Disinformation and electronic armies: How Lebanon's political class uses fake news to win elections
With Lebanon’s general election announced for May, media experts and activists fear that establishment politicians will undermine the democratic process by spreading and amplifying disinformation across social media – just as they have done in the past.
Lebanese citizens are looking to the upcoming parliamentary elections as the first step toward ridding themselves of a corrupt political class that has failed to respond to a revolution, a global pandemic, one of the world’s largest-ever non-nuclear explosions and a crippling financial crisis.
But the die-hard supporters and aggressive online armies of political elites could stand in the way.
Misinformation is already rampant in Lebanon. However disinformation – distinguished by its deliberate intent to deceive - has proven far more damaging for democracies and social movements across the world. Judging from Lebanon’s previous election cycles and defining events, Lebanon is no exception.
“During the October 2019 protests and then later the Beirut explosion in August 2020, we saw an expansion and an influx in the amount of disinformation,” Dr Zahera Harb, Director of the International Journalism and Media and Globalisation programmes at City, University of London, who has extensively researched the spread of disinformation in Lebanon, told The New Arab.
"Misinformation is already rampant in Lebanon. However disinformation – distinguished by its deliberate intent to deceive - has proven far more damaging for democracies and social movements across the world"
“A few weeks into the protests of October 2019, the ruling class was trying to delegitimise what people on the streets were doing. We started hearing stories about collaboration with foreign governments, money coming in, the demonisation of anything that is referenced to as a non-government organisation and putting them all in one basket.”
Fighting disinformation coming from politicians can be an uphill battle. Revelations by whistle-blower Frances Haugen confirmed that Facebook in particular neglects non-English speaking regions when it comes to monitoring disinformation or fake news.
Lebanon would then pose an even more severe challenge due to the use of various forms of Arabic, including the local Lebanese dialect, English transliterations, and the ubiquity of voice notes. This means that much of the monitoring is left up to users reporting malicious content. This is another avenue where organised parties can thrive in setting their own agenda.
“It's a question of electronic armies and resources,” said Hadi El Khoury, a Paris-based cybersecurity expert. “They have the means to pay for such strength and organisation of misinformation.”
Lebanon’s most powerful force - politically and militarily - is Hezbollah. The Shia Islamist political party and militant group possesses one of the most active and effective online armies.
“Hezbollah’s electronic army will try to censor any anti-Hezbollah voices or anything published against [Hezbollah leader Hasan] Nasrallah,” Ayman Mhanna, Executive Director of the Samir Kassir Foundation, the region’s leading freedom of expression NGO, told The New Arab.
“If a picture or the word Hezbollah or Nasrallah appears in an article that portrays them negatively, the electronic army systematically flags it so it will be taken down.”
The use of fake news and disinformation by the Lebanese political establishment predates social media platforms and even the internet. After the assassination of Lebanese president-elect Bachir Gemayel in 1982, Palestinians and Shia Muslims were blamed in newspaper and radio broadcasts, which in part led to the Sabra and Shatila massacres. The alleged assassin was later discovered to be a member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.
But today platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp are the primary drivers of disinformation, which can be used to inflame communal tensions by amplifying hate speech. In October, six people were killed after a planned Hezbollah and Amal march devolved into clashes in Beirut’s Tayouneh neighbourhood.
While gunmen traded shots in Beirut’s streets, news and commentary circulated rapidly on social media. Some users claimed the conflict was an ambush on protests while others painted an image of a neighbourhood under siege.
“Fake news can cause harm because it can generate hate speech and in its different forms lead to harm against innocent people - physically, emotionally or psychologically,” Harb said.
Following the clashes, nineteen people were arrested - including members of the Lebanese Forces. The level of the LF’s actual involvement is still not entirely clear in the fighting, but it still boosted sectarian voting patterns in October’s university elections.
“People don’t typically vote based on a track record or the economy. They look to protect their communal identity,” Mhanna said. “The most important thing in an election is to set the questions.”
"Navigating the complexities of Lebanese media can be difficult on normal days, where well over 70 percent of television, radio and print media have a more or less direct political affiliation"
Lebanon’s political class are unafraid of using disinformation and physical violence, but those are just two in an armoury of tactics they wield against opponents looking for change. Years of foreign funding and the embezzlement of state funds has left the various parties with sophisticated political organising and money to burn on spreading their message.
“Traditional media monetise TV appearances during the election, which in other countries is simply illegal,” Jean Kassir, a journalist and political activist, told The New Arab.
“This is where the budgets will actually play a huge role [because] establishment parties have the ability to pay huge amounts of money to be on primetime shows. The threat is that what people will see on TV is what has been paid for.”
While television is still a major source of news for people in Lebanon, many of these clips and talking points are also widely shared on social media. A report from October 2019 by the Arab Youth Barometer says 33 percent of Lebanese citizens use social media as their primary source of news.
Navigating the complexities of Lebanese media can be difficult on normal days, where well over 70 percent of television, radio and print media have a “more or less direct political affiliation,” according to the Media Ownership Monitor.
“The main problem in Lebanon is that journalists and media organisations became part of this information game that the ruling class is playing,” Dr Harb said. “I think most of the disinformation in Lebanon is mainly coming from politicians' mouths rather than deep fake videos and fabricated images.”
While Lebanon’s press freedom is still relatively strong for the region, it has eroded in recent years, dropping five places in last year’s Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index. Part of this drop also comes from the actions of the Lebanese government, who when not spreading their own disinformation are suppressing criticisms.
According to SMEX, a Lebanese NGO specialising in media freedoms, Lebanese members of parliament and other political figures liberally filed complaints of “slander and libel” or “offending the Lebanese president” against journalists and activists.
Many initiatives in Lebanon are fighting back against this control of the narrative. The UNDP released a report with important tools that journalists and citizens can use to verify information like images and crowd sizes.
Mhanna told The New Arab that the Samir Kassir Foundation will be funding creative election content on mainstream television channels on the condition that all candidates are given free and equal time and access with live fact-checking on air.
"Most of the disinformation in Lebanon is mainly coming from politicians' mouths rather than deep fake videos and fabricated images"
And while such initiatives are important to fight disinformation, the Lebanese establishment has plenty of other means of winning votes. Foreign interference through funding establishment candidates is not unprecedented. And with the country enduring a severe economic crisis, ruling parties will likely take advantage of their constituents’ desperation.
“There are other tricks that the regime can use to also materially secure the pool of voters that used to vote for the regime because of how desperate the situation is and sometimes it's no longer about an opinion,” Kassir said.
“If someone has promised 100 bucks they will take it because they are starving or because they're in a really dire situation and nobody can blame them, to be honest.”
As elections near, the fight against disinformation will be an uphill battle for Lebanon. Much of the responsibility will also fall on the shoulders of individual journalists.
“Journalists have a role in fact-checking,” Harb said. “And in countries like Lebanon, being a journalist and the fact-checker becomes one, usually these are two separate things, they are now merging together.”
Justin Salhani is a writer and journalist living in Paris, France. He was previously based in Washington, DC and Beirut, Lebanon.
Follow him on Twitter: @JustinSalhani