Lebanon's politicians get hip to online campaigning ahead of June elections

Online formats like YouTube and the social networking site Facebook are competing with the online viewership of Lebanon’s newspapers, and with Lebanon’s elections due to take place on June 7, Lebanon’s politicians are turning to these formats to push their political messages in the election run-up.
What will be the impact of new online social networking sites in this years June parliamentary elections in Lebanon?

BEIRUT, May 22, 2009 (MENASSAT) – Online formats like Facebook and YouTube have become the latest political playing field for Lebanon’s political candidates in the run-up to hotly contested June 7 parliamentary elections.

The elections are being called the most important since the end of Lebanon's bloody 1975-1990 civil war, and campaigning has been fierce.

Lebanese politicians have keyed in on all forms of media to get their campaign messages out, but Facebook and YouTube are attracting increasingly larger online user numbers than Lebanon’s newspapers and TV websites, which have been the more traditional means by which Lebanon's politicians get the word out.

Both sites regularly count some 100,000 Lebanese users per site, and the public impact Facebook and YouTube have had in recent foreign elections campaigns abroad has not escaped the attention of Lebanon's politicians who are assaulting the internet with political messages despite the fact that four-decades of Lebanese civil strife has managed to create a large percentage of disaffected voters.

Elections rat race

Still, the Lebanese cannot escape election fever.

In fact, political news is often published on Lebanese news sites and then within minutes is re-posted on Facebook or the micro-blogging site Twitter – facts Lebanon’s politicians are acutely aware of these days.

Facebook/Twitter re-posts often illicit flurries of comments and discussion threads – spread mostly through networks of friends reading and re-posting articles

MP of the Christian opposition Free Patriotic Movement, Ibrahim Kanaan, candidate in the Metn district of Lebanon, says that newspaper readers are a shrinking demographic.

“So, I decided to join the Facebook and create a group. I also dedicated a specific time everyday to communicate with the people on Facebook. I really feel the Facebook is an effective media means that is no less important than the traditional media,” Kanaan told MENASSAT.

Future Movement MP candidate in the Druze-controlled Chouf region, Mohammad Al-Hajjar agrees with Kanaan, citing Facebook’s interactive qualities as being a big influence on the content of his speeches. “Members let me know what’s most important to them – what concerns them most,” he said.  

“Traditional media has its audience base that they will keep. But new media like Facebook is enjoying bigger audience shares than traditional news sources. This electronic audience is the future.”

Some specialists like archiving professor at Beirut’s Lebanese University, Antoine Al-Khoury, say that Facebook’s real value is as a peer advertising method through which the electoral candidates can use their supporters to create a buzz about their campaigns.

Al-Khoury cites MP Nabil Nicolas as an example of someone whose group counts some 19,000 members. Al-Khoury monitors Nicolas’ Facebook discussion board and says that the interactivity between the MP and his supporters is a barometer for the MPs political momentum in the run-up to the elections.

Researcher in media social sciences Nabil Ghostine said that Facebook’s power is also seen in the fact news items generated from politicians’ support groups have the potential of reaching millions of people outside the groups membership base - in much shorter time frames.

Ghostine says that people forget that peer-to-peer information sharing can transform discussion items to news items.

Advertising and counter-advertising

According to Ghostine, the online promotional aspects inherent with Facebook have also helped encourage a multi-media battle between Lebanese political candidates and their supporters.

The Lebanese Facebook groups often feature altered political ads with rival political groups making fun of their opponents. In fact, new political ads are often altered within hours of appearing online, in effect neutering messages into sarcastic or negative connotations.

This is what happened with the Christian Lebanese Forces party, a member of the pro-western government majority, which launched an ad stating: “You have a force and the country has Forces.”

Supporters of the Christian opposition changed the ad to: “You have a force and the country has an Army” and “You have a force and the country has forces destroying it.”

Lebanese Forces were compelled to clarify in both the local press and in their electronic political platforms like Facebook, that they didn’t mean to imply that they were “trying to replace the Lebanese Army.”

Christian opposition leader former Lebanese general Michel Aoun has also been forced to defend the campaign tactics of his Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) party through the counter-campaign actions of his rivals.

