Facebooking the revolution

“He was a close friend of mine; he was my room mate in Bournemouth where we studied together. I was just watching the news one night and I saw him lying there.”

Most people use social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook to update friends and family on their life, emotions and daily trivia. For the UK’s Libyan community these sites have brought the grim reality of a civil war directly into their homes.

Youtube, Facebook and Twitter began to fill with videos of protests from the start of demonstrations in Libya on February 15th, videos which quickly turned into footage of intense inner-city fighting. This footage spread, despite the fact that early in the uprising foreign journalists were largely absent and internet access had been blocked, this meant that only a few people were able to get any information out of the embattled cities.

To those outside Libya the videos filmed by people in the middle of the fighting are a valuable way to know what’s happening to friends and family still in the country. Assistant manager of Café@Meet, a Bournemouth internet café, Saad Nafo, 31, experienced this in a dramatic and tragic fashion. Whilst watching the news he saw a video filmed by the rebels of people who had died in the fighting, and on one of the mortuary beds was a face he recognised. “He was a close friend of mine; he was my room mate in Bournemouth where we studied together. I was just watching the news one night and I saw him lying there.”

Sitting in the calm café on a warm English summer day, it couldn’t seem further from the violent strife of a North African conflict, but from here Saad was in regular contact with people who “were in the middle of the events, they came back to send the videos and then they go back to continue demonstrating.”

Spreading the message

Thanks to their computer knowledge and Libyan contacts Saad and several of his friends helped to spread the message of the revolution out of their internet café in Bournemouth. Saad, originally from Benghazi which is now the rebel stronghold, said: “There were about 5 or 6 people [in the cafe] that were working hard every night. We talked to people who managed to get the internet through satellites.”

People like Saad and his friend Diab Almeel, 36, manager of Café@meet, tried to get the footage out to as many people as possible. Whilst they were downloading and uploading onto social network sites popular with Libyans, they were also becoming trusted sources for major news channels. Saad said that in the beginning “some of the news like BBC and Sky didn’t know about the Facebook pages and they didn’t check the revolution page and so we were downloading videos from there and sending to them. I’ve seen videos that I sent myself to Aljazeera, to BBC, to Sky.”

One of the information gatherers Saad was in touch with was Mohammed Nabbous, an old friend from when he lived in Benghazi and a man a Der Spiegel article said “might be the most important person in the revolution”. This was because he recorded the reality of the uprising and he was able to get it out of the city. He was killed on the 19th March, two weeks after that article was published.

Saad said: “He was one of my friends and a neighbour as well in Benghazi. He managed to set up CCTV cameras in Benghazi at the beginning of the events and he was streaming videos from there.” Saad explained how Mohammed Nabbous and those like him were capable of bypassing Gaddafi’s strict internet crackdown. “There is another way to use the internet. I used to work in an internet café in Libya and we’d buy a receiver from America, like a satellite TV receiver but we would use it for the internet. We had a dish over there, but it was forbidden to have a send-and-receive receiver [the equipment needed to use the internet without the regime being able to observe your actions]…I remember there was a big car with a satellite to check if it’s a send-and-receive, and you would be in trouble if they found you using the internet this way. But these guys, like Muhammad Nabbous, they already had this equipment and when this problem started he used the satellite fully so they couldn’t control it.”

Not all information gathering is this complex. “Another friend in Tripoli, that I really couldn’t talk to freely, because he’s from Benghazi and he’s in Tripoli, he goes to the roof to get some news from there, because if he goes out and says he’s from Benghazi it’s going to be trouble for him.” This may not be the best way to understand what’s going on, but many Libyans in Tripoli fear reprisals from Gaddafi’s regime if they are found to be from Benghazi and the East of the country. It has been alleged that Gaddafi has been victimising these people, because it was in those areas that the uprising erupted.

The Media War

Saad and his friends felt that it was important to ensure that these videos were as widely available as possible, as a way to counteract Gaddafi’s assertions that the rebels were drugged, murderous and delusional members of Al-Qaida. Diab explained “I am always trying to deliver the message and help in the propaganda war, because that is another war as well”. Saad said: “Without Facebook we would find it so difficult to show the real truth and to make people believe that this is a revolution, and it’s not Al-Qaida as the regime claim.”

Facebook pages such as ‘The Revolution of the 17th February 2011’ and ‘The Lighthouse’ became important portals for the dissemination of information. Saad explained to me how ‘The Revolution of the 17th February 2011’ became very popular very quickly. “When I joined this page there was 50 users and now there are about 150,000. It was 300,000 [early in the uprising] but the government started to kidnap people who were on this page. They kidnapped people who talked to us over the phone about it.”

The assertions that people in Libya were kidnapped because of a Facebook group they belong to cannot be verified, however multiple external organisations have documented cases of missing persons who had links to the anti-Gaddafi movement. Amnesty International released a report at the end of March detailing 30 people that had disappeared because of their connections to the rebel forces, a number Amnesty International said represented “a small proportion of the total number of people who have been detained or have disappeared in the custody of Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces”.

