Sign of the Times: Triangle's Blog for LSE on Social Media Access

April 20, 2023

Electricity timetables, roadcuts and the hourly exchange rate. This is information that Tripolitans – people living in Lebanon’s second-largest city of Tripoli – never thought they would have to rely on so dearly one day.

Since the beginning of Lebanon’s financial collapse in 2019, considered by the World Bank to be one of the world’s worst since the 1850s, access to information has become more critical than ever.

The economic collapse has particularly affected populations living in North Lebanon, where 85% of households are living in poverty. As putting food on the table became a struggle for many, getting a phone and an internet connection became even harder.

Despite relying heavily on social media for information, Tripoli’s populations do not all have equal access to such online platforms. Indeed, life became much more complex to navigate for those who couldn’t afford to access information due to raging inflation and increased telecommunication prices. Our research probed how social media was being used by refugee and host communities to access critical goods, resources and information.

Evolving information needs

The information needs of Tripolitans have changed considerably since 2019. Tripoli, located in the north of the country, was dubbed the “The Bride of the Revolution”, when protests ignited across Lebanon against corruption and the governing political class. Tripoli’s discontent stemmed from endemic poverty and the state’s neglect of the region due to a clientelistic and sectarian political system.

In three years, the situation in the country’s north rapidly degraded. Daily life for Tripolitans has become marred by road closures and greatly dependent on the value of the Lebanese lira which was previously pegged against the US dollar. Knowing which roads are closed and the value of the local currency has become vital across class divides.

Staying in the know

Lebanon’s social, political and economic context is volatile, so having the latest information is crucial. During our research looking at access to information technology and the use of social media by refugee and host communities, Tripoli’s populations shared with us their information needs. The research relied on 460 surveys in the Tripoli+ 5 region (Tripoli, Minnieh-Dannieh, Zgharta, Bcharreh, and El-Koura districts), as well as eight focus group discussions with Lebanese and refugee communities from various housing situations.

Regardless of nationality and socio-economic status, Tripolitans said that they required up-to-date news about the rate of the Lebanese pound to the US dollar, which has fluctuated daily (even hourly) since the beginning of the financial crisis. Furthermore, they reported needing information about road closures due to regular protests, usually against the degradation of living conditions.

Unequal access

Staying in the know has different meanings for different Tripoli populations. It is often a lot easier for those who can afford an internet connection and have the education to sift through an overload of information and fake news for accurate facts.

Yet residents of Tripoli’s lower socio-economic neighbourhoods face a constant battle to know when the electricity will come back, if the water will flow, and whether there is bread at the bakery. As the Lebanese state continues to crumble, they must figure out how to access the essential services that a government usually provides, such as water and electricity. When there is no way to access information online from their social networks, poorer residents typically attempt to access it face-to-face – for example, at schools and hospitals.

On the other hand, Lebanese residents from higher socio-economic neighbourhoods reported wanting different types of information; men wanted more political news and women more information related to shopping.

Lower socio-economic communities, especially children, bear the brunt of this inequality. Syrian and Lebanese women from poorer households reported difficulties supporting their children’s education amid the 2019 Lebanese uprisings and COVID-19 crisis. Qualitative data from this study showed that the school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, and road blockages from protests significantly impacted children. Increasing electricity cuts – more frequent in homes that don’t have the means for a private generator subscription – made it difficult for children to access the required online modules, ultimately impacting their education.

As Lebanon’s situation rapidly deteriorates, poorer communities struggle to keep up to date. For many in Tripoli, access to information has become a luxury at a time when it is considered a human right.

This article was originally published with the London School of Economics and Political Science here.

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