“We are witnessing a fundamental change in how individuals can interact with their democracy and experience their role as citizens. Ideal citizens need not be seen purely as trying to inform themselves about what others have found, so that they can vote intelligently. They need not be limited to reading the opinions of opinion makers and judging them in private conversations. They are no longer constrained to occupy the role of mere readers, viewers, and listeners. They can be, instead, participants in a conversation.” – Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks
The rise of online and social media over the past fifteen years has led a number of prominent theorists to equate a participatory media with an engaged civil society and ultimately more democratized culture. While few can dispute that user participation in online media affords a degree of freedom by the very act of self-publishing alone, a question still remains if the open-architecture of digital technology leads to an inherently more liberal ideology. The development of civil networks has proven to have enormous effects around the world. In the most extreme cases civic networks have actually been responsible for the overthrow of long-established authority structures as evidenced in the color revolutions of the former Soviet Union.
However, some have argued that the state is gaining agency in the current structure of the Internet and that civil society has little power to freedoms in certain parts of the world. The transformative potentiality of the Internet was featured on a global stage this past summer with the so-called Exercise‘Twitter’ revolution in Iran. But the lesson in power of participatory media for democracy ended with Mahmoud Ajmadinejad still in power and an authoritarian religious regime meeting dissidents with deadly force. Not exactly the outcome cyber-optimists were hoping for. This is to say nothing of the fact that without a media there is no message, as evidenced by the alarming number of countries drastically behind the digital divide. Regardless, the online publics forming on popular social networking sites across the world are bringing attention to the role of youth activists in the public sphere. One such recent case study highlights a Facebook group that is working to remove religious law altogether in a Middle Eastern country.
For the past ten years in Lebanon, a growing movement of activists has proposed the legalization of civil marriages in the sectarian democracy. Adopting a civil marriage law would allow couples in Lebanon to marry regardless of religion and across religions if they should so choose. Today, Lebanese couples must travel abroad (usually to Cyprus or Turkey) to marry after which the marriage becomes recognized by the government. What might initially seem to be an innocuous issue that is more based in rigid bureaucracy than any sort of fundamental theocracy does in fact have enormous political implications. The “Civil Society Movement” in Lebanon can be seen as a strategy to get God out of the country for good and move to a society with civil law secularism. Inheritance, electoral candidacy, and women’s rights are still bound to sectarian-marriage laws determined by the religious parliament that rules the country, laws that much of the youth of the country seem to reject.
Not surprisingly the civil marriage issue has found a home on Facebook. “All for Civil Marriage in Lebanon” has some 13,000 members on its group page set up by students at the American University of Beirut. The group launched in early 2007 and is a robust environment for daily debate and discussion. While mainstream media coverage of the issue has been relegated to an occasional opinion piece in the newspaper or rare announcements from the ministry, the Facebook group has been a space defined by discourse, organization and activism.
Facebook groups like ”All for Civil Marriage in Lebanon” have shown potential to mobilize youth movements online for political issues. Howard Rheingold, a professor at Stanford University, argues that youth “participation in the public sphere through online publishing, discourse, debate, cocreation of culture, and collective action” can influence civic behavior throughout their lives. The group has just drafted a new version of a civil marriage law and some suggest the political rivalries that have stymied the effort in the past will soon succumb to change. Earlier this year Interior Minister Ziad Baroud announced he would implement a law that would strike any reference to religion from the countries registry record and if all goes according to plan, the state will eventually be obliged to create civil laws outside of religious ones. Controversial bishop Gregoire Haddad said the move is a very important step towards secularism in the country.
The steps taken by the group are not new. Civil rights activists have been trying to pass this legislation for over 10 years before the group reinjected some energy into the debate. What is new however, is the ease, ability and depth for youth to actively engage in political life for change using social media as a tool. The organizers of the “All for Civil Marriage in Lebanon” are serious about using the platform as a proper epicenter for political and public support on an issue of vital importance to the youth of Lebanon. If the government of Lebanon decides to legalize civil marriage few will likely attribute the shift to a single Facebook group, but the notion that the new public sphere is taking place on social networking sites around the world is clearly gaining mainstream relevancy.