There has never been a better time to critically assess how and where we get our news and information than these times when social media has become the main source of news for many, and “fake news” not only informs policy-making, but has become a tool for some politicians. Healthy democracies require informed citizens capable of critical thinking, an engaged civil society positioned to propose solutions and influence policy-makers, and universities committed to the transformation of society. Academia is an often overlooked prerequisite for democratic and informed policy-making through its education and research functions as well as its role as a site for public discourse.
Bridging the gap between policy-makers and academia is not easy, especially in the Arab world. The spaces for interaction are limited, and the policy-making process is rarely systematic. Even when policy-makers and academics do interact, they might find out they do not even speak the same language. A 2018 study by the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies on Lebanese parliamentarians found that 63 percent of MPs could not accurately estimate the unemployment rate, and while socioeconomic concerns were priorities for the majority of citizens polled, only 30 percent of MPs shared these concerns. Academics, on the other hand, can be too theoretical in their studies and too “long-winded” when addressing these issues.
Resolving this disconnect does not remove all of the barriers to formulating good policies, but it can go a long way toward envisioning longer-term solutions to everyday problems. At the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs (IFI) we have focused on: providing a space for policy-related dialogue between academics, civil society, and policy-makers; supporting and facilitating high-quality policy research by professors; and, most importantly, disseminating academic policy-relevant research as accessible publications with clear recommendations.
In highly politicized countries like Lebanon, there is limited public space for a healthy, non-partisan, well-informed debate.
The reality in the Arab world, however, is that almost 80 percent of Arab nationals are on social media, and around 70 percent report that social media is an important source of news. The internet and social media have made it easy to publish and reach thousands of people at the click of a button. Access to information through the internet has been both liberating and disorienting due to the sheer volume available. Often, it is hard to know the legitimacy of the information unless one is willing to dig deeper and research the source. In this context, distorted and biased information, sometimes referred to as “fake news,” can be easily instrumentalized by politicians and pundits through powerful tools of social media at times leading to a highly misinformed society.
The nefarious use of “fake news” for political campaigns has been on the increase worldwide. Of particular concern is its use by populist parties that depend on scapegoating immigrants and refugees for their societies’ problems. The use of false or fabricated information to rally a xenophobic political “base” is not history, but an ongoing 21st century blight on developed, liberal democracies across the globe. Here in Lebanon, there is a politicized narrative around refugees that is not very different from Western anti-immigrant discourse by right wing and populist parties in the US or Europe. At IFI, we seek to counter inaccurate information used by politicians and media through a social media campaign that uses everyday language and data visualisation to disseminate facts about the Syrian refugee crisis.
In highly politicized countries like Lebanon, there is limited public space for a healthy non-partisan, well-informed debate on the critical issues of the day. It is difficult to find a non-partisan and independent space for the exchange of ideas, but it is even more difficult to have the convening power to bring all the concerned parties together. Building credible institutions, whether academic or civic, to engage in the policy-making process is of paramount importance. Henry Giroux, a leading public intellectual on the societal obligations of educational institutions, argues that, “A democracy cannot exist without informed citizens and public spheres and educational apparatuses that uphold standards of truth, honesty, evidence, facts and justice.” Many in this region do not live in a democracy, but these are certainly principles that educators and researchers can and should strive to uphold.