By Diana Moukalled
20 July 2015
Following a traffic-related dispute last week, Tarek Yateem stabbed George al-Reef in Beirut’s Saifi area amidst dozens of onlookers, and Reef died shortly after the incident.
It was a horrific murder; its details captured on the cellular phones of witnesses and passing pedestrians. The scenes were edited into a video that thousands circulated inside and outside Lebanon, and it was accompanied by sectarian comments on social networking websites. The comments conveyed the level of hatred and exposed tensions arising from the regional and Lebanese crises.
Tension is common in Lebanon for sectarian, religious or racial reasons. At the end of the day, these tensions fall into the category of incitement. Social networking websites have served as an open platform for such incitements; as feelings of racism and hatred were unleashed and became part of an ordinary conversation. In his report last week, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism voiced serious fears regarding the escalation of racial trends due to technological progress which facilitates the spread of hostility towards others via social networking websites. Racism and hatred towards foreigners and minorities is now considered common on media outlets and social networking tools.
The report provided many examples from Europe and it sounded the alarm bell in regards to using modern technologies as tools to spread racial ideas and expand the circle of those who support racism amidst these arenas’ protection of the identities of those who do so. Of course we don’t need studies in our Arab region to check the amount of racism and hatred displayed via social media networks or to check how easy it’s become to spread and circulate such feelings via these tools.
Where The Problem Lies
However, this does not mean that the problem lies in these social networking arenas.
Yes, technology has changed a lot of things; however, there are things it could not change such as one’s mind who is mainly responsible for what we commit, feel and say. Social media helps spreading and generalizing ideas but if we want, it can also be used to prevent the spread of racial ideologies and feelings of hatred.
There’s no doubt that one of the reasons why social media is powerful is because it responds to our basic desires: we are attracted to the idea that we can speak our mind on whatever we want and that others hear us out, especially when it comes to expressing our feelings in an instinctive manner. When Yateem murdered Reef and photos of this murder spread on Facebook and Twitter, these tools operated as a socially magnifying lens, enlarging details. and allowing to show the sectarian identities of the murderer and the victim, adding to the interpretations of the incident.
Social media exaggerates information and emotions and certainly exaggerates and generalizes violence. It’s as if we’re in a café where everything is calm and everyone is busy with their own conversation but suddenly one person punches another and the arena soon turns into a boxing ring where everyone is involved in the fight. Social media websites exaggerate the first punch, which, in this case, is viewing the crime as an act where Muslim is murdering a Christian. In many other cases, crimes are viewed as a Sunni murdering a Shiite or vice versa or an Arab murdering a Kurdish or vice versa.
In order not to be preoccupied with the current situation and forget how we were before all these social media networks surfaced, we must recall how we used to live and still live in our societies amidst invisible barriers that separate groups who live together. Who amongst us doesn’t know at least one person in his family who declares hatred against others from a different religion, sect or nationality? In our countries, education systems and ethics of politics, religion and popular culture all engender hatred. This culture of racism existed before social media which only served to show us what can no longer be tolerated nor ignored.
Diana Moukalled is the Web Editor at the Lebanon-based Future Television and was the Production & Programming Manager with at the channel. Previously, she worked there as Editor in Chief, Producer and Presenter of “Bilayan al Mujaradah,” a documentary that covers hot zones in the Arab world and elsewhere, News and war correspondent and Local news correspondent. She currently writes a regular column in AlSharq AlAwsat. She also wrote for Al-Hayat Newspaper and Al-Wasat Magazine, besides producing news bulletins and documentaries for Reuters TV