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SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom - Samir Kassir Foundation

Hate Speech in the Lebanese Media - July 2021 Monitoring Report

Sunday , 24 October 2021
FATAL DISCOURSE: THE SYSTEMIZATION OF DISCRIMINATORY POLICIES

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 eighth 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.


The acceleration and worsening of the multifaceted crises in Lebanon have monopolized the different narratives of the media discourse and exacerbated tensions in some parts of the country. UNICEF has estimated that more than half of the population is now living below the poverty line and that “the COVID-19 pandemic, the August 2020 Beirut explosions and instability have all combined to create conditions worse even than they were during the 1975-1990 civil war.” Security concerns have been rising across country, with tensions exacerbating to dangerous extents as evidenced by the clash between Bab al-Tabbaneh residents in Tripoli and the army.

 

This context, which we have already described in previous reports, seems to have taken a singular turn this month with communities seeking to isolate themselves. This has led to an increase in clientelism as a means to secure even the most basic necessities. This dynamic, while allowing politicians to strengthen their members’ support, also helps them to expand their area of influence in preparation for the next general elections in 2022. For instance, the Future Movement provided more than 40 tons of diesel for Beirut generators via coupons, while the Armenian Tashnag Party MP Hagop Terzian procured 20 tons of fuel for generators in the Ashrafieh neighborhood.

 

Simultaneously, the ruling elite continues to deny any kind of responsibility regarding the economic and social crisis by lobbing the blame across one another. For example, after the rationing of 26 hours of electricity and the further devaluation of the Lebanese pound to the dollar, the President of the Free Patriotic Movement MP Gebran Bassil accused Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri of “slaughtering the country,” to which Hariri’s Future Movement responded by stating that Bassil was a “poor fellow, who has fallen victim to his own words, and has dragged the Strong Mandate (a reference to the Bassil’s father-in-law, President Michel Aoun, who is often referred to by his supporters as a “strong president”) into a quagmire from which there is no escape.” This squabble over power eventually led to the resignation of Hariri while stirring up political divisions and hate speech.

 

As the country undergoes an intensification of the crisis and a reinforcement of clientelism, this report confirms that the space for marginalized communities has been considerably reduced. Marginalized communities have found themselves to be the targets of discriminatory policies, such as the municipality of Zghrta-Ehden’s announcement of an arbitrary curfew upon foreign workers. This type of differential treatment has also been implemented in 330 other municipalities under the pretext of security or health and is thus becoming increasingly systemic. Far from solving the fundamental problems of corruption and poor governance, these public measures are fueling hatred and bringing the country closer to widespread violence targeting specific marginalized communities such as migrant workers and refugees.

Methodology


The methods used to locate, collect, and analyze the data pursued in this study entail 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 this month 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 July 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 940 items monitored during this period were entered in a database, where 1 story was 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 the July 8 to 12, 2021 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.


While this report covers the period between July 8 to 12, 2021 (dates included), some of the literature below may include updates from the following days (July 13 and 14, 2021) to add relevance and gain further insights from the monitored trends.

 

Facebook

While very few concrete conclusions can be reached, taking into account the available data, the method used in this study revolved around keeping count of available content discussing or tackling migrant workers on a select number of pages of political parties, newspapers, news stations, news sites, and civil society organizations, alongside posts which may include exclusivist or alarming speech targeting the 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 highlighted in order to gather as much relevant information as possible.

 

In total, 38 pages were examined via the Facebook search engine tool; all in all, 57 reachable posts and comments tackled migrant workers and their needs and/or desires, and six of them constituted problematic speech. The following keywords were used to locate the posts under study:

  • عاملة أجنبية
  • الخدم
  • فلبينية
  • سيرلانكية
  • خادمة
  • اثيوبية
  • عاملة منزل
  • عاملات منزل
  • صانعة
  • بنجلاديشية

 

As for the time interval in which this information was collected, it strictly included posts and comments made from July 15 to 22, 2021. On the other hand, the background information demonstrated in the first section attempts to position this data within a wider context and timeframe in order to make sense of the monitoring process given the country’s developments.

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 three categories:  

  • Political topics: Lebanon has not yet been able to form a new government, as the political leaders are still divided over the formation of Saad Hariri’s cabinet. While Judge Tarik Bitar who is investigating last year’s Beirut port blast announced legal procedures against several politicians and security chiefs.
  • Economic and livelihood topics: Lebanon’s crisis intensifies as fuel and medicine shortages worsen. Essential medicines and baby formula disappeared from shelves, as delayed payments by the central bank to importers halted fresh supplies. Furthermore, citizens are still waiting in line for hours at stations for meagre gas supplies.
  • Health topics: The number of people infected with the delta variant of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Lebanon has risen, after witnessing a remarkable decline in the number of daily COVID-19 infections in the past few weeks and has seen its travel status altered by several European countries.


