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.

Culturally Bankrupt

As a representative of the Libyan people, I’d like to file for cultural bankruptcy. I guess it’s kind of like regular bankruptcy, except we don’t have any debts to pay. Unless you count what we owe our children in the form of a legacy. But they might be more worried about the imminent financial bankruptcy they’ll inherent if Libya’s oil continues to be sold on the black market.

A Libyan might scoff at such a claim. “Look at Libya’s rich history!”, I imagine them saying, in an unfounded tone of self-righteousness. “Gaze our ancient ruins from the time of the Greeks and Romans, gander at our Italian architecture from the days of the occupation, observe the books and paintings left behind by great Libyan minds!”

Except, how long have we been using the same, tired line when trying to showcase Libya’s culture? Besides a handful of dead authors and artists, and a cluster of dilapidated buildings, what else do we have to show for our history?

Look left and right on a map of North Africa. Tunisia is famous for it’s sprawling, seaside towns. Morocco is well-known for it’s rich art, and Egypt is, well, the mother of civilization. But Libya? How many times, oh smug Libyan, have you encountered a person who had never heard of your country before?

To be fair, we’re pretty well-known now. Just type up Benghazi in any search engine and it will be embarrassingly obvious what the world identifies Libya with today.

There’s an annual event called “World Architectural Day”, each year with it’s own theme. This year’s theme is, you guessed it, cultural architecture.

A few architects in Benghazi got together twice, to figure out how we’ll celebrate. If you’re an Arab, I need not transcribe the blood-curdling chaos that is us trying to unify around one idea. If you’re not an Arab, count your blessings. One of the recurring ideas was holding a festival at a historic site in the city.

Gah. No, please. Not more tradition-glorifying. Since we’re already devolving into a more backwards society, I don’t think we need anymore “returning to the past”. It’s the go-to concept for the lazy thinker when asked to come up with an innovative solution to any social crisis these days. “Let’s work on preserving our culture!” Let’s not.

I proposed the idea of implementing what we want Libyan culture to look like in the future, and perhaps by personifying it, it will seem more attainable. I was, of course, drowned out by the raucous din of several voices trying to talk over each other.

My mother habitually surfs through the multitude of inane Libyan channels, with the hope of finding a report on current events, rather than the typical armchair analysts droning for hours about an event that happened months ago, or a blast of shrill, auto-tuned, generic music. One time she stumbled upon the taping of an “event”, a word I use in the loosest sense. It comprised of a crowd sitting on bleachers watching an infamous Libyan “actor”(again, in the loosest sense) parading around on the stage in a teen-style costume and singing, in the distinct gruff voice Arabs use when trying to convey humor, about drugs and guns. It might have been a social commentary on the ills of these criminals, and how they corrupt our society. Except there were children present. Singing and dancing, with this apish imbecile.

Whatever message was being conveyed here (and if, in fact, there actually was a message and this wasn’t some kind of brain-melting exercise in debauchery), I highly doubt the children picked up on it. This “actor” is well-known in Libya and, much to the chagrin of the intellectuals, pretty well-loved. Most other actors here are not far behind on the no-talent scale.

After the revolution, a burst of talent erupted from the most disenfranchised demographic, the youth. Writers, artists, aspiring politicians, etc. etc. But they were plagued by two curses; de-motivation and hubris. There was no one to encourage their life-choices (“you’re going to throw away 4 years of engineering school to paint?”) and they expected accolades for their every achievement, since there was virtually none prior to the revolution (“I spent a week making that hip-hop album in my garage, how dare the radio stations refuse to play it!”).

So, let’s summarize the painful reality. Architecture: Falling apart, if not already in ruins. Artists: Dead or dying. Actors: Dismal. Authors: If Facebook users who write out essay-length posts qualify, several. Musicianshahahahahaha

All we have left to clutch onto is our faded history. I think this is a pretty strong case for declaring cultural bankruptcy. In the future, if globalization doesn’t engulf us, there is still perhaps hope of recovery. The talent we saw after the revolution was completely unexpected, which means that it’s still there under the surface, waiting to be noticed. Strong institutes and even stronger minds are needed. But there also needs to be demand. Once the novelty of talking about politics wears off, Libyans might start seeking other topics to converse about. Whether the lack of culture prompts them to act or not is still uncertain.