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By Nour Jane Kachicho and Francesca El Asmar
Patriarchal social norms and institutionalized discrimination continue to entrench the systemic exclusion of women from formal and informal decision-making arenas in Lebanon. Modern communication tools, including social media, have the potential to disrupt systemic exclusion and counter barriers to effective women’s participation in leadership structures. Technology has the potential to redefine, remodel and reshape women’s leadership, their interaction with communities, and development of networks. This research contributes to the body of knowledge on the effectiveness of social media in enhancing women participation in their individual capacity and as organized groups in Lebanon. The study explores the use and transformative impact of social media on women’s leadership and empowerment and assesses whether and how social media has been a boon and bane regarding the interests of women leaders and the organizations that support them.
Methodology & Framing
The study is anchored on evidence from in-depth interviews with individual women leaders drawn from the fields of business, medicine and academia, as well as women in leadership positions within organizations that support women’s leadership. It also draws on a qualitative and quantitative ethnographic exploration of transient digital meta-fields and interviewees’ publics to triangulate perspectives on the use and impact of social media. The research focused on specific social media platforms, i.e. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. It uses Batliwala’s framing of feminist leadership as a means for transformative change and juxtaposes social media use and feminist leadership along five key qualities as follows: (1.) a vision for social change, (2.) the role of the self; (3.) collectivity; (4) sources of authority and, (5.) understanding of power structures.
The framing positions social media as a structure and space for the reversal of power imbalances and patriarchal norms and practices. In complementing Batliwala’s feminist leadership theory, the study invokes the auteur theory in explaining differences in use based on the individual experiences of women leaders. Women’s lived experiences, positionalities, and technical expertise significantly shape the leadership processes or positions as well as their personal leadership styles. These factors ultimately impact their use of social media, their vision, values, practices and the transformative potential of the same. Personal experiences shape the sub consciousness choice behind content generation and social media choice, levels of engagement of social media, and pushback strategies to the social media toxicity.
Women’s social media choices, use, and purpose in Lebanon
With the digital environment in a constant state of flux, existing digital platforms are evolving and giving birth to new platforms that are continuously launched into the market. The study shows that women choose particular social media platforms based on their objectives for using social media, and that this choice is moderated by the context and dynamics in which they interact as well as the realm in they exercise leadership. The findings confirm the utility of social media as a tool for women leaders and organizations and promotion of such leadership. They show that social media can bypass traditional media, such as television and print, which often mirror offline patriarchal structures because of the political economy of their ownership and control.
Generally, Women in Lebanon utilize social media for its large audiences. They use social media to promote themselves, build credibility, authority and legitimacy, shape socio-political and economic narratives, raise awareness, and call for political action/change. As examples Haytayan, used social media to share her political views during the 2018 elections, while Amira Kobrosli, a mother and educator, uses specific hashtags (#motherhood #momsofinstagram #momlife #motherhoodunplugged #motherhoodjourney) to raise awareness around motherhood through her own experiences. Uses by organizations include campaigning, raising awareness, to promote visions, to promote events, increase event attendance engage with a wider audience and to understand trends to support women in leadership in acquiring visibility and sometimes credibility. LLWB uses social media mainly to share information; a closer look at their platforms shows that they also use it to share upcoming and past events. LLWB for instance uses social media to share information with the external publics. They used social media to announce their new board of directors for 2020-2023.
Social Media as an Advocacy Tool
However, how individual women leaders and organisations use social media for advocacy differs on two main grounds, i.e. the power of numbers and links to other powerful organizations in the political and public policy arena; and the availability of human, financial and technological resources earmarked for social media advocacy within the organizations. In Lebanon, advocacy by organizations has been effective in challenging public opinion on gender justice and women’s leadership. LADE, as an example, develops and shares social media content raising awareness around democratic elections, including electoral laws, quotas, policy and legal reform. LADE also produces several social media campaigns to tackle social distribution of gender roles. Another common use for social media is information sharing. Stand For Women, for instance, delivers training for women leadership in business developed by founder Caroline Fattal based on her own professional experience with discrimination of women in business.
The current study identified social media as a tool that can be used to build virtual “communities’ with potential impact offline. According to Moawad,
‘the online world is important for a lot of people to build credibility and use individual and collective voices to highlight critical issues, but it is not enough to get a comprehensive picture of reality without work on the groundwork. For online engagements to achieve some degree of impact, they must not substitute, but complement work on the ground to avoid the phenomenon of an “optical illusion of social media”. Nonetheless, social media has achieved the impact of building solidarity and support among women and women’s groups at local, regional and international levels with positive outcomes on both policy and practice.
Challenges & Limitations around social media use, women’s leadership, and participation
The study found that social media impact is not always positive but is a double aged sword with both positives and negatives. It also found and problematized the perverse use of social media as a space for “calling out” and “criticizing” rather than being a solution-oriented platform to hold others accountable.
The other downside of social media in Lebanon is the replication of harmful social norms such as the use of toxic language, online violence and threats that cause self-censorship, in the process restricting women’s engagement in the leadership processes. In line with the feminist theory, social media brings into play challenges related to competition and individualism founded in patriarchal, capitalist and neo-liberal systems. This prevents social media from contributing to feminist leadership as a collective political process. As a result, social media does not allow nuanced debates with complexity, depth and reflection. Social media does not contribute to feminist leadership goals of creating structures and spaces for disrupting power imbalances and patriarchal norms.
Another negative dimension revealed by the study is the profit-orientation of social media applications. Social media platforms determine post placement on users’ feeds based on complex computation of a series of factors ranging from the geographic location of the user to the degree of engagement with a particular subject. As such, one’s followers tend to be from the same community with similar mindsets and already engaged on the issues shared. Algorithms become obstacle to reaching wider audiences, making the nexus between community-building, feminist leadership, and social media very complex turning social media into more of an “eco-chamber” that limits engagements with wider audiences.
Conclusion & Recommendation
Social media remains a rapidly evolving set of tools and platforms, and its effectiveness in supporting women’s leadership and facilitating women’s individual and collective abilities to create social change is also evolving. Ultimately, the usefulness of the tool depends on the type of leadership that is exercised, as well as its objectives. For such tools, platforms, and the internet as a whole to facilitate space for organizing and collective work on feminist change, there is need for the creation of people-owned, free and alternative networks that foster healthier interactions, accountability mechanisms and spaces for debate. Nevertheless, sustaining offline tools and spaces for engagement and collective leadership processes with visions of feminist social change remains crucial.