Disinformation

WhatsApp as a tool for fear and intimidation in Lebanon’s protests

Among a polarized public that distrusts politicians and the fourth estate, unverifiable WhatsApp rumors carry the day

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  •  Beirut

“Tell as many people as you can. The Khandaq people are gathering and it looks like they’re going to attack.”

This WhatsApp voice message spread rapidly among Lebanese protesters on the evening of Wednesday, October 30, the 14th consecutive day of anti-government protests that have brought hundreds of thousands out on the nation’s streets and squares. 

Its warning played on very real fears. Just a day earlier, a group of supporters of Lebanon’s powerful Shiite group Hezbollah and its ally, the Amal Movement, launched a brutal attack on protesters camping out on one of Beirut’s key bridges.

The men indiscriminately attacked whoever stood in their way. Journalists and photographers were also targeted by the mob, which reportedly moved in from the majority Shia neighborhood of al-Khandaq al-Ghamiq. Outnumbered, police officers struggled to contain the attackers.

A second voice message on the same evening warned of the imminent arrival of a convoy of motorcyclists coming to wreak havoc. The attack never came. 

Lebanon’s unprecedented mass demonstrations first erupted on the evening of October 17, following the government’s announcement of a string of new taxes to be included in the 2020 state budget – most notably a $0.20 daily fee on online voice calls on top of mobile tariffs that are already prohibitively expensive. 

The imposition of what quickly became known as the “WhatsApp tax” was the final straw for a nation suffering from an estimated 25% unemployment rate, a looming financial crisis and a sectarian political system that fails to provide citizens with the most basic services. 

Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets from Beirut, to the northern city of Tripoli, Tyre in the south and the Bekaa Valley to the east.

Ironically, tensions ignited by a proposed tax on WhatsApp are now being further exacerbated through the app itself. In the weeks since the protests began, fabricated WhatsApp messages have spread like wildfire. Protesters have shared voice notes claiming that the internet would be shut down, that the Army was set to declare a state of emergency and numerous warnings that demonstrations were about to descend into violence.

“There has always been disinformation circulated via [social media] channels,” says Azza*, a Lebanon-based media researcher. “But the speed and volume now is different; this is to be expected in times of crisis and uncertainty…The whole idea is to bank on people’s fear.” 

Media literacy and disinformation

In only three weeks, Lebanon’s protest movement has taken many forms. Its strategies have included road blockades, rousing public DJ sets, open-mic discussion groups and general strikes. On the internet, compilations of memes can be found here and here. One thing that has remained consistent, however, is the scale of disinformation surrounding it. 

“We are reaching a new norm in terms of fake news,” says Mohammad Najem, the executive director of SMEX, a Lebanese digital rights and media development NGO. 

Lebanon is not the only “October Revolution” that has been marred by disinformation. The International Fact-Checking Network reported that disinformation played a “fundamental role” in recent mass protests in Ecuador, Chile and Spain, and that the main diffusers of false information – WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook – were doing little to mitigate the problem. 

In all these countries, independent fact-checkers have taken on the burden of tackling disinformation. 

Lebanese NGOs, activists and media outlets have issued warnings in response to the spread of fake news. One that recently circulated on Twitter and WhatsApp groups read: “don’t believe everything you read on social media.” It went on to claim that 80% of media shared online was fabricated. While the figure is itself impossible to verify, the fact that it is believable paints a damning picture of both public conversation and the media landscape in Lebanon. 

“Media literacy rates in Lebanon are very low,” explains Layal Bahnam, the program manager at the Maharat Foundation, a freedom of expression NGO. This, combined with a lack of trust in the mainstream media outlets that are controlled by the same sectarian elites that rule the country, means “WhatsApp is the main source of information for many people.”

Hadi El Khoury, an independent cybersecurity advisor who has been monitoring media activity during the protests, invited his followers to share any suspect messages for verification. 

“There’s a certain lack of awareness when it comes to [fake news],” he says. Explaining its rapid dissemination, Khoury explains that many social media users pass on messages, even when they doubt their authenticity. It appears, he says, that “people receive information and in doubt, they share it, rather than in doubt, not sharing it.”

But what of the people responsible for these posts? What purpose does the spread of such disinformation really serve? 

Over the past three weeks Lebanese people from all sects, classes and backgrounds have united in anger against an extravagantly corrupt ruling class that has pillaged the nation’s wealth, while ordinary people have struggled to find work and provide for their families. 

The most recent prime minister, Saad Hariri, is the son of Rafik Hariri, a construction tycoon and former prime minister of Lebanon, who was assassinated in 2005. Hariri followed in his father’s footsteps and has held the premiership twice, from 2009 to 2011 and again from 2016 until last week, when he bowed to public pressure and resigned, bringing down the government in the process. 

Just weeks before protests began, it emerged that the prime minister had in 2013 gifted $16 million to a South African model. For many Lebanese, the revelation served as a galling reminder of the disconnect between ordinary citizens and the ruling elite.

The protest movement threatens those who have held the reins of power for the three decades since the end of Lebanon’s civil war in 1990. 

Media experts and journalists agree that the vast majority of disinformation is being spread deliberately, with two main goals: to discredit the movement and intimidate people from taking to the streets. “People are creating this content with a specific goal in mind, that is to harm [the protests],” Najem says. 

By way of illustration, another message was passed around on October 30, warning that partisans from Hezbollah and the Amal Movement had threatened to “shut down” the entire country if the Lebanese Army did not ensure roadblocks were removed. Given that no such thing happened, the intention appeared to be to amplify fear of conflict and instability and, possibly, to force the government to clamp down on the protests. 

“You have many people who are harmed by [these protests]: either those who feel they are losing power, or partisans who feel their leader is being insulted,” Khoury says. “They are trying to instigate fear, to manipulate and to discredit the popular movement.”

Disinformation has taken on many different forms during the protests, from doctored photos to the manipulation of Twitter hashtags and even propagandist articles in mainstream media outlets. While all channels for disinformation pose a threat to the protest movement, for Azza, the biggest danger has undoubtedly come from WhatsApp voice notes.

However, WhatsApp’s system of end-to-end encryption, combined with the sheer speed at which the content spreads, renders verifying the origins of messages almost impossible.

Other attempts to smear the protest movement have been less subtle. In a speech given on October 25, the ninth day of demonstrations, Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah dismissed protests as nothing more than a foreign conspiracy. 

“The data and information that we have obtained confirm that Lebanon has entered a stage of regional political targeting, and it is no longer just a popular movement,” he said. 

While the vast gatherings seen over recent weeks have wound down, and banks, schools and universities have reopened after a fortnight-long shutdown, the movement does not look set to dissipate any time soon. Last Sunday saw hundreds of thousands take to the streets and close roads across the country once again. 

“This revolution has broken every pillar of fear,” says Azza. “People will continue going to the streets.”

*Azza asked for her surname not to be revealed to protect her identity. 

Emily Lewis

Emily Lewis is a Beirut-based journalist currently working on the national desk at The Daily Star Lebanon.

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