There is a wonderful array of synonymous colloquialisms that describe the sort of behavior that accounts for people who take a back-seat approach to front-line involvement. My personal favorite is “armchair warrior,” a term that in my mind conjures up the image of a Spartan in full combat gear, shouting war cries, though he is comfortably seated in a reclining chair. He is outspoken in support of a war but is nowhere near the line of fire.
Less sexy, but equally vivid and more relevant to the Arab Spring is slacktivism, which Foreign Policy blogger Evgeny Morozov describes as “feel-good online activism that has zero political or social impact.”This includes “liking” a Facebook group or tweeting about an issue but taking it no further than that.
Of course, this activity—or inactivity, rather—is widespread in Lebanon, as it is elsewhere. It must be questioned, Morozov says, whether social media actually encourages people to become active in the traditional sense, or whether, conversely, people feel their personal moral obligations are fulfilled with the click of a mouse.
Anecdotal evidence from participants and organizers of several demonstrations in Lebanon in support of the Syrian uprising suggests that social media has undoubtedly helped activists organize, but whether it has encouraged more physical participation is disputed.
“[Social media] has changed activism,” said Saleh Mashnouk, a leading member of Lebanese in Solidarity with the Dignity and Freedom of the Syrian People. The group organized two events, a conference in Sin al-Fil on May 24 and a gathering at Samir Kassir Gardens on September 8, which were expressions of support for Syrian anti-regime demonstrators and were heavily attended by March 14 figures. “I am reluctant to assert, but I would say it would be perhaps unlikely for a group of young men and women to plan such [events] without Facebook,” he added.
Youssef Bazzi, who helped organize the largest of the solidarity gatherings, which took place in Martyrs Square on August 8 and which drew in some 800 participants, agrees. “Facebook has made ideas easier to implement in a short timeframe and has made communication with the masses possible.”
To illustrate his point, Bazzi notes the events preceding the Martyrs Square rally. “When the Hama massacre occurred [on July 31, 2011], there was an outcry on Facebook denouncing the attack on Syrian protesters. The spontaneous reaction [led to] a sit-in at Samir Kassir Gardens, planned on Facebook and held just several hours after news of the massacre broke. It was an immediate response, without requiring media coverage or previous invitations.”
Interviewees also highlighted the fact that social media has enabled ordinary citizens to be more active in organizing demonstrations, something that was previously largely confined to the elite.
As writer Hazem Saghieh put it, “[Social media] replaces the old role that was meant to be played by political parties.” Or community leaders, unions, religious authorities and other prominent figures, for that matter.
But while social media has widened the platform of event organizers, has it actually encouraged more participation?
Mashnouk, Bazzi and Saghieh believe so. However, novelist and critic Elias Khoury, who participated in the Martyrs Square rally, told NOW Lebanon he does not believe social media made a significant difference in the number of participants at that particular event and that he was disappointed with what he saw as a poor turnout. “I think there is a moral crisis due to the fact that the Lebanese social and political system is totally in the cage of different religious groups. Nothing will help,” he said, “neither social media nor any other [platform].”
But others were more optimistic about the turnout at Martyrs Square, arguing that numbers were substantial, especially considering actions taken by supporters of the Syrian regime to thwart attendance at earlier rallies.
A conference held in May at a warehouse next to the Beirut Art Center was originally supposed to be held at the Bristol Hotel, but staff cancelled due to “security concerns.” Mashnouk told NOW Lebanon at the time that they were concerned that “pro-Syrian regime protesters might gather outside the hotel, break into it, and set it on fire if the conference was held.”
More dramatic were the beatings of demonstrators outside the Syrian Embassy on August 2 by regime supporters. Fists, sticks and belts were used, leaving at least five injured and one requiring surgery. The Martyrs Square rally took place less than a week later.
Regardless, some activists contend that numbers of attendees at all these rallies could have been larger had organizers combined events. But Mashnouk opposed this notion, arguing that the event at Samir Kassir Gardens, with speeches from a Lebanese and a Syrian activist, “complemented” the larger Martyrs Square event.
Bazzi agreed, telling NOW Lebanon that “this variety is healthy.” He went on to say that the warehouse and Samir Kassir Gardens events, the Syrian Embassy demonstration, and the Martyrs Square rally represent different facets of Lebanese public opinion in Beirut, namely the political, civil society and intellectual.