(Dec. 2018 -Jan. 2019)
Analysis by Khadeja Ramali
This publication is produced by Democracy Reporting International, based on social media data analysis by Khadeja Ramali.
The publication is part of DRI’s project “Strengthening Libyan Civil Society Engagement on the Constitution and the Political Transition”, funded by the German Federal Foreign Office.
Gender and Social Media in Libya
An important feature of the social media landscape appears to be the low visibility of women participation in online public political debates.
In the period covered by this report, most comments and reactions on Facebook posts have been made by male users. Women often refrained from engaging with public posts, assumingly to protect their reputation and avoid abusive responses by male users.
While there is no reliable data on the topic, anecdotal evidence suggests that since 2014, Libyan female bloggers and social media users have resorted to self-censorship on public online forums and preferred either private or female-only online spaces instead to control their audience and sometimes their narrative.
Female only groups like “Bride of Fezzan 2019_2020” with 40.000 members and “The daily life of a Libyan man’s wife” that has 85.000 members focus on social life and life style.
There are also private female-only Facebook groups created by CSOs such as the Silphium Project with 7.500 members to provide a safe space for women to freely debate politics and other contentious topics.
Furthermore, Twitter was found to provide a safer public platform for Libyan women to express their opinions and engage in discussions on a plethora of topics including women’s rights and politics.
Since Twitter is not widely used in Libya, female tweeps1 are able to avoid the monitoring of their family members, which is usually one of the reasons why women avoid Facebook.
Posting in English adds an additional layer of protection as it allegedly shields them from potential harassment and bullying. For these women, any public or semi-public expression of opinion is seen as a possible risk.
A case in point is the recent incident of Café Casa in Benghazi. A group of female tweeps (users of twitter) organized a TweetUp2 for young tweeps who have been interacting for some time on Twitter without meeting in real life.
The TweetUp was supposed to take place in a café called Casa in Benghazi. The hashtag #تجمع ـ بنات ـ تويتر or The Gathering of Female Tweeps was started to mobilize for the meeting which was to take place on 27 December 2018.
The meeting was raided by forces of the Ministry of Interior (MOI), café staff. On the evening of the 27th, the MOI Facebook page published a damaging post (now deleted and MOI Facebook page was later taken down by MOI in January) accusing the TweetUp participants of being immoral and describing the event as lewd and the café a brothel.
Although deleted, the statement was picked up by big news outlets such as 218TV, which led to a wave of hate speech against the young women.
Pro-Libyan National Army (LNA) pages shared the statement, calling it a victory for Benghazi security arrangements. Some pro-LNA pages went as far as posting fake case documents as evidence that the case is still being considered by the court.
For Islamist-leaning pages, the MOI statement was a victory against liberal values.
On 29 December, a snap chat video was leaked by a fan page called the Original Benghazi Breaking بنغازي عاجل الأصلية , supporting Benghazi security forces and inciting violence against the women and their families.
The video went viral, amassing more than 65.000 views by the end of December. The video was later removed by Facebook for violating the Facebook community policies, but the damage had already been done.
Activists, mainly women, took to Twitter to defend themselves and the young tweeps. Approximately 1.500 unique tweets were posted and the top tweets on the hashtag were by women.
Most tweets expressed disbelief and some shared Libyan laws, which prohibit such raids. Women voiced their view on the story and began talking about sexualized and gender-based violence and oppression that are plaguing the Libyan society.
On the 29 December, the hashtag caught the attention of UNSMIL, prompting it to release a statement in support of the young women and to pressure Benghazi’s MOI to release the Café staff. This incident follows the same pattern of security crackdowns and policing faced by other social media events like “Benghazi Earth Hour” in 2017 and the backlash against a book released in western Libya (2017) that saw social media users launch a viral campaign against women involved with the event.
Social Media Insightson Security and Legitimacy
During the month of December, the number of comments on security and political posts were low compared to those on entertainment posts.
The only exception was when posts were on significant events such as the terrorist attack on Libya’s Foreign Ministry.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the low number of comments/shares is partly due to general apathy towards the political process and/or fear of reprisal if the users comment under their real name.
The below chart shows the monthly average engagement with security content during December 2018.
Over the last two weeks of December, stories about a surge in crime rates in Benghazi were widely circulated on social media, leading to mounting public pressure for the eastern government and the LNA.
Social media commentators emphasized the insecurity in the eastern region contrary to the claims of the pro-LNA camp. Some of the stories were denied by the Ministry of Interior staff in Benghazi, albeit a bit too late.
For instance, one post about a doctor who was robbed inside the 1200 hospital went viral and received 2.000 Likes, 193 shares and 758 comments. Only then, MOI denied the incident.
Despite MOI’s efforts to curb this – sometimes false – reporting, media outlets continued to extensively post about the increased rates of crime. The ferocious social media campaign against MOI contributed to the resignation of the head of Benghazi security, Salah Huwaidy.
The below chart shows that the coverage of and engagement with this piece of news was significantly smaller compared to that of the news about the terror attack on Tripoli MFA that occurred during the same period.
The content and reach of the commentary regarding Benghazi’s security helped shape public opinion, which pushed for a change of the security apparatus leadership. This might have been due to the increased scrutiny the Benghazi security forces are under.
Huwaidy was replaced by Adel Orfi, who received significant support from Facebook commentators. Orfi began introducing changes into the security departments, an initiative that social media users appeared to suppor
Disinformation on security issues is not just restricted to the east. In response to fake statements attributed to the Tripoli Protection Force, a new page entitled Tripoli Protection Force – Official Page was created on 15 January during the fighting that occurred in Tripoli during January.
It was shared and endorsed by the Joint Deterrence and Rapid Intervention Force Facebook page. In a few days, the page was liked by 32.000 users.
It began publishing statements and refuting fake ones that were broadly shared on the 5th and 6th of January.
The false statements wrongly attributed to Tripoli Protection Force were shared on Facebook and attracted social media user engagement of 30.500.
The corrections and clarifications refuting the disinformation, on the other hand, only accounted for 10.100 of Facebook engagements.
Khadeja Ramali, 27, is a geophysicist and co-founder of Project Silphium. She is currently collaborating with Libyan women’s Radio Network Project, which aims to expand the capacity of women media professionals in Libya.