Digital Life, Real Consequences
** the following article was something I had written in February 2019, it’s not up to date, I will probably write a second part to talk about the way online spaces have contributed to the conflict in april 2019 and onwards**
***names changed to protect identities***
In 2019, 8 years after the Libyan uprising the battleground is very different. It entails a mixture of different spaces that are both virtual and physical. The game is much harder to play with so many changing rules of engagement. Carving and creating your own personal world in Libya is seen to be the solution to survive. For the people I have interviewed in this article it has meant plugging into the horizontal circles around you to keep you informed of relevant information while avoiding unnecessary scrutiny and danger.
Networks and communities are seen as a safety blanket for young Libyans to shield them from the dangerous outside environment when possible. Visibility and attention are increasingly becoming a double-edged sword. They can be a cause for opportunity but at the same time could be a great source of risk.
During the 2011 protests Libyans rose up to demand an end to the Gadaffi regime, it was estimated that Libyan Facebook users at the time only accounted for 3.74% of the total population. Within one year that number doubled and has been rising ever since. Social media use in Libya today is estimated between 61%-69% of the total population . The number of active social media users has increased by 18% since 2018 alone.
After the 2011 uprising, the use of social media and specifically the Facebook platform skyrocketed. It was a new era where Libyans could discuss political issues online with strangers and friends. There was an explosion of spaces and activities all over Libya. Online communities focused on Libyan topics flourished and people started to explore sharing their opinions online. Something that was previously banned under Gadaffi times. That period was intoxicating, it was as if Libyans were meeting each other for the first time. Self-expression and blogging were trending and became a popular way for Libyans to express their thoughts and hopes for the future of their country. The honeymoon would soon be over and young Libyans would once again start to fear speaking up year after year.
In the previous regime, most events and activities were conducted in the private sphere and not collectively experienced by the public. In some ways, it’s still the same in the present day. Access to certain spaces depends on your social circle. Relationships are everything when you need to get something done or just receive the basic level of services in Libya. There are different clusters of communities that intersect with different levels of society. These clusters could be anything from people who work at a certain institution to people who work in the civil society sector. In order to navigate the offline Libyan landscape, you need to know someone in as many clusters as possible. I consider “wasta” an element of these relationships but it’s much bigger than just having a wasta. For example, if you don’t know the groups that are holding activities and haven't liked specific facebook pages that advertise these activities you would not know anything was happening.
Being a part of these communities and circles wasn’t an easy task for most young people. Access came attached with having a certain image or talking a certain way. Prices of normal tools needed to operate within these communities are out of reach for the regular Libyan. The price of the latest version of the iPhone costs nearly 4000 dinars (more than a monthly salary) with laptops costing significantly more than that. When I was living in Tripoli I was easily paying 50 dinars on mobile internet alone.
“Slowly things are coming back but people are much more concerned with security and aren’t publicising these events. You only hear of it if you’re part of these circles or are friends with others who are participating” Khadeja Ali, Chevening scholar and Libyan activist talks about the closed tight-knit nature of social events after 2014 that was heavily affected by the security situation.
The difficult economic crisis has meant that most young people are actively monetising their free time in order to keep up with their rising monthly expenses. Free time isn’t a luxury many Libyans can afford any more. Building a network is one way young Libyans can learn about opportunities and meet people from other circles. However, It sometimes involves working on social change projects from expensive cafes with extortionate prices. I recall meeting with a mixed group of young Libyans at a cafe in an affluent area in Tripoli. It had just opened and had a large wooden table at the back that was suitable for the number of people that were attending. In 2015, Tripoli didn't have coworking spaces and one of the few spaces that allowed mixed groups to meet were cafes.
With the new freedom of expression, young Libyans started experimenting with the power of online spaces. Online channels could be used to build a community, support a cause or grow an audience without much cost. Young Libyans craved the freedom to be able to build and exist in grey spaces where traditional Libyan community rules are paused. The undefined zone where there's a bit of freedom and ambiguity with regards to the rules. These spaces exist but every year they’re going underground and are becoming more difficult to find.
I myself started with a laptop and an internet connection when I helped launch a digital community for women. I was frustrated with the way Libya was headed and I didn’t have a safe space to voice my frustrations. It was immediately after the 2014 Tripoli conflict which lasted a few months. The damage inflicted included physical destruction but it also went deeper than that and affected the cities citizens until this day. During that time, meeting in a physical location with other women was not possible. Families were still very cautious and permission to attend anything outside of school, work or family commitments would have been rejected. Different rules applied to online spaces, they were not restricted and had a much wider reach.
Online spaces seemed to be a way to bypass the bureaucracy and established gatekeepers that controlled what entered the public domain and what was given attention. In hindsight, the notion that they were safer was completely false. Online spaces can either democratise physical space or often mirror offline behaviours. They are closely connected and at times even create a reinforcing loop between each other.
Sarah a blogger talked to me about how her peers created a student club after the revolution at Libyan University. This club had an online facebook group and gathered students from all classes, ideologies and beliefs to discuss books.“The club was open to all people, undergraduates and masters students. But in the end that was a major problem. Anyone could listen in and join. “
She describes the series of events that took place that made them feel they were under observation from university authorities. The spaces they would use were not safe any longer. Students started being questioned about the topics they were discussing. The university authorities wanted to know what was being discussed ahead of time. They soon realised the freedom they thought they had after 2011 was not really possible inside the walls of their university.
