Revolution of the mind (PHOTO: Ghida Ismail)
"Revolution of the mind" (PHOTO: Ghida Ismail)

Is Lebanon experiencing a revolution of the mind?

Tagged on one of the pillars of the resuscitated Egg in downtown Beirut is “ثورة فكرية”  (revolution of the mind), a statement whose hidden artist scrawled to describe the nationwide protests that have commanded the streets of Lebanon since October 17, 2019. 

The protests attracted millions of Lebanese people from different confessions, regions and socio-economic classes. The chants, artwork, and media coverage of the protests in the past three months have also touched on a multitude of political, economic, and historical concepts.

“Your sect is not your religion, remove it,” reads one painting on a wall in Riad el Solh. Protest squares and other public spaces also manifest a strong awareness of laws and regulations, with multiple open discussions organized in them on topics such as civil resistance and the future of Lebanon. In addition to that, scattered posters explain the establishment of a new electoral law, the duties of the president and citizens’ right to peacefully demonstrate.

Meanwhile in the virtual sphere, independent platforms and social media pages have popped up to share accessible videos and posts about the ongoing protests, facts about the socio-economic and political failures of the ruling class, and other relevant information that keeps the public interested in and connected to the revolution at hand.

As a result, Lebanese people have been heavily exposed to political, economic and historical concepts since the start of the protests. But has that affected their attentiveness to politics and economics? Have the protests, as is painted on the walls of Beirut, triggered a revolution of the mind?

How do we know if it’s a revolution of the mind?

Undoubtedly, the protest movement worked to appeal to people’s minds. To understand whether the revolution has triggered political interest among people in Lebanon, actively seeking information is a better measure than incidental exposure to information.

In the internet era, a main source of information is Google. Countless people resort to the search engine to find answers for the questions on their minds. Accordingly, to gain insight on whether the protests have pushed the Lebanese people with easy access to the internet to seek more information about political and economic concepts, Google Trends offers valuable data.

See also: Lebanon’s internet threatened to disconnect in March 2020

I examine whether different regions in Lebanon have witnessed an increase in googling certain relevant concepts and words during the months of the protests, as compared to past years. 

Since the protests have been praised for being decentralized, I look separately at Google searches in Beirut, the North governorate –including Tripoli and Bsharre– the South governorate –including Sidon and Tyre– and the Nabatieh governorate to highlight heterogeneity in searches between these regions.

While Google Trends doesn’t provide absolute volume of searches, it gives a normalized volume of searches scaled on a range of 0 to 100, which allows a comparison in searches over time. Unpopular terms with few searches appear as 0. Any number above zero represents a substantial volume of searches.

Are people Googling the revolution and corruption?

 As the protests have been described as a revolution from the onset, Lebanese people have resorted to Google to gather more information about the protests and potentially about the workings of a revolution.

Weekly searches of the term “revolution” and related terms such as “revolt” in both English and Arabic have aggregately increased by, on average, 15 times in Beirut, 12 times in the North and 5 times in the South and Nabatieh.

For the most part, the revolution was characterized early on as a civil disobedience campaign because it consisted of sit-ins, blocking roads and mainly –until recently– non-violent tactics to pressure and condemn the government.

 Accordingly, it seems people have been curious to know more about this concept. Weekly searches for “civil disobedience” and related terms in English and Arabic increasing by an average of 13 times in Beirut. In the North, South and Nabatieh, the searches for this concept were negligible in the year before the protests, but have reached a maximum volume of searches for the past 5 years during the months of protests.  

Combatting government corruption has been at the heart of protesters’ demands.  The desire to gain more insight on this topic in Lebanon seems to have surged, with weekly searches for it in both English and Arabic increasing by on average 3 times in Beirut, doubling in the North and Nabatieh but not changing in the South. 

Protesters blatantly condemned and criticized the autocratic and sectarian political system that has fostered corruption, which appears to have sparked people’s curiosity in understanding the functioning of such a system. 

Weekly searches for autocracy and related queries in both Arabic and English have doubled in Beirut. Even though Lebanon has been subject to this governance structure for decades, volume of searches for this concept have reached its maximum in Beirut for the past 5 years in the months of protests. However, there were no substantial changes in the North, South and Nabatieh. 

“Sectarianism” as a topic has also garnered attention, with searches for this concept in English and Arabic doubling in Beirut and in the North. 

Are people Googling alternatives to the current political system?

Beyond attempting to gain a better grasp of the current governmental system, people are interested in shaping a better idea of proposed alternative systems. The alternative put forth by the “revolution” has been a new technocratic and secular government. 

Consequently, interest in technocracy has been reflected in people’s Google searches, with weekly searches for this concept increasing by more than 20 times on average in all regions since the start of the protests. 

While technocracy is not a new concept to Lebanon –with it having been central to the Beirut Madinati campaign during the 2016 municipal election– it did reach its maximum volume of searches during the protests for the past 5 years in all regions. Moreover, searches for topics related to “secularism” doubled in Beirut and tripled in the South. 

Demands for a new political system drew discussions on the constitutional requirements and procedures to establish a new government, particularly following the resignation of the Prime Minister Saad El Hariri. 

Also, interest in the constitution amidst the protests extended to questions about constitutional rights of protesters. This has been mirrored in weekly searches for the topic of “constitution” which has increased by, on average, 3 times in Beirut and the North, 4 times in Nabatieh and doubled in the South. This topic, during the weeks of protests, has also reached its maximum volume of searches for the last 5 years in Beirut, North and South.

Are people Googling Lebanon’s violent past? 

The protests sparked talks of the civil war that ravaged Lebanon for 15 years. On the one hand, there were threats and fear that the protest movement could lead to a new civil war. On the other hand, another widespread sentiment regarded the protests as the real end of the civil war, with people from different sects finally uniting.

In the past decades, Lebanese citizens practiced a form of a collective amnesia when it came to the topic of the  civil war. The war is missing from history books in schools and remained largely absent from public discussions, which has inhibited effective processes to remember, understand and process it. 

However, the ongoing revolution has triggered a resistance to this collective amnesia. Weekly searches for “civil war” and related terms in Arabic and English doubled on average in Beirut, the North and the South, and tripled in Nabatieh. 

In all regions, the volume of searches for civil war topics during the protests has reached more than double the volume of searches during the week of commemoration of the civil war in April 2019. 

Nonetheless, other relevant concepts that accompanied the protests –such as electoral system, judicial system and monetary policy– have not experienced a surge in searches throughout the months of protests in any region. This indicates that the political interest of protesters has been captured by certain key political topics and recurrent terms raised throughout the protests across Lebanon, while other topics concerning more advanced institutional policies and plans have not yet gained as much interest. 

Still, this suggests that protests movement and media coverage could play a role in influencing people’s political interests through increasing the visibility of different concepts. This could, in turn, enrich public discussion and national dialogue across Lebanon. 

Beyond assessing the protests in terms of the number of people on the streets, of whether they are peaceful or violent and on whether they will lead to a radical political change, it is worth also considering their role as a catalyst of political awareness and of a revolution of the mind.