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In crisis-torn Lebanon, social media collective Megaphone is building an alternative to the political establishment

Thousands of protesters gathered in Beirut during the October 2019 uprising.
Thousands of protesters gathered in Beirut during the October 2019 uprising. Photo: IMAGO / Hans Lucas

Lebanon has long been known for its comparatively liberal approach to press and media freedom, which allowed a flourishing print industry to serve as a hub for writers and journalists from across West Asia and North Africa. In recent years, however, Lebanese media outlets have increasingly become mouthpieces of the country’s rival political factions, promoting their stances and supporting their political agendas. Once hailed as a bastion of press freedom in the region, media in Lebanon today has ceased to inform the public, but instead stokes division and sectarianism in the crisis-ridden country.

Mieke Hein studied ethnology and Arabic studies in Leipzig and Vienna. After spending time in Lebanon, Tunisia, and Turkey, she now lives in Berlin.

In a world where information is increasingly digital, social media may hold the potential to counter the growing bias of party-affiliated media outlets and misinformation campaigns, and strengthen the search for truth. That, at least, is the idea motivating activists behind the Beirut-based independent media platform Megaphone, who seek to tackle the difficulties of independent media production in Lebanon and offer an alternative to their growing audience.

From Activism to Agency

Megaphone was started in 2017 by a group of student activists with a secular approach to Lebanese politics. A fully professional journalist collective today, the operation publishes news in the form of reports, editorials, interviews, daily and weekly recaps, investigative pieces, as well as opinion pieces on its website and social media such as X (formerly Twitter), Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube. It enjoyed immediate success within the smaller circles of the Lebanese opposition and anti-establishment groups before growing around the 2018 elections, which Megaphone covered extensively.

Megaphone’s volunteer editors pioneered new approaches to online media production in Lebanon, developing a consistent visual branding that includes templates and recurring themes to create a bubbly and colourful aesthetic. These days, much of Megaphone’s aesthetic has been copied, as think tanks, political groups, and other media outlets replicate the “Megaphone recipe”, as the group’s director calls it.

A pivotal moment for Megaphone came in October 2019, when the Lebanese government’s decision to pass a new tax on online phone calls with mobile applications such as WhatsApp sparked protests across the country. This widespread anger marked the culmination of structural circumstances, such as notorious neglect, corruption within the political and economic elite, and political mismanagement.

By limiting access to a wider audience to the parties with political and financial clout, TV stations become complicit in stabilizing the political landscape and the major parties’ grip on power.

Reporting on the newly dubbed “October Revolution” that brought thousands of citizens onto the streets for weeks, the largely volunteer-based medium transformed into a professional journalistic operation and became one of the main news platforms targeting young people. This transformation was facilitated by the support of two senior journalists who joined Megaphone’s newsroom at that time, along with members of the collective who took leave from their regular jobs before the group was finally able to create paid, full-time positions.

The lack of representation of young people and content untainted by Lebanon’s pervasive sectarian bias in the media is one of the main drivers behind Megaphone continuing its work despite growing difficulties in the sector and in daily life. The economic and political crisis as well as an increasingly difficult environment for journalists compels many young people to look for opportunities outside of the country, leading to a brain drain that can also be seen within Megaphone. The lack of adequate digital journalism training in a world overflowing with information and fake news makes recruiting new staff difficult.

Building Counter-Hegemony

Lebanon is as wracked by religious and cultural sectarianism today as it was during the civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990, a fact that is also reflected in local media. The sectarian affiliations of quite a few contemporary outlets date back to their founding during the civil war to serve the populations of Lebanon’s various confessional groups. In this atmosphere of sectarian division, establishing an independent media platform transcending those division represents a quasi-revolutionary act.

Traditional media outlets play a vital part in the “hegemony” of Lebanon’s political parties and religious factions. Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci first coined the term during his imprisonment under the Fascist government in the 1930s, using it to describe the direct domination of the ruling class over its citizens by manufacturing consent through “norms, values and tastes, political practices, and social relations”. Knowledge formation plays an integral role in the manufacturing of consent, as what traditional media reports is generally accepted as true and consequently shapes how we see the world and our surroundings. Although not all outlets are directly implicated in Lebanon’s political system, as a whole, the media functions as a powerful tool to shape mainstream narratives and is thus crucial to ruling-class hegemony in the country.

Acts of counter-hegemony, in turn, seek to undermine or dismantle the power structure, while simultaneously holding the potential to pose a concrete alternative within said power structures. Megaphone challenges the hegemony of traditional media and thus the political factions in many ways. The decision to operate in the Lebanese media landscape and offer an alternative to other, party-affiliated media outlets represents the most effective way to counter their hegemony.  As Megaphone’s managing director explained to me, “We act as a watchdog to both the political establishment and the media landscape, exposing misleading and inaccurate stories and statements.” In doing so, Megaphone also works against misinformation and serves as a check on the mainstream media’s influence.

Opening up spaces for subaltern voices in the media landscape counters the silencing enforced by hegemonic forces in society.

Besides sharing informative and sometimes educational content about political, economic, and social issues, Megaphone features stories about marginalized groups often ignored or stigmatized by traditional media, namely refugees and migrant workers, such as a post about Saudi Arabia’s systematic killing of Ethiopian refugees at its borders. This reporting focuses on what Gramsci would have called the subaltern, characterized by Marcus Green as “exclusion, domination, and marginality in their various forms”.

