SMEX and LADE to Monitor Candidates’ Speech on Social Media During 2018 Parliamentary Elections

On May 6, Lebanon will hold parliamentary elections for the first time since 2009, following three consecutive extensions of the parliament’s mandate, totalling one full term. Since the last general election, internet penetration in Lebanon has increased exponentially from 25 percent to around 80 percent. The usage of social media, especially Facebook, has followed suit. This tremendous increase of Internet adoption has opened new dimensions for a wide range of civic and political interactions, including electoral campaigns. Consequentially, for the 2018 elections, as elsewhere in the world, many candidates and political parties in Lebanon have incorporated social media channels into their campaign communication strategies.

While the growth in social media use has the potential to engage new voters and to level the playing ground for independent candidates, it also presents new challenges, because while the new 2017 election law outlines how candidates can use the media during the campaigning and election process, it does not offer any guidance on social media specifically.

To address this gap, SMEX will be monitoring online electoral speech in Lebanon for the first time. We are teaming up with the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE) to observe and assess what the candidates are sharing online. While we will look for “negative speech,” which we have defined as speech that may negatively affect democratic, free, and fair election processes, we will also note instances of positive and neutral speech as well.

An Iterative Methodology

Given the lack of guidance in the Lebanese electoral law, the methodology builds on the recent research and experimentation in the field of online expression, as well as draws on other Lebanese laws, such as the constitution, penal code, and press and publications law. It also references international human rights law, particularly that pertaining to free expression in the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, which Lebanon has ratified; recommendations for social media codes of conduct for elections, such as International IDEA’s “Guidelines for the Development of a Social Media Code of Conduct for Elections”; and actual country-level social media codes of conduct for elections. That said, it is important to note that this methodology is a work-in-progress and will be updated between now and the May 6 elections and afterward, to refine the approach and ensure that it has the potential to produce the data needed to answer the key research questions. A final methodology will be published after the elections detailing what we learned and delivered as a potential prototype for future electoral processes.

Monitoring and Coding Candidates’ Speech

The monitoring and coding process for the candidates’ speech will comprise two key steps. In the first step, volunteers will consider whether the speech is positive, neutral, or negative. Positive speech is speech that promotes democratic, fair, and free elections by promoting human rights, for example, or openly rejecting discrimination, appeals to sectarian identity, or fear-mongering as a tactic. Neutral speech is speech that is neither positive nor negative, which will be further defined in the second step.

In the second step, if speech has been flagged as negative, the coder will then assign to it one of nine attributes, as outlined below:

  • Offensive: Speech in which a list representative or candidate insults another individual or group of people for perceived political gain.
  • Bribery: Speech that hints at, discusses, or offers the exchange of anything of monetary value in return for perceived political gain.
  • Suppressive: Speech that discourages voting or that violates the secrecy of the ballot for perceived political gain.
  • Defamatory: Speech in which a list representative or candidate baselessly accuses, verbally or in writing, another individual of illegal acts such as treason, fraud, or corruption to damage their reputation for perceived political gain.
  • Disinformation: Speech that 1) intentionally spreads and/or amplifies false narratives, lies, or misrepresentations about individuals or groups of people, what they say or what they stand for, for perceived political gain, or 2) that does not accurately attribute statements or content or that plagiarizes the statements or content of others for perceived political gain.
  • Discriminatory: Speech that uses discriminatory or dehumanizing rhetoric about race, origin, or ethnicity for perceived political gain.
  • Sexist: Speech that subordinates or discriminates against women or others based exclusively on their gender or sexuality.
  • Sectarian: Speech that invokes favor, disdain, or disrespect for specific religions, sects, or religious beliefs or the lack thereof for perceived political gain.
  • Dangerous: Speech that increases the risk of violence through the use of incendiary language, language that threatens an individual or group with violence, or language that explicitly calls an individual or group to violence.

Technology

Data from more than 1,000 unique active links from Facebook pages and profiles and Twitter accounts belonging to candidates, electoral lists, and political parties is being collected via Facebook and Twitter API feeds via a web-based software program. Volunteer monitors then login to the program and code the posts according to the methodology explained above.

Results

Data collection and coding will continue until one week after the elections. At this time, SMEX and LADE will analyze the results and share the findings, along with the final methodology.

How can you help?

All the monitoring and coding work will be done internally with the SMEX/LADE teams, including several volunteers. If you would like to volunteer, please send an email to mohamad{AT}smex{DOT}org, or a WhatsApp message to +961 71-190310.

 

 

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