BEIRUT: Social media has been a vital tool for those involved in the protests that have swept across Lebanon since Oct. 17. But, while it has provided a quick and effective means to organize, spread information and communicate, it has also thrown up many obstacles.
In addition to legitimate updates on events, the computers and mobile devices of Lebanese citizens have, for the past two weeks, played host to a flood of deliberate misinformation.
Fake news comes in many forms - from fabricated images, videos and voice notes to recycled footage and images of past events from elsewhere in the world, masquerading as depictions of what is taking place on Lebanese streets today.
For example, a WhatsApp message purporting to be a statement from the presidential palace was circulated Wednesday. It claimed that the internet would be shut down, across Lebanon, starting from 12 a.m. Thursday.
However, the message was later revealed to be fake.
Imad Kreidieh, head of the state-run internet company Ogero, posted a tweet Wednesday night describing it as “far from reality.”
The motivations for this particular incident are unclear.
Some people spread rumors and false messages as a prank or a joke, but fake news often has a clear political purpose.
Another WhatsApp message circulated Wednesday night, claiming that Hezbollah and the Amal Movement had asked the Army to open up all of the nation’s roads after midnight, and that the groups had threatened to close down the whole country if their demands were not met.
However, a Hezbollah source told The Daily Star Wednesday night that these claims were completely untrue.
Another message was circulated Wednesday evening. It read, “Because of the country’s critical condition, the Army’s General Directorate is announcing a state of emergency on Oct. 31.”
The Army released a statement Wednesday night denying any such thing and urging citizens to “check all official statements by the Army on its website.”
It appears that many fake messages have been aimed at scaring protesters off the streets.
For instance, a widely distributed voice message Wednesday warned that demonstrators on Beirut’s Ring Bridge would be attacked by more than “30 motorcycles [coming] out of the Al-Khandaq al-Ghamiq neighborhood.” However, when protesters blocked the highway that evening, nothing of the kind occurred.
There have also been widespread claims on various social media platforms that the value of the Lebanese pound has dropped dramatically against the dollar - some reporting exchange rates of LL2,000.
Given that banks decide the official rate and that they have been closed since Oct. 18, no such devaluation has taken place.
Meanwhile, on Twitter, an image recently posted by Lebanese journalist Dima Sadek was shared by many other users, claiming that the man she was with was an organizer of the 2011 uprisings in Syria. The insinuation was clear - that a link existed between recent events in Lebanon and those experienced by its neighbor eight years ago.
Thursday, however, LBCI news anchor Nicole Hajal posted a tweet explaining that the other man in the photograph was, in fact, her husband - a Lebanese citizen, with no connection to the Syrian protests.
“Stop spreading rumors for the sake of the well-being of Lebanon,” she wrote.
So, how do we protect ourselves against fake news?
Jad Melki, chairperson of the Department of Communication Arts at the Lebanese American University, told The Daily Star that “citizens should be more cautious and media literate ... upon receiving a message. One should ask who the source is and if it is credible.”
Melki also pointed out that, in addition to the straightforward spread of misinformation, fake news can have other motivations. Sometimes, he said, it is driven by greed, with clicks and interactions with content generating income for the original posters. Other posts can lead to malicious sites that “contain viruses or steal private information from [mobile] devices.”
Still, it is important to remember that large numbers of political activists and ordinary people have been using social media platforms to spread useful information about the protests. It has helped people find their friends in packed crowds, share their experiences with the world and stay safe. One post during the early days of the demonstrations even advised demonstrators on how to protect themselves against the effects of tear gas.
As Melki said, “Social media ... is democratic but chaotic.”