The reliability of the news both sides were relaying soon became a critical issue. Saad and others helping the opposition realised it was important to try and verify their claims as much as possible. Those posting on Facebook about fighting, disappearances, protests, or deaths often tried to verify the information, usually with videos but “sometimes they say it’s true or sometimes they say it’s true on other channels or they say it’s true because of eye witnesses”.

To those inside Libya the accuracy of such information on a Facebook group can be a matter of life or death, as they have become an important resource in knowing where the fighting is taking place. Saad translated the online news from Misurata for me “Gaddafi’s troops, 28 minutes ago they are still using Grad [rockets]. West of Misurata, they are using heavy artillery and rockets”.

Two-way communication

The value of social media and the internet to the Libyan uprising is an issue that external commentators have been eager to look into. The communication possibilities provided by social media sites have helped to not only mobilise the opposition on the ground, but also to create support across the world. Charlie Beckett, director of LSE’s media think-tank Polaris, said: “The Libyans outside of Libya are a very important group and this communication is valuable in terms of money, fundraising and especially lobbying. The connections that ex-pat Libyans have are vital and the information and images they can see thanks to social media motivates them and gives them material to lobby governments and the media.”

Yet the importance of social media shouldn’t be overstated, as: “It doesn’t matter how good the social media is if the government is still going to be willing to shoot everyone. People forget that Egypt was not inevitable, at one point it was on a knife edge when the Pro-Mubarak supporters organised against the demonstrators.”

The ability for people outside Libya to talk and interact with those inside the country works both ways. Rida Benfayed used to be an orthopaedic surgeon in the Oxfordshire town of Banbury, now he is in Tobruk and at the heart of an operation to connect with ex-pat Libyans who have the skills and abilities the rebels need. This has become a huge project, and is almost entirely carried out through Skype on his computer. “I ask every Libyan, across many countries, through my Skype I ask them to help in the revolution. It is beyond the imagination of everybody how we got this circle [of people together] in such a short space of time.”

Rida left England to try and improve the medical facilities in his home town of Tobruk, however he felt blocked at every turn by Gaddafi’s regime. “They asked me to do it but at end of the day they changed their minds and they take everything from me.” He was planning to leave Libya and its overbearing government behind once again and start afresh in Denver, America. He was three months from moving his family out of the country when the uprising began, at which point “because of my connections all over the world, I decided my best place is to go back to Tobruk. I have very good relations with ambassadors and I got the chance to know everybody.” Rida was successful and “everyone came through Tobruk through my name and then went on to Benghazi”. Rida’s work has led to the formation of the Tobruk Association for Assistance to “work through association in different fields” in order “to connect Libyans inside and outside Libya to help in this revolution. In different fields from media, press, medical, military side, everything.”

Across the Generations

The role of the internet in the Libyan uprising coincides with a common theme in the Arab Spring uprisings, that a large proportion of the protestors and fighters have been young and computer literate. This raises a crucial generational question – is the online information only accessible by the younger generations of the Libyan community?

Saad told me: “Older people like my father, he uses the internet now, but he doesn’t know as much as we know. That’s where my sister comes in; he just brings her and says: ‘Can you just open that page? Can you show me this?’ So my sister just navigates it and reads for him.” This is an important point in the Libyan community, where family ties are traditionally very strong. “Even if you are 30 you could still live with your family. So the son will come home and tell them I’ve read that, and that, and that, and that online.” This means that whilst the Libyan youth are an essential factor in spreading the information across the world, the messages and videos are still reaching most Libyan people, regardless of their age.

In fact many of the organisers and leaders of the opposition movement in the UK are those who left Libya in the 80s and 90s as political exiles and opponents of Gaddafi. Saad Essadeg, 51, is a prominent member of Manchester’s Libyan community, and he exemplifies this group of politicised older men, however he recognises that the uprising owes a lot to the Libyan youth movement. “The youngsters this time have embarrassed us, because we tried before in my era, in my time. We tried, but we failed. This is why most of my generation they either died in prison or they were hung or they were shot behind closed doors.”

Saad Essadeg has noticed a distinct difference between his generation’s view of Gaddafi and the view of those who were born in this country. “My son has been brought up here all his life and when I tell him about Gaddafi, he says why don’t you tell people? Why don’t you write an article in the newspaper? And I thought he doesn’t understand. What article? Who are you going to talk to?.. The newspaper, the press is government, everything is government. If you look in the wrong way you’re dead, if you make faces when they mention the name of the leader you’re gone, if they feel that you have any sentiment against Gaddafi they take them.”

In Diab’s view the ability of young Libyans to utilise the internet was crucial. “This revolution happened because of the youngsters, the youth of Libya who’ve done it…the youth who are using Facebook, technology, Twitter and Youtube to deliver their message to the world.”

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