By Anna Slemrod
BEIRUT: As Lebanon’s Internet slowly speeds up, its politicians have been taking to a fast growing online space, Twitter, to communicate with their followers – in both the political and Twitter sense.
And in the past few days, this has caused a bit of a stir both in the Lebanese corner of cyperspace as well as in the offline world.Late last week, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri began a six-day-and-counting long stretch of live evening question and answer sessions on Twitter. Tweeting as @HaririSaad, the currently absent March 14 leader began Sunday evening with the chatty, “hi everyone hope you had a great day, i am online lets [sic] get started.”
Topics covered have ranged from his hobbies to the situation in Syria, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon to favorite films. Current Prime Minister Najib Mikati, whose Twitter handle (Twitter-ese for username) is @Najib_Mikati also spent Sunday night online, talking with both users and the U.K.’s Ambassador to Lebanon Tom Fletcher (@HMATomFletcher). For some time now, Mikati has been tweeting about politics, visits to his family and even the weather on a recent trip to New York City.
For those unsure about who is actually pressing the buttons, tweets signed “N.M.” are written by the prime minister, and those without these initials are written by his team. In a statement, Hariri’s office reassured the public that Hariri is the man behind his tweets.
The social networking and micro-blogging site Twitter has been around since 2006. Users can send and read posts of 140 characters or less, and add links and pictures. With more than 200 million users, the site is a potential goldmine for politicians – Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign pioneered the use of Twitter and other online social media to great effect.
Twitter, Facebook and other social networks have also been credited by some with spurring on the popular revolts that have spread throughout the region in the past year. Lebanese blogger and activist Imad Bazzi, who tweets as @TrellaLB, told The Daily Star in an email exchange – prompted by a Twitter exchange – that he thinks Hariri and Mikati have taken inspiration from the regional use of online communication tools.
“Lebanese politicians stepped into social media networks because they have started to realize its effect after the Arab Spring,” he says. “[They] finally realized that stepping into this medium might get them more exposure.”
Bazzi sees the Twitter use as an attempt to garner publicity rather than a true effort at engaging with Twitter users. “Lebanese politicians have failed to open communication channels [in the past] with their supporters.” He thinks Lebanese politicians have switched to Twitter because it enables them to reach beyond “their usual supporters, those who watch their speech[es] so they can clap or cheer after each sentence.”
Mustapha Hamoui, a Lebanese blogger who tweets as @Beirutspring, blogged about Hariri and Mikati’s recent forays into Twitter in a Monday post entitled “Lebanese Prime Ministers Play with Twitter.” Like Bazzi, Hamoui also thinks “it’s more of a publicity stunt than anything else.” Still, he adds that ahead of the coming elections, “both of them got the opportunity to connect directly with the people and listen to opinions different than those of their yes-men.”
According to Lebanese media analyst Sarah Richani, although the recent shower of tweets from the prime ministers, current and former, are certainly good for public relations, “we shouldn’t discount this interaction.”
At least for Twitter users, who in Lebanon she says tend to be young, educated, and urban, the exchanges allow them access to leaders without the filter of the mainstream media, and she adds that “the Internet makes it easier to be more critical than one would be in face-to-face interactions.” But the distance also makes it easier for politicians to dodge tough questions, she notes.
With exposure comes the potential for embarrassment, as Hariri may have learned in the past few days. He tweeted his fondness for the film “Batman and Robin,” misspelling the title and causing some giggles online. But Hamoui says, “A little bit of ridicule is worth it in return for good publicity,” adding that both Hariri and Mikati have seen a jump in their followers.
Bazzi, mentioning that “politicians are normal people, [and] they have hobbies as well,” says those more likely to be mocked are those politicians who aren’t familiar with social media. He points to a Monday statement by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, in which he refers to Hariri’s tweets as “electronic messages.”
So, with Lebanese politicians expanding their online frontiers, where to next? Now under the Twitter magnifying glass, Richani says she wouldn’t be surprised if Hariri’s “PR machine will kick in the next few days to say ‘let’s be a bit more careful.’”
And as Hamoui tweeted Tuesday, he thinks it’s possible that Lebanon has had its “Oprah moment,” referring to the time in 2009 when the American talk show host joined the service, giving it a boost in users and perceived legitimacy.