In October 2019, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese took to the streets to demand transparent governance, an end to corruption, and an overhaul of a failed political and financial system following the announcement of a string of austerity measures by the government of then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
At the same time, many average Lebanese sought to better understand the economic chaos that had ensued in their country and how what was happening would affect them, and like most in the modern world, they turned to the internet for answers.
Many found those answers on Twitter from the NERDS: a group of Lebanese financial and economic professionals who came together under the name “Nasty Economy Requires Drastic Solutions.”
Facing a government that repeatedly fails to provide reliable and accessible information on the state of Lebanon’s economy, demand from citizens for solid information has soared.
The NERDS, the most prominent of which posts from an anonymous Twitter account called @lebfinance, recently caught attention in Lebanon for their analysis of a leaked draft government economic reform plan.
“Prior to October, there was really no extensive analysis of the economy or financial situation,” said Mohamad Faour, a NERD and post-doctoral research fellow in finance at University College Dublin.
“[The NERDS] are just trying to make sense of what’s going on, raise awareness of the situation, and bring economics back into popular discourse.”
Ordinary Lebanese people have seen the value of their savings plummet, suffered wage cuts or job losses, and been even denied access to the money in their bank account, with little explanation from those in power.
The measures, the most notorious of which was a tax on internet messaging services like WhatsApp, were viewed by the population as a regressive response to the economic crisis that had seen their living conditions slowly deteriorate.
Where did it all start?
The establishment of the NERDS began with one Twitter account – @lebfinance. And while no one seems to know the identity of the person behind the account, it has amassed over 11,000 followers in a country that has a local population of around 4.5 million.
“[Lebfinance] started gathering us by throwing a question on Twitter and tagging us for an answer,” said Faour.
Ironically, one of the most visible NERDS hides behind an avatar of Peter Griffin, the protagonist of the popular animated sitcom Family Guy.
We have more than 100 articles in the blog https://t.co/nF3JrYWzcb and they are scary.— lebfinance (@lebfinance) April 10, 2020
Unfortunately people are numbers for our lovely leaders (votes,accounts,muscle...)
The only thing we can do is spread awareness.
People need to understand what happened and change the leaders https://t.co/D1Wiol5XsD
There have been countless attempts via Twitter mentions and replies to coax “Lebfinance” into revealing themselves, but to no avail.
Not even the NERDS themselves know the identity of the person, or people, behind the account. That doesn’t stop them joking and making “outlandish guesses” about who they might be, Faour said.
Once the Twitter hashtag #NERDS began to gain traction in tandem with the ongoing protests, curious citizens and journalists began calling on the NERDS for their input and analysis on the latest economic and fiscal developments.
“I think the access to information [provided by the NERDS] is incredibly important,” said Obeid. “Previously in Lebanon there has been a deliberate non-dissemination of data.”
As the NERDS’ success grew, Elie Habib, the founder of music streaming site Anghami, volunteered to set up a NERDS website, called finance4lebanon.com.
It features blog posts, graphs, and tweet threads by NERDS contributors to provide accessible information on complex topics such as Lebanon’s recent Eurobond default, its bloated banking sector, and the devaluation of the local currency.
Citizens must figure out how these complicated matters impact their personal life, and the NERDS have helped explain these issues.
Charbel Ghsoub is a 33-year-old Lebanese communications professional, who has become reliant on the NERDS for accessible information on economic and financial matters.
“Their approach is quite simple, and that’s what made them gain popularity,” Ghsoub said. “[They’re unlike] mainstream economy experts who waste airtime explaining nothing.”
Who are the NERDS?
The NERDS’ website lists a total of 52 contributors, with new names of academics, professionals, and researchers being added on a regular basis.
“Anyone can contribute to the NERDS,” explained Wael Atallah, who is based between Beirut and Montreal and is doing a PhD in economics. “Everyone is invited as long as the substance they provide is of value.”
The NERDS use group messages on Twitter and Whatsapp groups to propose ideas for blog posts or tweet threads and get the group’s approval before putting them online.
“We are not a homogeneous group, we have different backgrounds, outlooks, and political opinions,” said Jessica Obeid, an energy consultant and one of just a handful of female NERDS. “We are just people with knowledge and expertise who want to share it,” she added.
The NERDS have to balance their contributions to the group with their day jobs, studies, and family responsibilities.
“This is something we do in addition to what we do in life; instead of playing tennis after work, we go and look at data,” Atallah said.
New paths to understanding
It is difficult to separate the emergence of the NERDS and a growing awareness of the economic situation from the nationwide protest movement that came to be known as the “October Revolution” and an ensuing shift toward new forms of media.
Indeed, the banner across their website features an image of a sea of Lebanese flags being waved by a crowd of protesters.
Shortly after the beginning of the protests, many Lebanese people began to turn away from the traditional media outlets that are tied to the political establishment and often directly linked to mainstream political parties.
One of the most heavily-criticized networks during the protests was OTV, the channel of the Free Patriotic Movement – a right-wing Christian party founded by President Michel Aoun and now headed by his son-in-law Gebran Bassil.
Some of its coverage and anchors dismissed or showed active disdain for the protesters.
Instead, protesters turned to a growing collection of independent sources of information such as the NERDS, Megaphone, and citizen-journalism outlets like Akhbar Al Saha (News from the Square).
“People are more interested in listening now,” said Obeid. “We used to just hear ‘that’s the way it is in Lebanon,’ but now people want to know why.”
There are those who are critical of the NERDS though, and the group has been accused of shying away from politics and criticized for not engaging in debate around Lebanon’s decades-old sectarian system.
“When we discuss economics … we are by default speaking about politics,” Faour said. “We just don’t want to get dragged into petty partisan discussions that have done more harm than good.”
Some criticism has also come from party supporters on Twitter who “don’t like what [the NERDS] have to say,” Atallah said.
Here's a diagram showing the big picture.— Waël Atallah (@wael_atallah) April 11, 2020
Deposits gone one way and diluted in the system... pic.twitter.com/K5s7fycBZx
“But as long as we know what we’re saying is the truth, we don’t care,” he said.
Many of the NERDS have made appearances on local, regional, and international television networks, and in late March, they launched a YouTube channel where five NERDS hosted a live question-and-answer session on Lebanon’s economic situation.
For now, they do not have any specific aspirations as to how, or if at all, the NERDS’ platform will develop in the future.
“Right now there is an interest in economics, because it directly affects people whose money is stuck in the banks,” Atallah said. “As long as there is that interest, I think people will want to hear from us.”
But “once, or if, the country is back on track,” Faour said, “We will probably want to return to focusing on our day jobs and our regular lives.”