Just like with Libya itself, I have a love/hate relationship with social media and its use in this country. It has absolutely transformed my life by connecting me with amazing people and helping to facilitate my jump into civil society. But it’s also been a source of frustration, seeing propaganda and rumors spread effortlessly and making a tense situation even worse.
A few weeks back I wrote a piece for Libyan Youth Voices entitled “The Revolution Will Be Hashtagged”, detailing the way social media has transformed Libyan life online through hashtag activism, and how this transformation is being felt on the ground.
But it also has a dark side. After the attack on Chris Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya, in September 2012, the hashtag #Benghazi was used by right-wing Americans to “demand answers for what happened that night.” Apparently they think it was a conspiracy theory or something, and they even created a ribbon to show that they will never forget the Benghazi attack. Never mind that they probably couldn’t even point out Benghazi on a map, but the fact that the name of my city, a place with just over a million residents and a history that goes back centuries, has been turned into a verb to mean “a coverup or horrific event”, is really depressing.
If I write something innocuous, like “finally found a store in #Benghazi that sells Reese cups!” I might get a response from some loony saying, “Tell us the truth about #Benghazi!!?” There is so much more life and struggle in this city than an unfortunate terrorist attack that you’re trying to milk for an ill-gained political advantage, you spineless leech.
But the positive side of Libya still continues to dominate. The latest hashtags are
#lyeverydayhero, which highlights the brave men and women working for Libya and repairing the damages done by militias, and #تطوع_وكن_الامل (Volunteer and be the hope), started by the Libyan Red Crescent to get people to volunteer.
Another awesome/awful incident takes place in the quagmire known as Facebook. My organization, The Young Writers of Benghazi, depends mostly on the Facebook page we set up to keep people updated with our activities and announcements. We have a Twitter account, but Facebook is much more popular.
Last month we decided to hold an online short story contest. Since it was Ramadan and everyone was stuck at home without much to do, we figured it would be a great way to stir up some Libyan creativity. We designed a poster to catch people’s eye and posted it in both English and Arabic. And we waited.
And waited. And waited. And no one sent us anything.
The page has over 1,500 likes, so it’s not like we don’t have an audience. Was no one interested in writing a story? Was the lack of a prize a factor in keeping people unmotivated to write anything? We posted and reposted about the contest, but still nothing but a few likes. And then I noticed underneath the posts it would say something like “50 people reached” and “boost your post”.
After some googling, I discovered that Facebook had set up a new policy, where paid posts would get priority on people’s News Feeds. That means, if people don’t regularly check up on our page, they might miss everything we say, unless we were willing for fork over at least 5 bucks for one day of post boosting.
For Libyan organizations and institutes that rely on Facebook (which is, let’s face it, ALL of them), this change is catastrophic. If my university department makes a last minute announcement saying it’ll be closed the next day, there’s a huge chance that I won’t see it unless I manually navigate to their page and check.
Moving to another social media site is an unpractical solution, as many Libyans are still unused to the rest of the internet and would be unwilling to learn how to navigate a new site. Facebook is easy and comfortable, and we’d be talking about the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Libyan internet users. While there is a noticeable increase in users on Twitter, it’s format is much more limiting than Facebook.
We’ve extended the deadline for another month and thankfully some stories have begun to pour in (ok, sprinkle in). But in the meantime, we have to start figuring out new ways to reach out to our audience and to the Libyan people. If we want to tackle the problem at the root, we need to start advocating for online literacy, and how to better utilize the internet. Just like everything else in Libya, we’re still taking baby steps to progress.