Opening up spaces for subaltern voices in the media landscape counters the silencing enforced by hegemonic forces in society. Critically understanding the conditions of exploitation, domination, and marginality and naming them is vital to their transformation, wherein counter-hegemonic potential lies.

Another political aspect of Lebanese media is the opposition’s total exclusion from mainstream TV, which Megaphone’s director explained as being too expensive or politically impossible. By limiting access to a wider audience to the parties with political and financial clout, TV stations become complicit in stabilizing the political landscape and the major parties’ grip on power. At the same time, this exclusion from mainstream media made Megaphone’s platform for opposition parties during the 2022 election campaign all the more important, testifying to the group’s counter-hegemonic potential.

Instagram-Post von Megaphone
Das Kollektiv postet Informationen über die systematische Tötung von äthiopischen Geflüchteten an der Grenze zu Saudi-Arabien.  Megaphone (Instagramm)

The Tenuous Link between Social Media and Activism

Since its emergence in the early 2000s, social media has served as a space for people to articulate social criticism and political dissent, particularly in West Asia. Long before Megaphone published its first social media posts, online activism had already become a primary vehicle for voicing protest or dissent across the region. Twitter delayed a routine maintenance shutdown during the uprisings in Iran in 2009, citing the large number of users on the platform. The 2011 Arab Spring also saw a vital role for social media, which activists used to mobilize, organize, and communicate with a wider audience, just as Lebanese activists did during the October Revolution in 2019.

The October Revolution can also be understood in terms of hegemony. At first, traditional media outlets declined to report on the protests in the streets and ignored the shifting political mood. Platforms like Megaphone experienced a boom, as interest in counter-hegemonic media surged.

In that sense, although social media remains an exclusively digital space, it has demonstrated an ability to bring about change in the past and could yet still contribute to more social upheaval over a decade later. That said, protest on social media platforms should always be understood as a digital means of communicating actual demands. Social media’s potential to trigger protests should not distract from the fact that profound social and political change requires a systemic approach to the roots of contention and unrest.

Megaphone contests the traditional funding model and seeks to disrupt the economic barriers limiting access to news production.

Despite the promises and advantages of social media, the downsides should not go overlooked, including media illiteracy, algorithms, and the creation of echo chambers. Content creators are forced to compete over social media’s short attention spans, pushing Megaphone’s journalists to be snappy and witty in order to attract readers. More fundamentally, social media platforms are owned by large corporations whose business models rely on selling user data, and could theoretically deactivate the service at any time.

Megaphone’s journalists pragmatically accept these shortcomings, motivated as they are by the desire to have an impact.

The Power of Political Journalism

In 2019, TV stations were still the main news source for 93 percent of the Lebanese population, despite a 5 percent decrease compared to 2017. Radio stations saw an increase from 42 percent in 2017 to 49 percent in 2019. Meanwhile, print newspapers continued to decline, as reflected in data collected by MidEast Media, with 18 percent using it as a source of information in 2017 and just 14 percent in 2019. Social media, by contrast, saw a 7 percent increase since 2017, with 85 percent of Lebanese using it as a source for news.

Although updated figures are still forthcoming, the trend indicated by the survey is clear: more and more people get their news from social media and rely on it as a source of information. The most popular social media platforms in Lebanon are Facebook, WhatsApp, X, and Instagram. Increasingly, they eclipse established media such as TV, radio, and newspapers as the primary medium for media consumption. Traditional media lag behind when it comes to utilizing the new platforms, creating the vacuum that Megaphone soon filled.

Alongside the digital transition, another important factor shaping Lebanese media in recent years is economic survival. The main source of income for Lebanon’s media outlets is advertising revenue. In light of the worst economic crisis in decades, advertisement has grown redundant in a country where 82 percent of the population is affected by multidimensional poverty. The second source of income for Lebanese media, donations from political factions, has also declined due to the devaluation of the local currency. The shutdown of various print newspapers and the dismissal of TV staff are testimony to the impact of the crisis on the media.

Megaphone, by contrast, contests the traditional funding model and seeks to disrupt the economic barriers limiting access to news production. Its business model relies on funding from foundations, collaborations, and, to a small extent, on donations, making it more independent from the local currency, more diverse, and resilient.

The future of Lebanon’s media landscape is difficult to predict, stressed as it is by factors such as political developments and economic recovery. Looking back in history, however, reveals remarkable parallels between Gramsci’s biography and Megaphone’s activism. Gramsci worked as a journalist himself and even set up a socialist weekly, L’Ordine Nuovo, which soon became a “megaphone” for the Left in early 1920s Italy. The collective around this newspaper was crucial in assisting the workers’ councils that emerged spontaneously during the general strike and factory occupations in Turin in 1919 and 1920.

Some 100 years later, Megaphone assisted the movement in Lebanon by covering its demonstrations and publicizing its demands. Both cases demonstrate the power of political journalism, and how a small group of people with limited means can begin to construct counter-hegemony in their own way.

This article is based on the author’s findings and interviews during a research trip to Beirut in February 2022, which served as the basis for her Master’s thesis.