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 significantly this month which indicates that these groups were, as they have been throughout Lebanon’s ongoing crisis, overlooked in the media.


During the monitoring period, the news bulletins recorded 940 stories, where only one story was identified as being related to marginalized groups:


One
story about migrant workers, as shown in figure 1, was aired on LBCI. This story shed light on a viral SM video of Lebanese singer, Carlos, who sang derogatory and discriminatory words that included the following lyrics: “we used to hit the Indian with a slipper, now we beg him for petrol.” The report on LBCI criticized Carlos and accused him of racism.

 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 18 sections, one of them was identified as related to marginalized groups (religion), as shown in figure 3. The main topics of discussion in the programs tackled the reasons behind the delay in the formation of the Lebanese government, the economic and livelihood crisis, and the increased number of people infected with the delta variant of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Lebanon.

It is also worth noting that the program “Twenty Thirty” on LBCI was not broadcasted during the monitored week as the new season for 2021 had not been released at the time.

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

 

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

 

Hate speech

During the monitored week, one story in the prime-time talk show “It's About Time” on MTV, tackling “co-existence between Muslims and Christians in Lebanon,” contained hate speech as shown in figure 6. Lebanese Maronite priest Camille Moubarak, who is close to the Free Patriotic Movement, stated that “throughout history Muslims in Lebanon pretend to be Lebanese but in fact they are far from being so.” Marcel Ghanem (the host) and Sheikh (Judge) Khaldoun Araymet, another guest, rebuffed Moubarak’s words.


As Lebanon endures a severe and prolonged economic hardship and financial crisis, this section in “It's About Time” revolved around sectarian tensions with probing questions which appeared to prompt a carefully selected and recurring guest into discriminatory and sectarian rhetoric.


Figure 6: Hate speech stories from total marginalized groups related stories (per channel - prime 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 July 8 to 12, 2021 (dates included). Some of the literature below may include updates from the following days (July 13 and 14, 2021) to add relevance and gain further insights from the monitored trends.

Hashtags and Statistics

Figure 7: Language of tweets


Figure 8: Gender of hate speech source


Figure 9: Political affiliation of hate speech source



Figure 10: Gender of hate speech victim

Figure 11: Types of marginalized groups


Key Insights
Discussions across the Lebanese Twittersphere, throughout July, revolved around Lebanon’s dystopian reality. As state institutions fail to deliver basic services, the alarm bells, both locally and internationally, are sounding. This leaves even less room for marginalized communities to be a topic of discussion. In essence, when most Lebanese citizens are deprived of their basic rights, marginalized communities find themselves even lower down the list of priorities. If they find themselves among the topics of discussion at all, it is as targets of inflammatory rhetoric. Such rhetoric occupied a significant space this month as supporters of different political parties hurled accusations and insults at one another.

Img 1. represents a prime example of the sectarian mentality that plagues Lebanon, alongside long-standing mistrust among the Lebanese themselves. The author curses the USA for providing Zahle with electricity while cutting off Baalbeck’s power supply. Zahle’s population is mostly Christian while Baalbeck has a Shiite-majority population and its dominating political factions are Hezbollah and Amal Movement, the two prominent Shiite parties in Lebanon. Such a distinction is important as it reveals the dangerous subtext of the tweet. Though the author’s larger point about the disparity in the power supply holds true, the tweet subscribes to an underlying rationale which alludes to an unbridgeable sectarian divide. Also, it is worth noting that the company supporting EDZ (Electricité de Zahlé) is based in the UK, not the US, as the author of the tweet claims. In addition, power rationing in Zahle began days before his tweet.

Img. 1: Tweet accusing Zahle of having electricity because it receives funding from the USA while cutting off Baalbeck

 

In keeping with the past month, Hezbollah supporters made their dislike for opposing media very clear. In Img 2., the author singles out opposing outlets and explicitly states that he and others are at war with these outlets as their journalists attempt to spread disinformation and discord. In Img 3., another author retweets a tweet while reinforcing the idea that anyone who adopts a view “similar to Israel’s” (by criticizing Hezbollah) is an agent. This displays a consistent “us versus them” discourse prevalent over the past months that demonizes anyone questioning the party or opposing it in any way. Not unlike the aforementioned, unsightly display of hate speech on Marcel Ghanem’s “It’s About Time,” the entrenched othering encapsulated by this tweet cements the widening divide among the sects.


