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WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram: how social networks have become the vectors of protest


Who is launching all these recent initiatives? And how are they being carried out and gaining followers? A few activists explain to L’OLJ how the movement’s strategies are being adopted.

"Adlieh, 8.30 am". The message is very concise. But this is just the title of a WhatsApp group which last Wednesday invited Beirut’s protesters to head to the Courthouse and demand independent justice. Other messages asked "high school students to mobilize in front of the Ministry of Education in order to demand the closure of all schools until the requests of the Lebanese people are taken into account”, or called students to wage protests in front of “public institutions like Electricite du Liban". People who were not able to make it to the street were also invited to bang on pots and pans in order to make their voices heard.

Since activists have stopped closing roads as a way to put pressure on the government, thousands of short messages are being sent on Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and/or Instagram informing internet users of the events planned for that day or the following day. Last Wednesday, messages were sent out asking the protesters to organize a sit-in outside the Eden Bay resort which is built on the sandy beach of Ramlet el-Bayda. On Thursday, they called for a sit-in in front of the power station in Zouk.

Opinion leaders, whistleblowers, influencers ...

But who is behind all these initiatives? And how is information being spread and protests implemented? "We are coordinating amongst ourselves (the activists) in the public squares,” the activist and lawyer Wassef Harake explains to L’Orient-Le Jour. Harake is the initiator of the Popular Observatory for the fight against corruption. “We suggest actions, discuss them amongst ourselves, and then end up adopting the most popular ones, knowing that off-notes are sometimes unavoidable.” Nevertheless, the lawyer argues that the protesters’ ultimate objective is "almost unanimous": after the fall of the government, they are now demanding the formation of a government of specialists that would hold people in power accountable, fight against corruption, and prepare a law for early elections. For the activist Gilbert Doumit, "the instigators can be opinion leaders, influencers, whistle-blowers or the activists themselves, all of whom engage in endless debates and meetings within public areas". Then the social networks do what they do best: broadcast calls to action. The messages, proposals and directives to the population go out to the various groups that make up the overall network, be they socio-professional sectors, students, teachers, lawyers, engineers ...

Recently graduated from LAU, Lynne Taha and a handful of activists rely on their university networks to relay information. "After discussing and coming to an agreement, we suggest some initiatives for the day to WhatsApp groups (200 people per group) that bring together students from LAU, other universities in the country, and even from the Lebanese University" she says. For her part, Verena Amil, a member of the secular club of Saint Joseph University, explains that the information is distributed to the presidents of the institution’s university clubs, who then transmit them to the club presidents at other universities, who in turn share them with their members. "We are in contact with all the universities and we closely coordinate our actions. Each student is active on several networks and groups at once” Amil says. This is how the message spreads through multiple groups. Among the groups that are extremely active on social networks are: Daleel Thawra, Mada Network, the Cultural Center (Salon) of the Lebanese University, and the secular clubs of USJ and AUB.

The same process was used to mobilize high school students at the public schools who on Wednesday refused to attend classes "in many parts of the country and even in the Bekaa area”, as reported by Sarah Abdallah, our correspondent in central Bekaa. She adds that teachers from the secondary public school sector are also invited via WhatsApp "to rebel against their syndicates which are considered close to the political parties of Amal and the FPM", and to launch strikes.

A new step or diversification?

At a time when the street movement seems to be changing its strategy, the following question arises: Have we moved to a new form of mobilization, to a new stage of citizen revolt? Wassef Harake recalls the evolution of the popular protests, which he sees as "not a simple movement, but not yet a revolution". "This protest first took the form of demonstrations in public squares and through the shutting down of roads. Now, while we continue our mobilizations all over the country’s public areas, we are also shutting down the institutions that are obstructing the fight against corruption, in order to hold their leaders accountable" he says, expressing "his great satisfaction" with regard to the movement’s (current) success which is "expected to grow". The next step? "We'll talk about it in due time" he answers.

According to Gilbert Doumit: “We have reached the second political phase of our protest". The activist explains that after having toppled the government, the protestors must now push for the creation of a government that meets the demands of the street. In order to do this, he believes that it is "necessary to diversify the strategies of confrontation", "to head to the public squares and meeting places during the evenings and on weekends; to call for strikes; to boycott institutions; to demonstrate in front of the politicians’ homes". "But in the end, we must not forget the spontaneous and organic nature of these mobilizations", he adds.

Albert Moukheiber, a neuroscientist who researches the process of cognitive change, and also an activist, warns "against the desire to model these spontaneous popular movements. The step-by-step study of this process may lead to stressful scenarios. But this revolution is fluid. It alters and diversifies its strategies" he says, applauding the “peaceful nature" of the protesters, their "great maturity", and "their creativity in the use of diverse pressure tactics".

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 7th of November)

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