Lebanon News

When civilians are police, jury, judge

BEIRUT: Frustrated with Lebanese security, a man under the alias of Sami Beiruti took to social media in 2013 to create an online community of vigilantes looking to serve justice into their own hands using Facebook. His page “Wainiyeh al-Dawle” names and shames people by posting videos and photos of individuals engaging in “immoral and illegal behavior.” Translating to “where is the state,” the page represents lack of civilian trust in authorities amassing over 88,000 followers taking on roles of authority.

“I run the page, there’s no one apart from me,” Beiruti told The Daily Star over the phone. “About four years ago, I started the page to post about crimes that go unnoticed – crimes that happen to people on the streets, in alleyways, arguments between neighbors that sour. Nothing political or large scale.”

Implicating videos and photos are crowdsourced by anyone with access to the page. With his WhatsApp number made public on the Facebook page, Beiruti receives numerous submissions, vetting them himself before posting online.

Once published, followers or viewers of Wainiyeh al-Dawle are provided the opportunity to personally enact justice whether it be publicly identifying individuals in the video or simply leaving rebuking comments. For submissions in which individuals have already been identified by the source, Beiruti immediately posts all personal details.

This particular brand of vigilantism is known as “doxxing” by the hacker community. According to Mat Honan, an American journalist covering technology, the practice emerged in the ’90s when hackers began publicizing personal data as a form of revenge.

“I’m renowned for saying things in a straight-up way,” Beiruti said unapologetically. “I post people’s full names, not like the [Internal Security Forces] who cover people’s faces and only publicizes initials in their statements. I will publicize his name, his picture and what building he lives in.”

The online vigilante communicates directly with the ISF, passing on information. But he said they didn’t give him credit for his contribution, claiming that his page has caught “hundreds” of criminals for them.

“My page has become a place that people seek out for solving their crimes,” Beiruti said. “Everyone who has a personal problem contacts me, people with land issues, assaults ... that’s what I’ve become known for.”

While many have posted messages of praise on the page commending the work of Wainiyeh al-Dawle, others are wary that the group of online vigilantes are walking a fine line – and in some cases, may have gone too far.

“This page serves as a denunciation, it squanders the right of presumed innocence – the idea that a person is pronounced innocent until proved otherwise in court,” Dr. Ali Mourad, professor of Public Law at the Beirut Arab University, told The Daily Star. “Regardless of good or bad intentions, Wainiyeh al-Dawle creates problematic issues, both legally and socially.”

The professor also argued that context can be lost in videos and therefore skew public perception of the situation.

He added that leaving identification of suspects to amateurs may result in mistakes and result in possible harassment or violence against an innocent person. However, the social implications, Mourad insisted, are far more serious.

“We are transforming every person and citizen into a judge, detective and police. People are taking on the role of the state, when in fact it is [the state’s] job to stop criminals, not ours. This kind of behavior takes us back pre-Hammurabi code,” Mourad remarked, referencing the ancient Babylonian code of law.

“This type of reaction opens the gates for revenge. In many situations, we see politicians themselves intervene in larger cases of fights between families. This too impedes real justice, because the proper authorities are not acting properly.”

The popularity of the page is unsurprising for the professor, who says overwhelming lack of trust and inefficiency of state authorities is common. “If authorities prove to be incompetent or unconcerned in imposing rule of law, individual initiatives such as Wainiyeh al-Dawle popularize,” he said.

“I teach human rights in university, and I’ve witnessed the evolution of students increasingly [advocating] for the death penalty in Lebanon because they believe that authorities may not properly deliver punishment in cases such as murder,” Mourad said.

Lara Bitar and Mohamad Najem, members of media advocacy organization Social Media Exchange (SMEX), said that the page encourages individuals to impose their personal moral values onto others.

At the end of September, Beiruti published a video of a transgender woman leading a man wearing a leash in Jounieh, a city just north of Beirut. The video garnered over 500,000 views, according to SMEX.

Attached to the video, Beiruti posted a caption calling upon followers to “take it upon their shoulders” to identify the two individuals.

Reportedly, the man was arrested after just a few hours and the woman one day later.

“At the very fundamental and basic level, this is invading people’s privacy when they’re not doing anything that harms anyone else,” Bitar, SMEX’s editorial director and lead researcher, told The Daily Star.

“Online vigilantes have no place in exposing this sort of behavior whether you consider it to be immoral or not. With this incident exposing people in Jounieh, we can see people imposing their values onto others.”

In response to the post, the unfazed Beiruti first highlighted the woman’s gender identity before insisting that the engagement was illegal.

“They were arrested, so it’s against the law. I’m not against homosexuals, [but] obviously I would hope my son would not be one. These people are abnormal, but I don’t hate them, they can do whatever they want but here it is a crime of public fornication,” Beiruti said.

Though the pair were filmed engaged in potentially compromising behavior, both were fully clothed and no recorded fornication took place.

Najem, co-director at SMEX, said the trend of posting videos in this vein were reflections of prejudices and values held by the general Lebanese public. While the Jounieh incident demonstrated the public’s attitude on sexual norms and the LGBTQ community, videos incriminating Syrian refugees also serve as a marker of discrimination against Syrians.

“Streams of videos of Syrians assaulting others or caught in certain acts are instigating hate,” Najem said.

Nonetheless, both Najem and Bitar referenced cases abroad in which security successfully outsourced help to identify culprits. But not every instance leads to justice.

“It’s a fine line, and it’s clear that we have to evaluate each case by itself,” Najem said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 24, 2017, on page 3.

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