BEIRUT: Although the regime-shaking jolts of the Arab Spring may have bypassed Lebanon, its extensive use of networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook means the country constitutes a vital voice in the region’s ever-changing landscape, a landmark social media report has suggested.
The report, which detailed Arab social media use in the first quarter of 2011 – a period of near unprecedented regional upheaval – reiterated the increasing importance of the Internet in spreading information at a time when traditional media avenues are drying out.
“The first three months of 2011 saw what can only be termed a substantial shift in the Arab world’s usage of social media toward online social and civil mobilization online, whether by citizens – to organize demonstrations (both pro- and anti-government), disseminate information within their networks – or by governments, in some cases to engage with citizens and encourage their participation in government processes, while in other cases to block access to websites and monitor and control information on these sites,” the report said.
During the first quarter of 2011, the number of Arab Facebook users increased by 30 percent, while Lebanon’s Facebook community grew by over 11 percent with 113,940 new profiles created.
This meant that as of the end of April, one in four Lebanese was using Facebook in some capacity, the highest usage of any Arab country outside GCC states.
“Most definitely at the times of these events the Lebanese social media community was acting to further amplify what was happening and discussing it openly in pros and cons without fear of censorship,” Darine Sabbagh, a senior social media consultant, told The Daily Star.
“Also in Lebanon there were several movements such as the anti-sectarian movement, which was greatly helped by the use of social media tools to rally for demonstrations and organize them.”
Sabbagh added that several Lebanese political parties had also taken to social media in a bid to bolster their online presence.
Lebanon topped the list of Arab countries using English in social media with more than 90 percent of Facebook users using the site in English, a fact online market researcher Liliane Assaf attributed to the desire to maximize potential audience.
“There are a lot of Lebanese abroad using English and the reason English is used is because it will reach the most people. It’s in nature to accommodate others,” she told The Daily Star.
Lebanon also has the most gender-balanced Facebook usage of any Arab state – 45 percent of profiles are female.
“We all [men and women] have the same access to everything in a way that is different to other Arab countries. This is the same when it comes to using Facebook and other sites,” Assaf said.
The micro-blogging site Twitter has exploded in Arab countries ever since Tunisian street vendor Mohammad Bouazizi self-immolated in protest of harassment by security officials on Dec. 17 last year. In the period to March 30, the report found that the Arab Twitter population had swelled to more than 6.5 million.
During the height of the Egyptian uprising, when hashtags such as #jan25 and #Egypt were keeping the world informed of popular protests in Cairo and other cities, Arab Twitter users sent a quarter-of-a-million tweets a day – that’s roughly three every second.
Lebanon, with upward of 80,000 active Twitter users, ranked 6th among Arab countries, a high posting considering its small population and slow internet connection.
Almost 2 percent of Lebanese tweet – more than Jordan, Egypt, Libya and Saudi Arabia. Its users have sent more than a million tweets alone since the start of the Arab Spring.
“The growth of social media in the region and the shift in usage trends have played a critical role in mobilization, empowerment, shaping opinions, and influencing change,” the report said. “One thing that is certain is that given the region’s young population and increasing penetration rates, social media will continue to play a growing role in political, societal and economic developments in the Arab region,” it continued.
Sabbagh said Lebanon’s enthusiasm for social media would continue to impact on both regional and domestic events.
“The Lebanese are definitely highly organized and the society is very democratic in terms of its freedoms, despite the political unrest. They would be very capable in using social media tools for anything they set their minds on,” she added.