The Power and Pitfalls of Libya’s Social Media

If you’ve been following events in the MENA, you’ve probably stumbled across headlines of this type before; “Tyrant Toppled by Twitter”, or, “Social Media Creates a Revolution in the Middle East”. These are in reference to the events of the Arab Spring and subsequent overthrow of the regimes. Of course, a more nuanced analysis of the events of 2011 reveals that, while social media did play some part in promoting the uprisings, there was a whole host of factors and causes. In Libya especially, the role that social media played was considerably less than in its neighbouring countries, as internet access was still limited and the extent of social media was still being discover.

But while the role of the internet during that watershed year is debatable, the effect that it’s had in the subsequent transitional years is readily apparent. I’ve written before on the online trends and campaigns which have made a significant impact on the ground, and with shrinking civic spaces and civil liberties in Libya, there’s a growing utilization of the online digital world to advocate for causes and raise attention on important social issues.

The growing power of this medium was tested earlier this year, when a truckload of books were seized at a checkpoint near Al-Marj by police forces. A video posted on the police station showed an officer, and later a sheikh, condemning the books as promoting a variety of ideologies, from atheism to the Shia practice of Islam to satanism. The books themselves were ordinary novels ranging from Dan Brown thrillers to Paulo Coelho stories to Russian literature, but the security forces – perhaps unfamiliar with these works or confused by the symbolism on the covers – felt that they threatened the “moral religious fabric of society”.

The backlash was swift; a hashtag was launched hours after the incident #الكتب_تقرأ_لا_تصادر. Several organizations and groups, including the Ministry of Culture, decried the act, and the Al-Marj police station made a televised statement the next night changing their initial charge. Instead, they claimed the books were confiscated due to “illegal shipping” issues. The books are still widely available for purchase today, being openly sold in bookstores.

This incident is unique for several reasons. It was previously unheard of for officials and security forces to feel pressured enough to clarify their behaviour, and for this to happen purely through online pressure is a new paradigm for Libya. This paradigm was put to the test again a few weeks later, when the military governor of East Libya, declared that women would not be permitted to travel internationally through Labrag airport except with a male “companion”.

Again, the reaction was swift. Rather than a hashtag, the anger expressed online was less organized and greater in size. People lamented the steps backwards that Libya was taking, arguing that a war started against religious extremism was pointless if the same forms of oppression were being implemented by the other side. While the military governor appeared that same night to clarify the decree, saying it was for security reasons rather than religious, it only succeeded in angering the online protest further. Two days later, the decree  was stopped, revised, and completely rewritten. Instead of using religious terminology and singling out women, the new decree stated that all citizens – male and female – between 18 – 45 years old would require a security clearance to fly out of the country.

Now, the decision to restrict civil liberties is itself lamentable, but that social media was able to raise the voices of average citizens in a way that rewrote the decree is a small achievement that should be celebrated – and utilized. This year has seen more and more Libyan officials feeling the online pressure and clarifying their positions, sometimes as soon as 24 hours after the digital picket signs go up. In a country where those in power behaved with absolute impunity, this fundamental change in institutional behaviour is remarkable. To know that they are answerable for their decisions, and not having the means to intimidate online protesters (for now), has finally given Libyan decision-makers a sense of accountability.

Of course, that’s not to over-exaggerate this new-found power. Constant complaints aimed at decision-makers over issues like the collapsing state of the economy in Libya has produced little to no effect, although this is less of a sudden decision than a slowly increasing phenomenon, one that has crept up unsuspectingly on citizens. Perhaps the reaction from the ground would have been more intense had these changes happened abruptly. But as with the frog-in-boiling-water metaphor highlights, it was too late by the time the effects were felt.

It’s also important to note that while social media’s power is increasing for the good in Libya, it’s not without pitfalls. Where people can be mobilized over a cause, they can also turn into a mob. Many have used the power of social media to engage in targeted attacks of people, organizations and events that they don’t like or agree with, a form of online bullying with far reaching consequences in a country without laws or security. A hashtag is free, anyone with a connection create make one, and tapping into petty grievances can produce a very ugly reaction. There is now an increasing market in Libya for cyber security training, and knowing how to protect yourself and your information online, especially in the absence of digital rights legislation protecting citizens.

In a country where people are targeted for the opinions they express, it’s also interesting to see these online platforms now used as a form of protection – and not just by private citizens. One official told me, “I feel safe criticizing [high-level officials] through my Facebook, because I’m doing so transparently through a personal platform. It becomes harder for them to touch you without compromising themselves.”

As Libyans continue to tailor online platforms for their own use (one noteworthy trend I’ve noticed is the use of Facebook pages and groups for online marketing business), the parameters of this newfound dynamic between citizen and statesman will continue to be tested and explored. One can only hope that extreme measures will not be taken to quell these digital voices – although as past experience has shown, it’s almost impossible to control the internet.