Img. 2: Tweet antagonizing local and international media outlets with views opposing Hezbollah


Img. 3: Tweet accusing anyone with views opposing Hezbollah to be an Israeli agent

 

The Lebanese Forces supporters and those of the FPM also had their own fair share of online clashes. In Img 4. below, the author (fake account with its own backup account) quotes an FPM supporter’s tweet, calling him someone without conscience or humanity. This rush to dehumanize and other fellow Lebanese citizens is now a staple of the discourse on Twitter. The author’s quote tweet is well received by his followers who add their own insults. The FPM supporter’s original tweet included an image of an Oscar which he cynically awarded to a figure dear to the Lebanese Forces. This tweet, though sly and less direct, sets out to bait LF supporters into the inflammatory discourse demonstrated here. The FPM supporter’s implication that LF supporters are actors, and that their sentiments, opinions and stances are in effect posturing, sets out to delegitimize the latter. LF supporters respond by dehumanizing the original author and his party.

Img. 4: Exchange of insults between Lebanese Forces supporters and an FPM supporter

 

Sectarian discourse aside, women are once again among the most heavily targeted. In Img 5., the author implied that he and his friends would immediately convert to Islam, should they be convinced that it is a misogynistic religion. Interestingly enough, the same FPM supporter (Ronald Ajoury) mentioned above wrote a different tweet where he claims that the ease of divorce has made women “complain” (implying that women should not be allowed to do so). The fact that Ronald Ajoury, and others like him, appear to target more than one marginalized community with their hate speech demonstrates that hate speech and discrimination is a consistent mind-set. Those capable of discriminating based on sect, are also capable of discriminating based on gender, as demonstrated above. Once the path to discrimination and hate speech is carved, it becomes more accessible to those who prefer contrast to nuance. These claims, regardless of their origins, propagate ideologies that contradict the human rights charter, specifically Article 16.

Img. 5: Tweet stating that author and friends would instantly convert to Islam if it were misogynistic

 

Finally, while not within the week we usually monitor, one incident remains worth mentioning. Around July 24, Rabia Al Zayyat, the host of a talk show called “Shou El Qossa?” (What’s the story?), posted a video of an interview held with Bouchra El Khalil, a lawyer who had represented former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, and currently voicing support for Hezbollah . In the video, Rabia asks Bouchra whether or not she believes homosexuals should be executed, to which Bouchra responds in the affirmative. In an encouraging turn of events, the tweet received massive waves of criticism with users clamouring for its removal, prompting Rabia to delete it after several failed attempts to defend it. While Bouchra received her share of criticism for her hateful views, Rabia was the focus of the barrage of critiscism. Leading questions like the one she posed during the interview were seen to normalize hateful rhetoric towards the LGBTQ+ community. The scale of the support here provides an indication that marginalized communities are not without allies who are prepared to call out hate speech online.

Hate Speech on Facebook

Given the socio-economic crisis taking place in the country, and the immense reduction in real wages amongst the vast majority of Lebanon’s residents, services previously made possible by the dollar peg are scarcely available today. This includes but is not restricted to employing migrants as domestic workers. As mentioned in our previous Facebook report tackling hate speech targeting migrant workers, this overwhelming structural change in the country has paved the way for noticeably less content and coverage on the daily status and restrictions faced by migrants. Given this transformation, certain events which have taken place in the past few weeks are quite noteworthy.

First and foremost, it is crucial to take into account that this transformation does not necessarily mean that migrant workers are absent from the economy, instead there is a potential shift in their socio-economic circumstances. Many migrant workers are resorting to gas stations to sustain their presence and facing hostility from the increasingly beleaguered Lebanese drivers. Hate speech, threats and violence are constant parts of migrant pump attendants’ lives. Meanwhile, within the household, migrants are being replaced by Lebanese citizens for a cheaper wage (given that they are not expecting salaries in foreign currency). As a result, this development shifts sexist and exploitive mechanisms within the domestic sphere, to the local arena, as opposed to directing it at migrants.

 

In addition, the deteriorating security crisis in the country has further allowed for either intensified control on the movement of migrants and foreigners or depriving them of basic protection and aid. This is exemplified by the fact that little-to-no protection and compensation was provided by the state to the victims following the Beirut blast of August 4, 2020. Nonetheless, a member of parliament from the Free Patriotic Movement has proposed a law which was meant to exclude non-Lebanese from any potential compensation package. To loosely paraphrase the oft repeated Orwellian maxim: no victim of the Beirut port explosion received aid, but foreign victims, especially, did not receive aid. Furthermore, under the pretext of security developments, the Municipality of Zgharta-Ehden enforced a curfew on foreign and migrant workers in early July.

