After booming on Instagram in no time thanks to her poll-based account addressing pressing social issues and various trending topics, Oleksandra Zahran became one of the highly influential digital figures of the Lebanese uprising thanks to her consistent posting habits and frequent updates. Having majored in political science and international affairs, two disciplines that always tickled her interest, she championed an independent political campaign dubbed 'Bedak Tghayir' [Do you want change?] during her university’s student council elections that made a significant impact on students and her influence clearly remains on the rise today. In this candid interview, she sticks to her unfiltered attitude to express honest thoughts on the latest developments.
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 content on the topic throughout the past few weeks, how do you evaluate the impact of this trend on Lebanese citizens/public opinion?
Social media has played a huge role in the Lebanese revolution. In the very beginning in the first 4 or 5 hours of protest, people were sending me live videos from their locations and tagging me in their posts so I was reposting them and I remember people asking me whether there is something really happening across these locations such as Beirut and Sour and I would reply accordingly and advise them on where to head when asked to. Whenever I received updates that there weren’t a lot of people in a particular area, I would post that on my Instagram and people would actually start gathering up at the spots I was mentioning. It was truly amazing. Even when violent incidents occurred and people were getting beaten up in the streets, I was calling out for help at specific spots like The Ring or Jal El Dib for instance and people were responsive really fast as news would be spread in less than a minute.
“One time I was talking about roadblocks on Instagram Stories and one of my followers said “you guys are doing a better job than the news.””
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 love talking to people through videos so whenever something happens that I have an opinion to share about I would just open my Instagram and speak to my followers through stories and posts. I love videos and I always like for them to be very spontaneous as opposed to planned because when you plan something, the audience can feel it’s planned and thus won’t absorb the information the same way. But when your content is spontaneous and you’re genuinely describing your feelings about the situation or giving an opinion that some might agree while others may argue against, this is very helpful as people can automatically relate and understand that we are all in this together.
Based on anecdotal evidence/follower feedback, how do you think your posts/stories have impacted the community?
I remember when I would post about road closures early on, people would reach out to me saying that they didn’t see it on the news and asking me whether the information is correct and I normally would be 100 percent sure. One time I was talking about roadblocks on Instagram Stories and one of my followers said “you guys are doing a better job than the news” and we have to mention that it’s often faster than the news during times of protest.
In your personal opinion, who are the key online influencers who have been the most impactful in the Lebanese uprising?
To be honest, I don’t want to name anyone specific for one simple reason: I believe each of us is an influencer in their own way, regardless of the number of followers we have. Everyone has been doing an amazing job and I think that if I were to only mention renowned names, it would somehow be unfair to other people who may have influenced a much bigger audience with something they did.
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 am not sticking to my usual posting habits since the revolution started because all my posts and updates became strictly about it and I don’t think I am going to change that for now. The revolution is there for now and I don’t think there is something more important to post about on Instagram than what is happening in our country.
What is the most positive impact of the Lebanese uprising on the country and its citizens? And where do you see this going next?
There are so many positive attributes that the Lebanese uprising achieved so far and all of them are quite remarkable, but I think the most important thing is that people are not scared anymore. The barrier of fear has been destroyed and it’s very important because for years this fear was not letting people speak up and actually fight for their rights and now they are no longer scared. When people are not scared, someone else should be scared. Politicians should be scared.
Do you believe there are ethics that social media 'influencers' need to abide by in times of political turmoil?
The most important principle everyone needs to abide by on social media not only influencers is respect because when there is no respect it is very hard to make positive change and if there is no positive change, there is no future for our country.
Based on your personal experience, how do you view the future of digital activism in Lebanon and the region?
I think digital activism is on the rise like never before in Lebanon because it’s mobilizing Lebanese people all over the world and this is actually helping out in sustain the uprising even if they’re not physically present and I believe this trend will continue to go upwards in the future for sure.