Facebook Vigilantism Is a Scary Thing

“They’re turning suspects into criminals in one click.”

Eranicle / Alex Gontar / Shutterstock / Marwan Tahtah / Getty / Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

In early December, a shocking video recorded in the lobby of an apartment building on the outskirts of Beirut surfaced on the internet. The video, posted to an unusual Facebook page called Weynieh el Dawleh—or “Where is the state?”—showed two young men grabbing another man and leading him away at gunpoint. A caption claimed that the men were involved in a drug-related dispute and requested the public’s help in uncovering their identities. Less than a week after the video appeared, a follow-up video was published to Weynieh el Dawleh. It was the same footage from the lobby, but with some notable modifications, including captions noting the full names and addresses of both the perpetrators and the abductee. For dramatic effect, it had an action-movie-style soundtrack, and opened with a message in Arabic: “We asked you for help identifying them,” referring to the men in the video. “And after 48 hours, they have fallen into our grasp.” The accompanying post called on the police to arrest the attackers.

The video of the armed assault demonstrated how Weynieh el Dawleh works. Several times a day, the administrator of the page posts photos or videos privately shared with him by the page’s followers, a number that has been as high as 250,000. The posts often depict a crime or some other alleged wrongdoing: a drug deal, an armed assault, a rollicking brawl. One even showed a shopkeeper tying up and beating the bare feet of a child after he caught him stealing. After watching a video, viewers use Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp to send in tips to the administrator on the identities of those who appear. Once the administrator receives the details and attempts to confirm them, he posts what is essentially a digital wanted poster to the page, complete with subjects’ names, photos, and addresses.

The page has become an unofficial, crowdsourced investigative service for citizens who feel the state has failed to respond to their needs. “I wish our state worked like you do,” one follower posted on the page. “I have more trust in the Weynieh el Dawleh page than in the government,” another wrote. But legal and privacy advocates have told me that some of Weynieh el Dawleh’s posts have violated their subjects’ constitutional rights, and that the page erodes the rule of law in the country. The government, apparently content to benefit from the page’s unofficial investigations, doesn’t intervene. This means that Facebook itself is the only check on the page’s activities. But it interferes with Weynieh el Dawleh only sporadically, leaving it generally free to post what it pleases.

Why would the Lebanese state invite the help of a community of Facebook vigilantes? For one thing, it’s because the government is relatively weak, thanks in part to a complex power-sharing agreement designed to keep the peace among Lebanon’s various religious groups and sects. In the absence of a strong state, NGOs, private companies, and sectarian political parties acting outside the government have stepped in to provide basic services, including electricity, water, and education. Lebanon’s residents generally pay at least twice for power and water: one bill for each service to the state, plus one to the private owners of the generators that keep the lights on during the country’s daily power outages, and another to the water-delivery companies that keep taps flowing when government-provided water runs out.

Some of the factors that keep Lebanon’s government weak have also contributed to the fracturing of its security sector, which includes government agencies like the army, a police force, and multiple intelligence agencies. Political parties like Hezbollah, influential families and clans, and even loosely organized bands of young men act as informal security agencies.

For many of the same reasons, some people just don’t trust the official security sector. In a national survey conducted in 2013 by International Alert, an NGO focused on conflict resolution, a quarter of respondents said they would not choose to first rely on the government if they were a victim of a crime. Instead, they preferred the help of, say, a political party or powerful family. “If [the police] can help solve an issue, that’s great; if there’s another way of doing things, that also works,” Carmen Geha, a professor of public administration at the American University of Beirut who analyzed the survey results in a 2015 report, said.

The Weynieh el Dawleh Facebook page is one such way. “[The police] wouldn’t move if I didn’t make them uncomfortable,” the page’s administrator, a man who goes by the pseudonym Sami Beiruti, told me. Beiruti said his page exists not just to out suspected criminals; it’s also designed to embarrass Lebanon's security forces into arresting them. “I press the government and say, ‘Come take action,’” Beiruti said. His posts also offer an unflinching critique of the government, focusing on infractions small—like police officers breaking traffic laws—and large.

Behind the scenes, however, Beiruti is in regular contact with the Internal Security Forces (ISF), Lebanon’s main police force, which has followed up on some of the leads he has posted to the Facebook page. Beiruti said his investigations have helped the ISF with hundreds of cases over the years, but that the ISF only arrests a fraction of the suspects he identifies. (The ISF said the page helped with “many” cases but declined to supply a specific number.) Beiruti said he speaks to the ISF about once a week, usually when it has a complaint with one of his posts. Otherwise, he said, the authorities don’t want anything to do with him. “I think sometimes that they don't want me to exist,” he said. “They wish that my page is closed. And I feel that I may be considered an embarrassment to them, because I solve crimes that [they can't].”

Joseph Moussallem, an ISF spokesperson, said the force treats information from the page just like a lead from any other media source, and that it conducts independent investigations to confirm the tips. He said that the ISF is not allowed to go about its work the way Beiruti does—posting photos and videos of suspects, crowdsourcing an investigation, and publishing the results, all without a warrant or official permission—but that it has been helped by the page’s results. He characterized the ISF’s cooperation with Beiruti as limited, saying the force generally reaches out to him only to correct misinformation and false accusations against its officers.

Beiruti told me that he’s a Lebanese man in his 40s who runs the page in addition to—and often during—his day job as an office worker. Beiruti said he started the first version of Weynieh el Dawleh in 2013 in an effort to fill gaps he perceived in local reporting. He claimed to have only begun publicly identifying suspected criminals about two years later, when he said his followers began sending in videos and photos.

