BEIRUT: More than half of the candidates in Lebanon’s May parliamentary elections were not represented in the social media of major TV stations, possibly affecting election results, a study published in November found.
The study was jointly conducted by the Media Association for Peace and the Samir Kassir Foundation, in collaboration with the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections and Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung.
Although social media’s effects on voting behavior in democracies have been studied for years, the study is among the first on the topic focused on Lebanon.
“We are analyzing it for the first time because we did not have elections for the last nine years. The role of social media wasn’t so big before,” says Vanessa Bassil, founder and president of Media Association for Peace.
“The influence of social media is quite big, especially [because] the young generations are the ones using social media the most,” Bassil said. “They are influenced and active in politics in Lebanon, so this is why we have to be very aware about what we put on online.”
The study looked at how six TV stations used social media to cover the 2018 elections.
Its findings show that an average of just 198 of 437 candidates appeared on their Twitter and Facebook pages, with women candidates receiving only about 12 percent of the coverage between the two platforms.
“The elections were not fairly reported,” Bassil said. “We think that if social media [had] contributed to a more fair, diverse, pluralistic coverage of the elections, the results would have been different.”
However, social media isn’t the only factor that affected the elections results. For instance, the study found that though women received a small amount of attention online, even fewer were elected.
“If the outcome of the elections [had been] identical to how the coverage on social media was, we would have more women in the Parliament: 10 instead of six, or 7.8 percent of the Parliament instead of 4.7 percent.” A number of influences on voting behavior may explain this discrepancy.
“We have so many external factors that would influence the outcome, not only the discourse on social media,” Omar Kabboul, executive director of the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, said.
“The [voting] behavior is tightly linked to the culture, and this is something that did not change from the 1990s in Lebanon.”
But this is not to say that the effects of social media should not be taken seriously. The research outlines methods for the Electoral Supervisory Committee to integrate some form of social media monitoring for future elections.
“We support freedom of expression, even [on] social media. But the policy that we recommended is for the [ESC] to include sponsored ads and sponsored posts, which the candidates pay for on social media, to be included in campaign spending,” Kabboul said.
Social media use is particularly concerning because it is not covered by the electoral law, Bassil said.
As it stands, the 2017 electoral law has a significant loophole with regard to social media.
“We have a silence period of 43 hours [before elections] - candidates are not allowed to go on traditional media to give interviews,’ Kabboul said.
“We should have something similar on social media, because those who didn’t go live on traditional stations went live on social media.”
Lowering campaign spending, limiting the number of bank accounts available to candidates and improving voter education are among the recommendations in the joint report.
The ESC is expected to release its review of the 2018 elections shortly, along with a list of 20 recommended amendments to the electoral law.
The joint report’s suggestions concerning social media are not included, according to the ESC president. “No, we didn’t get into these details,” Nadim Abdel-Malek said when asked whether the committee would suggest including social media spending or a silence period in campaign financing laws.
Though many changes are planned for future elections, Kabboul insists that regulating the way social media is used needs to be one of them. “This is something that needs to be designed, developed and discussed with the supervisory commission,” he said.
A previous report by LADE had also faulted the media, along with the candidates and President Michel Aoun, for allegedly disregarding the electoral silence period, in “clear violation” of the law.
A representative of Aoun was not available for comment.
The earlier report said that another part of a broader issue of campaign financing was the media’s exorbitant rates for coverage, which ran up to $100,000 for special programming during prime time. But the problems with the elections ran outside Lebanon’s borders, too. Most notably, the report labeled the CEDRE donor conference, organized by France, “a form of foreign interference.”