October 17 did not only mark a huge milestone for Lebanon but has also shifted its social media metrics towards a new, unprecedented era of action-forward digital activism, fueled by the zeal of both established and up-and-coming influencers and precious individuals from within the community. With Instagram rising up as its main mobilization platform, the trend was a main contributor to filling up the streets on any given day of the national uprising and continues to impact public opinion with real-time content that draws no red lines between the rawness of reality and the power of the edit. To help illustrate this crucial concept, we resorted to the keen eye of some of the key figures utilizing their Instagram presence to fuel the pro-revolution rationale for firsthand insight into the heart of it all.
Known for her assiduous daily analysis of the latest developments in the country formulated into signature summary-form Instagram Stories, third-year PhD student in History at the University of Cambridge Chloé Khattar developed an interest in History and Literature early on, before progressively shifting her focus to Lebanese political and intellectual history. While she was never particularly interested in day-to-day politics prior to the revolution, she chose to go into academia due to her love for research and desire to contribute to the renewal of Lebanese historiography. In this comprehensive one-on-one, the historian eloquently phrases her opinion on the ongoing uprising while addressing the peculiarities of the digital activism trend with informed assurance.
Digital activism is witnessing an unprecedented surge in Lebanon following the October 17 uprising and has played a key role in mobilizing the community. As someone who has been actively contributing informed opinions on the topic throughout the past few weeks, how do you evaluate the impact of this trend on Lebanese citizens/public opinion?
Digital activism, understood as political activism through social media, has undeniably made the uprising what it is today. This is why some describe it as a 'digital revolution'. To answer this question ably, I think we should pay attention to the peculiarities of each of the apps we use: WhatsApp I believe is the most efficient tool, as it relays immediate information and functions as a huge virtual space for debate. Hundreds and hundreds of revolutionary WhatsApp groups have been created overnight to link together citizens in different regions. They ask each other about road closures, share opinions on political developments and discuss details of future events. Twitter is of course used for political commentary, but Facebook and Instagram have greater impact on public opinion as they trigger emotional stimulus by facilitating the circulation of images and videos, which are crucial to revolutionary messages and slogans.
What has been your preferred way of sharing your thoughts on the uprising on social media? And how did it develop into a consistent habit?
I use Instagram to share my thoughts on the uprising and since day 1, I made a consistent habit out of writing daily thoughts at night. I gather information from various sources throughout the day and try to formulate an analytical summary of the events. Many friends thought it was helpful, for many of them live abroad, don’t read Arabic and just wish for a quick round up to keep track. This encouraged me to keep going.
“Digital activism can usher in a new age of digital media and broadcasting in Lebanon by creating new spaces of information and debate.”
Based on anecdotal evidence/follower feedback, how do you think your posts/stories have impacted the community?
I am not sure if it has impacted the community, as the users who read the daily thoughts are already very committed to the cause of the revolution. I believe what they might find useful in the posts, is probably the historical perspective that I personally wish to convey in my posts, especially against counter-revolutionary propaganda that has also hit hard social media in recent weeks with the shameful comparative campaign between 1975 and 2019.
In your personal opinion, who are the key online influencers who have been the most impactful in the Lebanese uprising?
I think the key online influencers are known to all since they have been digital activists well before 2019, such as Gino Raidy and Oleksandra Zahran, who have been tackling social and political issues for a while now. Other pages are definitely influential such as @daleelthawra or @art_of_thawra since they document on a daily basis the events and the art related to the uprising, which adds to the collective motivation, even if they were set up after October 17. Humorists and fashion influencers also play a valuable role when they share information to their very wide audiences, which is highly encouraged.
Are you sticking to your usual posting habits for the near future or do you plan to take this established online presence to the next level?
I definitely plan on sticking to this new habit of posting daily thoughts on the revolution as it is challenging and satisfying on a personal level. I don’t see myself as a social or digital activist, but I am glad and honored when my posts contribute to positive conversation, even if it remains within a small audience.
What is the most positive impact of the Lebanese uprising on the country and its citizens? And where do you see this going next?
I believe the Lebanese uprising has had until now much awaited and positive impact on the country and its citizens despite it being economically and politically challenging. If I were to choose only one, I would say that the revolution brought back the Lebanese 'public sphere' as it has prompted citizens to engage in all forms of debates. I am referring here to Habermas' acceptation of the concept since Lebanese of different backgrounds and sects have come together to freely discuss societal problems, hoping to influence political action. In recent years, our public sphere was fragmented along sectarian and communal lines, not necessarily because of sectarian mentalities, but also because of a lack of incentive to do otherwise. The revolution itself – even if it isn’t considered as such by Western or scholarly standards – has brought a renewed interest in unified (understood her as non-sectarian) political action which contrasts with the pre-revolutionary collective dissatisfaction and indifference. To me, and this might be contradicted by other opinions, the revolution is a proof of an alteration in mentalities - that was perhaps already in the making in recent years and which is probably linked to generational change - but what is certain is that the Revolution helped make it visible. I like to think of the Revolution as a new Zeitgeist, even if the term is strong, as it reflects a new spirit and a new discourse where sectarianism or political partisanship, at least as a form of speech, are becoming more and more taboo. This is still a huge win even if political victories might be harder to achieve. It is still too early to say with precision what is coming next.
Do you believe there are ethics that social media 'influencers' need to abide by in times of political turmoil?
I believe social media 'influencers' need to abide by the same ethics other social media users adhere to, whether in normal times or political turmoil. During the uprising, they certainly helped raising awareness on fake news for example, but the citizens themselves also massively fought the spread of rumors and conspiracy theories in an impressive display of collective awareness. Influencers can of course use their platforms to discourage hate speech or aggressive behavior but there is also a part of individual responsibility and influencers can’t be blamed or applauded for everything, as we are witnessing a multi-faceted and complex form of social mobilization.
Based on your personal experience, how do you view the future of digital activism in Lebanon and the region?
The necessary live coverage of the revolution has made digital activism (with the 'live' options in Instagram or Facebook) the favorite tool to access information. At times, deliberate or undeliberate media silence over specific revolutionary events has revealed the deeply biased nature of some local media and TV outlets. Citizens turned to social media applications to follow live developments or look for 'unfiltered' news. This had already happened in other neighboring countries during the Arab spring, but the future of digital activism in Lebanon can be particularly promising in light of the decline of traditional media outlets, viewed more and more as partisan or conservative. Digital activism can usher in a new age of digital media and broadcasting in Lebanon by creating new spaces of information and debate. Trans-national networks of activists also emerge more easily thanks to digital activism; especially in times of global uprisings, and such connections are already being established between Lebanese and Iraqi protestors for instance.