(These claims are difficult to confirm: Facebook has taken down older versions of Beiruti’s pages. And while I could not confirm the details on his personal background, which he said he guards to protect himself from retaliation, I am convinced that he is the page’s administrator. Over the course of several months, we corresponded via the phone number included on nearly every post on the Facebook page; when I asked Beiruti over the phone to prove he was also in control of the page, he quickly sent me a Facebook message from Weynieh el Dawleh with a specific phrase I asked him to include, and shared a screenshot of the page’s administration panel. He also gave me the name of his contact at the ISF, who confirmed that he had spoken with the page’s administrator.)

Legal and digital-rights advocates told me that they began having concerns with the page over the past year. They said that the administrator could conceivably misidentify suspects, and that those doxxed on the page could be vulnerable to vigilante violence. Beiruti said he’s only misidentified a suspect once, and that no one he has outed has ever suffered violent retribution. It's unclear how he would be able to make either claim.

Another worry is that Beiruti’s page could push the ISF to focus on the types of crimes he highlights. Genwa Samhat, the executive director of HELEM, a Lebanese LGBT-rights organization, told me that she has seen an uptick in posts over the past year encouraging homophobia and transphobia, and a complementary rise in arrests of LGBT people in Lebanon. A video published on the page last September showed a woman leading a man around on a leash in Jounieh, a city just north of Beirut. The two were in a consensual BDSM relationship—in this case, a relationship between a dominant and a submissive partner—Samhat said. Many Lebanese news outlets reposted the video, which Beiruti had described as a display of “moral decline and sexual deviance.” He soon followed up with a post that identified both people, outing the woman as transgender and publishing her birth name. The pair was soon arrested.

Ghida Frangieh, a lawyer with the Lebanese NGO Legal Agenda, said the public outcry that erupted around the video may have forced the government’s hand to act against the couple. “If the page had not published this video, maybe nobody would have prosecuted them,” she said. “This kind of influence is particularly worrisome when it comes to prosecuting non-normative behavior, as opposed to more violent crimes.” Beiruti claimed that video was the only post he’s ever published that targeted LGBT people. (In the five months I’ve periodically checked up on his page, I did not find other examples of anti-LGBT posts.) Beiruti’s mentality isn’t that “of a citizen assisting law enforcement in fighting criminality,” Frangieh said. “The page feels that [it is] law enforcement. And that’s a problem.”

Some of the other photos and videos Beiruti has posted clearly cross lines. In November, he published a photo of a man whose head was severed in a motorcycle accident. (His face was obscured by the page’s logo.) He included information about the man’s identity. “It was very shocking, so that’s why I posted it. … This page tells the story, even if it’s tough,” Beiruti said when I asked him why he publishes victims’ identities. “It tells the full truth.”

In December, Beiruti posted an image of a woman’s body lying on the ground with what appeared to be a black cord wrapped around her neck. The text on the post said that she had been raped and murdered. “Help us identify this victim who was killed in cold blood,” it read. Beiruti said he published the photo to help the ISF, but took it down within 24 hours, after he got a wave of criticism on the page. The details in the photo and the post matched information in press reports about the death of Rebecca Dykes, a British diplomat.

Ali Mourad, a law professor at Beirut Arab University, said that this blasé attitude towards privacy dismissed individuals’ rights to presumed innocence, a right affirmed by the Lebanese constitution. But when Weynieh el Dawleh publicly identifies a suspect, the page effectively skips due process to arrive at what amounts to a conviction, backed up by the authority of collective censure rather than the law. “This is a threat to the judiciary system,” Mohamad Najem, the co-director of SMEX, a Lebanese digital-rights advocacy organization, told me. “They’re turning suspects into criminals in one click.”

None of this—the calls for information, the public shaming, the cooperation with the police—would be possible without Facebook. But Facebook is a fickle host. The company has shut down Beiruti’s page five times, most recently in response to a request for comment for this article. Many of the pages’ posts appear to violate Facebook’s community standards, which don’t allow pages to “identify and shame private individuals.” Facebook said it shut down the page in February because it was publishing information about other people without their consent, which also violates the platform’s community standards. But within three days, it was up again, under the same name but a different URL.

When his page is taken down, Beiruti loses all his followers, resetting a metric that’s very important to him. Before it was shut down in September, the third iteration of the page had more than 250,000 likes, a significant number for a page that focuses on hyper-local news in a country of about six million. As of today, it has close to 38,000. (By comparison, ISF’s official Facebook page has just over 160,000 likes.)

Since the government leaves Beiruti to his own devices, and lawsuits and threats don’t seem to slow him down, Facebook may be the only mechanism that can actually keep the page in check. But it does so only rarely: Activists say it requires a coordinated flood of reports aimed at a particular post to get the page taken down.

“Facebook’s moderation is driven by user complaints, so it’s more likely for a page to be taken down if there’s a particular group that has an interest in having it taken down,” said Danny O’Brien, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s international director. “So minority or controversial pages are going to be more likely to be removed than other pages that still break the rules.”

What’s more, O’Brien said, Facebook’s local moderators might make decisions under the influence of their own prejudices and biases, and the checks designed to prevent one-sided moderating are weaker in the developing world than they would be in a place like the United States. (UN human-rights experts said last week that Facebook played a “determining role” in spreading hate speech in Myanmar, where the UN is investigating whether or not a genocide is taking place.)

When Facebook does shut down Beiruti’s page, it doesn’t stay offline for long. “We do disable the accounts of repeat infringers in some circumstances,” a Facebook spokesperson told me. This doesn’t appear to have happened in Beiruti’s case, since he has always been able to start a new Weynieh el Dawleh page shortly after the last one is shut down.

“It’s good that Facebook has reacted to Lebanese society reporting these kind of pages,” said Najem, the digital-rights advocate. Facebook should do more to defend its Middle Eastern users’ privacy, Najem said, but it’s also the government’s responsibility to step in and protect its citizens from online threats.