Sarah discusses her experience with blogging quite passionately “with the complications and risk in the country, I felt that I shouldn’t express everything on my mind and that not everyone will accept my views. I saw other people's experiences with censorship”. Even virtual public spaces like Twitter became a space associated with risk. “I stopped writing on twitter because I found it was so easy for anyone to follow you, at the same time it was easy for me to just express any thought I had without carefully judging if it was appropriate given where I live. In the end, I ended up deleting most of my tweets”. Towards the end of the interview, Sarah does admit that without her blogging she wouldn't have met many people she now considers to be her close friends.
Offline inequalities translated to online spaces and regions that were neglected in the past were also neglected in post-2011 Libya. “Media attention was only focused on Benghazi and Tripoli, a lot of things were going on but nobody was reporting on it internationally. When they did focus on the southern region they got many of their information wrong or they were misinformed” says Khalid, a young Southern Libyan who started covering news on the Fezzan region during the start of the revolution.
“Language is just as important as access” Khalid explains to me in impeccable English. As with everything, you need the skills to amplify your message for it to reach a much larger audience. Language was one of the strategies Khalid took advantage of to bring much needed attention to his under-resourced region. Khalid opened social media accounts focused on raising awareness on what was going on in the Fezzan region.
Despite knowing how to operate online and report on important issues it still wasn’t enough to bring much-needed resources to his city. “I had a huge following of foreign reporters, It was good at first but then I realised my platform had no effect on the ground. Facebook likes didn't mean change, that's why I wanted to turn it into something with impact” Khalid realised that in order to capitalise on his influence online he had to connect it to a physical organisation.
Over the years, his initiative grew into Fezzan Libya Organisation, a media platform and NGO bringing a much-needed microphone to the issues of the people in the region. While attention was a resource for the cause he was working on, it was an added risk to him personally in the current environment in Libya. Khalid keeps a low profile to protect his private life and does not let it interfere with the work he does on the ground.
My own paths crossed with Khalid while I was building a woman focused digital community. I remember we would share notes on what worked and what didn't work. I believed that he made the right choice by being anonymous, and I had done the same for many years. However, when it comes to telling women to tell their own stories, people are more sceptical of who’s behind the curtain. I didn’t have the luxury of being anonymous. I was constantly calculating the risk/opportunity ratio in my head for almost every decision I would make. The relationships I had with other Libyans like Khalid were essential to navigating the increasingly dynamic boundaries of what was considered safe.
One young woman that managed to break the stereotype with regards to the intersection between access, space and community was Takwa Barnousa, a Libyan artist who is trying to bridge the gap between local communities and public spaces through art. “Exhibitions create this kind of dialogue between people, it gathers them in a public space where no one can judge you, everyone can see you, everyone's the same, everyone is a citizen” explains Takwa. She founded an art foundation when she was 17 called “Waraq” that has ran art exhibitions in public locations like the old city and the red castle in Tripoli. “In the past, people look at exhibitions as social events, now they’re changing somehow, in public space exhibitions people are different, there’s more engagement between our community, the art community, locals who live in the area, or people who are just walking by”
Although allowing the Libyan public to experience these locations in a different way was monumental, it came with complications of its own that involved dealing with security permissions from the local authorities. Despite the complexity, Takwa describes how the temporary nature of inhabiting a public space protects them from the risks accompanied with occupying a permanent physical location “we’re only there for a few days sometimes for only one day.”
When the two spaces collide they could trigger disastrous consequences. A recent example was the aftermath of the 2018 Septimus awards, an annual awards show that celebrates Libyan media professionals. The ceremony was hosted in the King's former residence in Tripoli with the blessing of local authorities. Local Libyan media channels live-streamed the “Oscar” style show that even had a red carpet. Women were shown wearing evening dresses, something not usually seen outside of the private sphere.
Social media users watching on their mobile devices started to comment viciously about how this was against the local culture and traditions. A considerable amount of hate speech and online harassment was specifically directed at the women attending the event due to the “liberal dress code” that some of the attendees exhibited.
The hate campaign continued to intensify online until it caught the attention of a local armed group that was also tuning into the same online conversations as everyone else. They ended up arresting the organisers of the event and gaining local legitimacy for their actions. This wasn’t the first time online outrage resulted in damaging results in the offline world and it probably won’t be the last.
Similar social media motivated incidents have happened since then. It starts off with something small, someone shares a photo or video for example and then it snowballs into chaos. A few of the large Facebook pages have gotten this down to an art. They grew their pages using humour, memes and controversial issues. They are able to nudge and push a topic into mainstream attention with ease.
The admins running these pages are young Libyans that are technology savvy and are well versed in the dark arts of making content go viral. They often want to grow their page at the expense of other people’s misery so they can charge a fee to advertise commercial products and businesses.
One example is the Only Libya page with 1.7 million followers and a post charge of at least 50 pounds last time I checked. This page has also been contributing to the narrative wars of April 2019 and has been consistently seen supporting the LNA and publishing friendly content towards them
In the upcoming period, we will continue to see this trend grow. Actors who were previously seen as non political, labeled under entertainment/business categories start to wield their influence and power they’ve built over the years in support of their political positions. From what we see already, in a country where we lack any sort of independent media, this is already creating a lot of skepticism, uncertainty and lack of trust in the community.
Follow me at @k_ramali