Hashtag Activism, from the Digital World to the Streets of Libya (Part II)

Around this time last year, I wrote an article entitled “The Revolution Will Be Hashtagged“, which focused on the way Libyans were utilizing social media to try and create change. The article is no longer online, but just to give a rough summary of it, I pinpointed several hashtags used on Twitter and events set up through Facebook to mobilize people on a number of pressing issues for Libya at that time.

A year later, the use of social media by Libyans has continued to expand. Despite the crippling circumstances that has brought civilian life to a halt in many parts of Libya (such as the 14+ hours of power outages witnessed on a daily basis in most cities nation-wide), there has been a noticeable influx of Libyan users on social media sites. There is a “migration”, as many have put it, from the familiarity of Facebook to other platforms, such as Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. While these platforms offer a variety of ways for Libyans to express themselves, it has also given them a chance to voice their concerns and criticisms on their failing state.

“Hashtivism” has been a growing trend worldwide, with Libya being one of the latest to use the internet as a platform for social change. These types of movements are not without their detractors though. Many have accused online campaigns of being the lazy man’s activism, or “slacktivism”, allowing everyone to feel a sense of fulfillment by liking or retweeting something without actually making any impact.

And this criticism has been voiced by Libyans too, who are skeptical about what internet initiatives can actually do for the country. Many efforts on the ground have failed to make an impact, as evidenced by Libya’s slide into civil war. Indeed, many have called for the complete shut down social media sites in the country because of their propensity for spreading rumors and calls for violence.

But one actually needs to be here to see the extent that the digital world has spilled onto Libya’s streets. An ideal illustration of this is the online hashtag campaign  (Reduce the rent, have a blessed Ramadan), which called on landlords to reduce the cost of rent, particularly for displaced families. This campaign saw a fair bit of success, as people began reporting on landlords lowering the cost of rent, in some cases making rent free for a month or two.

Sign on a bulletin board in the Benghazi Medical Center, circulating the hashtag that began online calling on landlords to lower the cost of rent

Sign on a bulletin board in the Benghazi Medical Center, circulating the hashtag that began online calling on landlords to lower the cost of rent

Another laudable campaign began as an initiative by a Tripoli resident to promote peace. Salah Sokni, a popular online satirist, visited four cities in Western Libya with a sign that simply said,  (Libya towards peace). He posted the pictures of his visits on Facebook, and this sparked a nationwide campaign, complete with Facebook page, as Libyans posted pictures of themselves with the same slogan, calling for an end to the conflict. Sometimes it takes one person to voice a sentiment that is there under the surface, for everyone to express it. This slogan was later adopted by H2O, a Tripoli-based youth CSO, as part of a project to promote peace through soccer matches, entitled  (In the field for peace).

(Source: Salah Sokni's FB page)

(Source: Salah Sokni’s FB page)

But hashtag activism isn’t just growing to promote specific concepts. It’s also being used increasingly to pressure policy makers and those in positions of power. After the announcement by UNSMIL of the final draft of the peace agreement between the warring factions, Libyans from both sides of the conflict called on their representatives to sign the agreement using the hashtag  (Yes to signing the agreement), and expressing their frustration with the ongoing war and instability. The Constitution Drafting Assembly has also been looking for feedback from citizens through the hashtag   (Libya’s Constitution)

The error message that appears on sites blocked by LTT

The error message that appears on sites blocked by LTT

As internet use in Libya continues to grow, government institutions have begun to take notice too. Following in the steps of the dictator before them, online sites have been blocked or have become difficult to access. This began shortly after the end of the revolution when users were reporting that +18 sites were blocked by the main internet provider in the country, Libya Telecom and Technology (LTT). This company took it further when online news site Alwasat was blocked in Western Libya, itself leading to an online campaign decrying this censorship. It’s been reported several times that accessing Facebook had become incredibly difficult, leading to speculation of whether LTT had manufactured this block. Today, to access Google in Libya through LTT, Google Libya (with safe search turned on), is the default mode, and cannot be changed even manually. While these restrictions are relatively small, they signal a worrying trend in online freedom, especially with the growth of internet activism.

Hashtags continue to rise in popularity among Libyans, who use them not just for activism, but to share laughs, to commemorate and commiserate, and learn what their fellow countrymen are thinking. It can be a rallying cry, such as the phrase (Libya, even if the struggle is long), coined by murdered activist Abdulsalam Almismari and the final tweet by Tawfik Bensaud. As the war continues and Libya’s public places remain inaccessible for protests, online platforms have been transformed to become the new public squares.

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.