Why Social Media in Libya is Both Awesome and Awful

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 , which highlights the brave men and women working for Libya and repairing the damages done by militias, and  (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.

Online Contest FlyerAR

The Arabic flyer. Eye-catching, isn’t it? But thanks to Facebook’s new policy, not many people get to see it.

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.

So, yeah, thanks a lot Zuckerberg.   Online Contest Flyer2

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.

And Now, The News

If your driving skills have yet to scare the general public, then at least once in your life you’ve had to a write a ‘bio’ somewhere on the internet. An easy enough task, but also a daunting one. You want people similar to yourself to discover you, but you don’t want to distill the very essence of your being and splash it across the internet.

So you probably do what many others have done, type out a few of your interests and the labels you identify with, and let them speak for themselves. (I actually forgot what I wrote in my bio on this blog, and I’m too afraid to check for fear that I’m just another sheep)

The phrases that people use to describe themselves reveal much more about the person than I think they intended. If you’re a “freelance blogger and self-published author on (insert political stance here)” I’m going to assume you sit at home most of the time with your laptop perched atop your slowly expanding gut, probably eating Cheetos. (No disrespect to Cheetos). If you mention the name of the sports team that you love in your bio, you’re basically telling the world that you have no redeemable interests and are a major bore. And I don’t think I need to describe the type of people who’s existence is defined by what fandom they belong to.

But there is one phrase that I find confusing. “News and Media Junkie”. What does that mean?

The use of a rather questionable noun like “junkie” to denote what is supposedly a high-brow activity is itself not new on the internet. It’s the 21st century, and “taking back” those oppressive terms that intend to shame those who revolt against society’s definition of morality is all the rage. (Okay, I’ll stop now)

So before the internet, did news junkies exist? Were they the people who watched a lot of evening news channels and discussed current events? No, I’m pretty sure we called those people ‘adults’. (hahaha, okay, now I’ll stop)

Okay, how about media junkie? Were they the people who read those trashy celebrity magazines? Come to think of it, what’s the difference between news and media?

In a nutshell, news is the thing. Media is the way to spread the thing. Fun fact: Media is the plural of medium. Which makes the term media-junkie even more perplexing.

Unless of course, and here we reach the crux of my rambling, they refer to social media, and the consumption of whatever their media feed regurgitates. A news/media junkie is someone who reads the news that appears in social media. A person who uses the term “news/media junkie” to describe themselves is that guy/gal that’s always starting flame wars in the comment section of articles, providing hours of entertainment for people like me.

(And who am I? I am the invisible fly on the wall, the spectator that does not bring attention to my presence. I am the comments junkie)

The intended aim of this post was to question the quality of news we’re exposed to online. Okay, so not everyone’s interested in the complex and confusing political issues that plague the Middle East (pfft, losers). Some people enjoy heart-warming stories of cats being rescued from trees and the success of the local charity drive, hurray for humanity and the good of man-kind!

But of course, cats don’t always get stuck in trees, and the charity drive doesn’t always succeed. So in the absence of feel-good stories, we search for the least mind-straining entertainment to while away our empty hours. Back before the internet, different media was targeted for different segments. If you liked celebrity gossip, you’d head for the magazine rack near the cashier. If you liked depressing news headlines, you’d pick up a copy of the Wall Street Journal.

But the internet has more or less killed the press. Why would I pay for a magazine when I can get my news for free online? (ignoring the fact that I’m technically paying for my internet connection) And so news outlets have become jack-of-all-trades, providing serious news stories next to an article about 6 Things You Didn’t Know About Dunkin’ Donuts (they offer flavour swirls for their coffee!), to reel in as many viewers as possible.

The problem as I see it is that the line between news and social media is beginning to blur. The other day I read about a mother who’s fitness program outraged people. It turned out that the whole story was that she got some negative comments and feedback on FACEBOOK.

Facebook drama is not newsworthy. Neither is a Twitter fire-storm. I don’t want to have to churn through article after list-based article to find genuinely interesting news. What’s more worrisome is that I find myself absent-mindedly clicking on these links, because they are worded in a moderately intriguing way. And there’s so many of them. Articles that explain why the internet is making us dumber. Articles detailing why the internet is making us smarter. I feel like my brain is beginning to melt under all the yellow journalism and opinions-disguised-as-facts-disguised-as-articles, all emanating from my laptop screen in that blue-tinged glow. Close the multiple tabs you have open right now and save yourself!

But of course you didn’t. You’re probably browsing Buzzfeed after clicking on the hyperlink in the last paragraph. Which means it’s too late. Just relax, and settle into that information-high. It’s not like there’s anything else you could be doing.