweet stating that women should have “self-respect” for men not to stare at them or harass them


Img. 5: Tweet of a poll asking whether women can work in the same fields as men without discrimination along with a misogynistic response

Hate Speech on Facebook

As the socio-economic and political collapse in the country reaches new depths, a robust discussion on women’s rights and socio-political participation is still being pursued in light of relevant incidents. Whether it is matters related to the physical safety of female protesters, forms of “slut-shaming,” harassment, or domestic violence, the rights and bodily autonomy of women remain important when determining the future of the country and its social fabric. 

 

Women face challenges on top of the general hardship endured by the country, including the “gradual” lifting of subsidies and the continued stalling on the formation of a government. The increase in domestic violence since the beginning of the lockdown, coupled with the relatively traditional norm of repressing sex work in the midst of economic challenges is an indication of the general disregard for women’s rights and safety. Furthermore, a female protester was recently attacked by the bodyguards of FPM leader Gebran Bassil in the Batroun region, reproducing the bodily violence regularly faced by women. 


Nevertheless, this reality, propped up by the lack of an effective anti-harassment law, is also regularly being resisted by grassroots activists and women despite the socio-economic limitations. Whether by means of individual initiative (such as a Lebanese female weight-lifter competing in the Olympics) or collective action. The latter primarily constitutes examples such as feminist marches which continue to shed light on the violence being perpetuated, as well as subversive stances articulated by women online on Father’s day.

 

In order to concisely wrap up and visualize the data garnered, some charts and figures 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.


Figure 12: Total number of problematic comments/posts v. Type of page

Figure 13: Number of problematic posts/comments on news stations’ Facebook pages



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

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



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


Figure 17: Percentage distribution of problematic comments/posts across types of pages


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


Key Insights and Comparative Indicators

Content distribution

When examining the problematic women-related content published by users on this occasion, the posts can be divided between typical misogynistic slurs regularly normalized by Lebanese society, politicized attacks against active women, and a deliberate and direct form of slut-shaming against women performing sex work (as demonstrated by TV station MTV’s post on Mia Khalifa and the comments it received). Another point worth noting is the fact that, despite the high number of problematic posts targeting women, these were met with “positive” posts attempting to counter such notions. Such posts/comments generally include but are not restricted to criticisms targeting the sexist policies of authoritarian monarchies, empowering statements directed at the unjust procedures and customs implemented by religious courts, and a critical assessment of the Kafala system targeting female migrant workers. Compared to only 13 neutral or positive posts/comments in our first February report on women, our examination of the content for this month adds up to 158 neutral or positive posts/comments. 

 

Page type distribution 

In our previous report, we attempted to examine the salience of page types when assessing why and how problematic speech surfaces on Facebook. As mentioned in the “Methodology” section, the page types examined in this report are pages belonging to political parties, newspapers, TV news stations, and news sites. Similar to our February 2021 report, TV station pages (particularly MTV) contain a relatively large amount of problematic content (ranging from the aforementioned Mia Khalifa post to the slurs and attacks directed at journalist Dima Sadek). The relatively high number of problematic posts on MTV may be potentially due to the significant user traffic on the page and comment section. Having said that, MTV’s moderators have done little to address such problematic comments via their page on this evidence. Their approach is insufficient bordering on irresponsible and appears ill prepared to combat or restrict hate speech via their pages. While our February 2021 report noted that newspapers have become less relevant in a world of social media dominance, this report records a relatively higher rate of interactive problematic speech on the pages of newspapers, specifically Annahar. This report will refrain from speculating on the reason as to why that is, seeing as this might simply be an aberration, although suffice it to say that, once again, Annahar’s moderators, like MTV’s, fail to address the problematic speech via their pages. If Annahar, MTV and other new media are to make their mark in the relatively brave new world of online media, then they must be prepared to interact with their audiences in order to stem the tide of hate speech. The passive approach of old will not work on a platform in which the relationship between media organisation and audience is no longer one way. Beyond the responsibility of the social media platform towards its users, there is also the responsibility of media organizations towards their own audiences via their Facebook pages.

 

Meanwhile, another interesting development is the existing interaction present on the pages of civil society organizations (CSOs), specifically Kafa and Protecting Lebanese Women (PLW), which contain the bulk of positive feedback concerned with women’s rights and bodily autonomy. As opposed to no interaction on CSO platforms in our February 2021 monitoring report, posts to do with women on CSO platforms make 25.4% of the total sample under study during this month’s monitoring.

Conclusion

In addition to reinforcing the idea of a dynamic of stigmatization and hate speech towards marginalized communities, this June 2021 report confirms the normalization of these trends in the media. While there has been a slight improvement in the media’s awareness of fundamental issues such as the living conditions of refugees, as seen in the six TV show stories monitored this month, or women’s rights through Facebook comments, inflammatory rhetoric is still predominant.

In some cases, online abuse goes even further and can be life-threatening, as has been the case with Lebanese journalist and activist Luna Safwan, who has not only been the target of attacks on Twitter, but whose private contact information has also been leaked to the media. In the absence of a legal framework that protects journalists or provides a secure framework for freedom of expression, the climate of total impunity that prevails in the media sphere in Lebanon will persist. Adopting a new law for the press and media, as well as enshrining freedom at the political level as proposed by SKF executive director Ayman Mhanna, is the cornerstone of a benevolent media environment.

Moreover, the announcement of the reduction of subsidies this month on fuel had far-reaching consequences that have not only greatly increased the price of a tank, but have also led to the interruption of water supply to households throughout the country, as well as increased electricity and even generator outages. In response, the country has faced numerous strikes from the association of pharmacy owners to the transport union. The lack of government reform thus leaves the path clear for other entities like Hezbollah to take the initiative. This month Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah announced that he will personally negotiate with the Iranian government to import petrol and diesel from Tehran. This type of decision continues to legitimize the various proxies in the face of a state that is becoming increasingly fragmented; it is therefore not surprising to see that a majority of the inflammatory rhetoric belongs to accounts linked to Hezbollah against users and activists who criticize their policies or try to promote a national pact free of sectarianism. Furthermore, though such violations of the state’s sovereignty are not new for Hezbollah, they set a dangerous precedent beyond the provision of gas and oil. A party, or militia, which can negotiate with a sovereign country, deeming itself beyond reproach, can and does display a blatant disregard for rights and liberties supposedly safeguarded by an inept government.

Overall, the dire crisis that affects the daily life of all Lebanese citizens is reflected in the media spheres by an increase in hate speech and polarization. The space offered by the media spheres, and the dynamics that are played out across such spheres, act as a mirror of the society. More than ever, in a context of a general deterioration of the country where not all groups and individuals are equally affected by the crises, it is necessary to reaffirm the need for a safe media environment whereby marginalized communities and activists can express themselves freely without being stifled by the outstretched hand of hate speech.




[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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