 

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.

Figure 12: Distribution of comments/posts on the topic per type of page


Figure 13: Number of problematic comments/posts on the topic per type of page



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

Comparative Indicators and Insights

When comparing the insights of this monitored interval with those of the previous one on migrant workers, it is quite clear that a common factor remains unaltered: migrant workers are dramatically being erased from the national conversation, with very little commentary on both their grievances and their basic essence when compared to other social groups scrutinized in this exercise. It is plausible to suggest an unwillingness on the part of traditional media channels to cover the grievances of migrant workers who do not represent their core audience or readership. Furthermore, the dramatic transformation in the nature of Lebanon’s economic system is not allowing for the accessible employment of migrant workers by a gradually reduced middle class.


Moreover, another trend which has been retained between the past and current reports is the role of pages such as “This is Lebanon” and the “Anti-Racism Movement”. The former has played an essential and subversive role in documenting and exposing physical and socio-economic violations targeting migrant workers on a variety of levels. The latter has focused more on engaging migrant workers in socio-cultural activities to empower their presence and supplement them with the necessary training. One alarming update in our latest monitoring is the potential disinformation being propagated by pages of news sites, exemplified by the reporting of a crime in a house and the hasty framing of migrant workers as culprits without tangible evidence. This scapegoating is not entirely new but appears to rear its ugly head whenever the country is in a desperate economic and social state.

Under the cover of “neutral reporting,” pages of news sites seemingly do not take into account the power dynamics and asymmetric social relations between migrants and employers within the household. One may cautiously hypothesize that this has pushed commenters and users to create a link between the nationality of the worker and the propensity to commit a crime, reproducing immensely harmful and racist tropes which may severely affect the security and well-being of migrant workers in the country.

Conclusion


As the situation in Lebanon becomes increasingly precarious for about three quarters of the population, according to the American University of Beirut's Crisis Observatory report, analysis of various traditional media broadcasts, Facebook and Twitter posts indicates that economic and social despair are very much the mother and father of hate speech in this context. This is not to excuse the hate speech, nor to explain it away as a natural byproduct of hardship, but simply to note that Lebanon in its current incarnation is fertile ground for inflammatory rhetoric. This situation could lead not only to a normalization of online violence, but also to a significant increase in discrimination against marginalized communities via legal means.


The arrival of the Coronavirus variant delta this month in Lebanon is indicative of one of the impacts of hate speech and discrimination on society. While the shortage of vaccines, dire economic conditions, and the massive brain-drain of health care personnel makes the fight against the health crisis difficult, access to care is even more complicated for certain marginalized communities. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs showed how hate speech was spread through social media messages calling to exclude Syrian refugees from the national vaccination campaign for COVID-19.


Moreover, the invisibilization of marginalized communities in the media coupled with an unstable situation continues to result in extreme violence. The attempt to cover up the murder of Najah Obeid by her husband Hassan Rahal is a testament not only to the systemic violence against women, but also to the lack of media support. While the multi-faceted crisis could be an opportunity for traditional media outlets to rethink the foundations of Lebanese society, it seems that they are instead relying on old communal dynamics. The murder of Najah Obeid follows on from the murder of Zeina Kanjo by her husband six months prior. Precious little was published on Najah Obeid’s murder via the Lebanese media. Though it is the task of this report to remain detached about its analysis of such developments, it is difficult not to wonder whether Najah would have read about Zeina. The hate speech directed toward women, and monitored in this report, is not simply offensive, it is fatal.


At the same time, some emerging media outlets such as Megaphone, Daraj, Raseef 22 are acting as counter-powers capable of producing information independent of any political party and offering safe spaces for marginalized communities. This month Daraj has written several articles denouncing the impact of the economic crisis on women, especially in their access to basic needs such as menstrual products, the price of which has increased by 320% since the end of government subsidies a year ago. Also, Raseef 22 as part of its project "Raseef in color" has written several articles highlighting the repressive instruments of the society towards LGBTQ+ communities.


All in all, it should be noted that despite the positive changes brought by the independent media, the different marginalized communities in Lebanon have less space in which to express themselves. The manmade crisis brought by the warlords is causing an increased invisibilization of marginalized communities in favor of community discourses that propagate inflammatory rhetoric. While it is too early to know the long-term consequences of such dynamics, we can already foresee a resurgence of hate speech with negative impacts on society including discrimination, increased ostracism, and a rise of crimes against marginalized communities.


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

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