FEATURE | 3 Feb 2022

Digital Pathways for Peace in Lebanon

How social media influencers fight polarisation

Digitised version of the Lebanese flag. Digitised version of the Lebanese flag. Novikov Aleksey / Shutterstock

The Berghof Foundation is supporting a group of social media influencers in Lebanon seeking to promote tolerance and mutual understanding – online and offline.


 

Hate speech, misinformation and sectarian polarisation have been spreading on the various social media platforms that people in Lebanon use to find news and information, express their opinions, engage in public debate or mobilise for their causes. Social media influencers through online safety nets created by Berghof have been crucial in countering these challenges in Lebanon. Despite having contrasting political views and, in some cases, existing animosities towards each other, their outreach among the young population has shown social media’s potential of promoting dialogue and spreading peace.

De-escalation on twitter

The group stepped in to proactively de-esclate tensions at the protests in 2019 and 2020. In June 2020, as Lebanon was easing its Covid-19 restrictions on public gatherings, many protest groups issued calls for a demonstration in downtown Beirut on 6 June 2020. The gathering became polarised, and clashes between demonstrators and different groups broke out in the streets, with security forces getting involved. Things escalated to such an extent that the day was soon dubbed ‘Black Saturday’.

Within hours, the social media influencers were taking action. They sent out de-escalatory messages and called for an end to sectarian insults and accusations. They used the inclusive hashtag #Sectarianism_Shields_Corruption on Twitter, demonstrating their power as a safety net against further spirals of escalation. As an influencer put it, “sectarian strife is very counter-productive to what the Lebanese are trying to achieve in their peaceful mobilisation. Sunnis, Shia, Druze and Christians, we share one country, suffering from the same problems”.

Social media and peacebuilding

Ali Anan, Senior Project Manager at the Berghof Foundation in Beirut, is working closely with the group of social media influencers. He shared some of his thoughts on the role of social media in peacebuilding efforts in an interview:

Often when people think about social media, negative images of the spread of disinformation come to mind. Yet social media can also be a force for good. How can social media support peacebuilding and conflict transformation efforts?

As with every aspect of life, the human factor is the primary determinant of outcomes: everything can be used in either a good or a bad way, according to the will of the initiating person. It is imperative that we realise (and utilise) the positive influence of social media and how it can be used to transform individuals, societies, and even governments. Social media can indeed help spread peace, encourage dialogue among people from different backgrounds and clarify perceptions or misunderstandings. Communication is vital in promoting tolerance and mutual understanding, and social media is an ideal tool for that.

Berghof provides training and enables meetings between influencers from across the political and religious spectrum in Lebanon. What is your personal highlight of this work?

At times of increased friction and discord, the social media influencers we are working with have left their mark on the national scene. At several critical instances during the protests in 2019 and 2020, the social media influencers group intervened to proactively de-escalate tensions. When clashes occurred between different groups and/or with security forces, they developed joint campaigns to call for renouncing violence, ending scapegoating and maintaining the inclusive and cross-sectarian character of the protests. They reach huge audiences by connecting their networks and followers across the divides.

Social media can indeed help spread peace, encourage dialogue among people from different backgrounds and clarify perceptions or misunderstandings.

How did the 2020 explosion in Beirut affect your work?

The explosion had a great impact on everyone in Lebanon: the pain and the fear it caused hit deep, and people have still not got over it to this day. It happened at the beginning of August 2020, just as the second phase of our project was about to launch, which was a huge distraction. For the following few weeks, the explosion, rumours and consequences were the only thing people could talk about. Social media was consumed by that, and so were the influencers we are working with. A resulting major change in the project environment was the heightening of polarisation and the hardening of animosities in the general population, and the social media influencers reflected and tried to counter that.

What are the biggest challenges and opportunities when bringing social media influencers from different religious groups together? What are your hopes for this kind of work for the future?

In bringing social media influencers together to pacify a situation, a lot of one-on-one work has to be done, involving very tactful and empathetic human interaction. Trying to overcome deeply engrained obstacles and to reverse time-hardened hostilities requires genuine care and creative outreach, dipping into the realm of conflict psychology. Short term interventions that expect to achieve real and lasting impact are amateurish and often backfire, causing harm and wasting material resources as well as the goodwill of stakeholders. I hope that everyone involved in planning and executing such efforts has the appropriate personal commitment and the long-term resources needed to achieve success.

These experiences in Lebanon illustrate the importance of further engaging with and expanding our efforts of digital conflict transformation both geographically and thematically.


If you want to discover more about the influencers’ efforts, read this Deutsche Welle article about our project.

Learn more about our vision of digitalisation and peacebuilding in our themes section.


Media contact

Florian Lüdtke
Media and Communications Manager
+49 (0) 177 7052758
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Berghof Foundation on Twitter