One ad campaign in particular launched on Facebook and stuck on billboards throughout the country features a woman next to the slogan “Sois belle et vote” (Be beautiful and vote). FPM rivals have accused them of degrading the role of women in Lebanese society as a result.

Similar ads have sprung up as a result with another woman positioned next to the phrase “Sois egale et vote” (Be equal and vote).

Another FPM ad has also prompted Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the General Secretary of the leading opposition political party Hezbollah, to break his usual silence on political campaigns.

Nasrallah distanced himself from the FPM ad in question because of the ads slogan: “We forget no matter what.”

It’s aim, according to the FPM, was meant as a warning for the government to avoid provoking the opposition as they did in May of 2008, in which a decision was taken by the ruling pro-western March 14 coalition to sack an opposition security official and outlaw Hezbollah’s private telecommunications network led to a near civil war.

The decision on May 5 led to fierce fighting for control of Beirut between pro-western government and anti-government militias, which left more than 80 dead. Fighting was stopped after a peace agreement in Doha, Qatar later that same month, which led to the appointment of Lebanon’s president Michel Suleiman and paved the way for the June 7 election.

Hacking the audio and the video

As for YouTube, it has been a powerful force this year in influencing public opinion in this year’s election campaign.

One FPM supporter, Dany Moussa told MENASSAT that he and his peers are engaged in monitoring the efforts of their political rivals on YouTube and on other media outlets.

According to Moussa, the group divides responsibilities with some monitoring and recording television and internet ad campaigns and news items, handing them off to others who post the videos and news items on YouTube.

On line searches for politicians like Druze leader and head of the pro-western Progressive Socialist Party MP Walid Jumblatt, for example yield long lists of videos on YouTube. Videos can often have as many as 30,000 viewers.

Moussa says that huge percentages of viewers comment on the videos after watching them, opened the door for what have been exhausting debates both on YouTube and on other online sites like Facebook.

Even cursory searches online reveal what has effectively become a YouTube war, with rival parties posting and counter posting videos to explain there candidates political positions.  

Jumblatt’s video called “We might be forced to burn everything” attracted more than 11,000 viewers, and generated hundreds of comments – with critics of the PSP leader accusing him of leading his people like a flock of sheep. Jumblatt supporters variously praised him for balancing the delicate political currents within the Druze electorate.

It is worth noting here that a recent speech by Jumblatt describing the Maronite Christian sect as a “bad race,” caused divisions within his own political coalition. The video was uploaded on YouTube before TV networks aligned with Jumblatt actually went to air with the same news.

Politicians battle for YouTube legitimacy

As for Michel Aoun, his footprint on YouTube has also been used to bolster and weaken his partty’s political campaign.

Rivals have posted videos of Aoun saying explicitly that the Syrian regime was guilty of the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, while also calling Syria Lebanon’s most significant political ally in other videos.

Head of the Lebanese Forces, convicted murderer Samir Geagea, has more than 2000 videos on YouTube. One video clip entitled “Who is the Syrian agent” was viewed over 24,000 times and counts about 5000 comments posted – many in support of the leader’s anti-Syrian political positions.

But political rivals have also posted videos of Geagea speaking openly about the crimes he committed during the civil war, which led to his previous murder conviction.

Pro-western MP Saed al-Hariri and President of the Parliament, opposition leader Nabih Berry are also featured on YouTube along with General Secretary of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah – videos that would otherwise go unnoticed if not for the fever-pitch of this year’s elections.

Elie Jobeili, an active YouTube user with the Christian opposition FPM party said “We are the journalists of today, we transmit the news in our own way that helps our purpose. The most read news sites aren’t read by more than 30,000 readers daily.

On YouTube, the numbers are double that if you add them up, and you have more effect on the general opinion because it is a voice and a picture, so it speaks for itself.”

Whether Facebook and YouTube are now considered mainstream media is debatable.

What is clear is that these two web platforms have given Lebanon’s parliamentary elections a space the traditional media hasn’t provided by allowing the public to express their ideas and thoughts more directly.

Some say that this may help diffuse the obvious political tensions existing between fierce party rivals in the run up to the election.