WhatsApp, Lebanon? by The New Humanitarian

It has been two years since a deadly explosion tore through Beirut’s port, destroying part of the capital, shocking Lebanon, and making international headlines.

The blast was devastating and, for a short time at least, it made front pages and home pages. But the truth is that it happened when Lebanon was already deep in the throes of an economic and financial crisis – a slow-burn catastrophe that the international media has really struggled to cover.

That’s something we have tried to change with The New Humanitarian’s illustrated interactive timeline, WhatsApp, Lebanon? It looks at how Lebanon’s collapse has impacted the lives of five young people in Lebanon – Afaf, Bassel, Mohamad, Roger, and Roza – through their WhatsApp conversations.

Why WhatsApp? Well, because when journalists ask people questions, they know what story they’ve been assigned. They can’t help but drive the narrative. That’s just not good enough for complex and multi-layered crises like Lebanon, where traditional news stories fail to capture just how much every aspect of daily life has changed.

Over the course of around three years, Lebanon’s currency has lost 90 percent of its value, and the vast majority of the population has been thrust into poverty. But journalists aren’t usually there to witness late night feelings of despair when the power has been out for hours, nor are they waiting in hours-long petrol queues.

The great thing about WhatsApp messages is that they offer a locally rooted archive of history, of conversations that have already happened. As journalists, we can’t shape them, but we can – with the permission of our contributors – make them a valuable resource, and a jumping off point for inclusive storytelling.

When we began WhatsApp, Lebanon?, we truly didn’t know what to expect. We tried to create space for a free flow of ideas and emotions, between us and everyone involved. We wanted the people who opened their phones to us to share the chats and voice notes that were important to them, not the ones that we thought mattered. Building trust was crucial, so they knew their stories would not be distorted, and that their voices would truly be heard.

We asked a renowned Lebanese artist, Rafik El Hariri, to drive the visual direction of WhatsApp, Lebanon? You can see in his illustrations that he’s been living through the same crisis that he’s drawing.

This sort of non-traditional collaborative journalism is an investment in time and resources, but we believe it’s worth it.

Journalism has a tendency to dramatise and simplify humanitarian crises, at the same time that it profits from them. People surviving in places like Lebanon are often called “resilient”. But there are so many layers, so many untold stories, behind their survival. We believe the people living through this can, and should, be the narrators of their own stories.