BEIRUT: When news broke in late 2011 that former Prime Minister Saad Hariri was responding to his followers on Twitter, the initial reaction of many people was skepticism.
But after a few sessions of tweeting in (not quite flawless) English, it became clear that the Future Movement leader was serious about using the social media platform to engage with Lebanese citizens. President Michel Sleiman and Prime Minister Najib Mikati soon followed suit, inspiring social media monitoring website Think Media Labs to begin tracking Lebanese politicians’ involvement on Twitter. Almost a year later, Hariri, Sleiman and Mikati’s Twitter interaction continues, though it has admittedly lost some momentum.
Meanwhile, TML has continued to follow their and other Lebanese politicians’ Twitter habits. In July, 2012, Hariri and Mikati were ranked eighth and ninth respectively regarding their number of tweets, while Sleiman ranked 15th. Meanwhile, a new crop of politicians eager to interact with the public has emerged.
The Daily Star communicated via email with three of the Lebanese politicians who ranked in the top twelve for number of tweets – according to a July poll conducted by TML – in order to inquire about their reasons for using Twitter. The politicians are: Telecommunications Minister Nicolas Sehnaoui (ranked second), Democratic Renewal Movement Secretary-General Antoine Haddad (ranked third) and Metn MP Sami Gemayel (ranked twelfth).
For citizens, interacting with politicians on Twitter is a way to try to extract a comment or answer to a question from a public figure. But what do politicians have to gain from using the platform?
“Twitter is a modern means of communication,” said Sehnaoui.
He added that a minister should know how people are reacting to his performance as well as keep apprised of the needs and problems of his constituents.
For his part, Gemayel said that “social media and Twitter are useful for a politician” due to their ability to “bridge the gap between the [politician] and the citizens.”
Gemayel added that Twitter allowed the politician to receive direct feedback “without a mediator,” meaning that he gets a “clear idea about their demands and needs.”
Haddad, who tweets in English, Arabic and French, also emphasized the interactive dimension of Twitter by saying that it allows politicians to engage with people they might not normally be able to meet with in person.
Despite the benefits of interaction, some politicians lament that there is a downside to Twitter.
Sehnaoui said that one annoyance is the limit of 140 characters to a tweet, preventing detailed explanations of complicated subjects. Conversely, he said that on busy days he was unable to respond to followers – something they tend to dislike.
“Because Twitter is a public sphere, we politicians have critics and detractors who address us directly,” said Haddad. “This could be very interesting, and sometimes inspiring, as long as tweets stay within the boundaries of online ‘etiquette’” he said, adding that tweeters sometimes hurl abuse at politicians via the website.
Recently, a group of Lebanese began trending a hashtag with the slogan #BlameBassil, a reference to Energy Minister Gebran Bassil.
Though the language used in the majority of tweets was not abusive, it demonstrated dissatisfaction and frustration with the current electricity situation in Lebanon.
Some Lebanese Twitter users took matters even further, blaming Bassil for situations out of his control, such as summer almost being over and a player not receiving a red card in a European football match.
The criticism led Bassil – who, incidentally, was ranked No. 1 in terms of tweets in TML’s July poll – to respond with an emotional tweet of his own: “#BlameBassil 4 what? For trying to fix thing[s]? For not accepting the reality of corruption in this country? If so, please keep blaming.”
While the negative aspects of social media may annoy politicians, the benefits seem to outweigh the bad, as evidenced by the fact that Twitter has almost become a necessity for them.
“In the third millennium ... communication messages have increased in number and shortened in length to become one or two sentences long to accommodate ... a world where the quantity of information has increased exponentially. A politician should remain close to the people whether as a minister or a representative,” explained Sehnaoui.
From Hariri to Bassil, Twitter is a vital tool for the politicians of Lebanon to engage with their constituents and remain attuned to public opinion.
It is also an important means of enhancing ordinary Lebanese citizens’ access to the political system.
While politicians often enjoy celebrity status in Lebanon, Twitter enables users to feel as though they are talking to an equal.
“We are all equal users on social media,” said Haddad. “Every user could be a politician, everyone could be a journalist.” – With additional reporting by Michelle Maalouf