Despite Negative Press, Facebook Is a Powerful Agent for Social Change
By Nancy Scola, AlterNet, April 24, 2008
As an organizing tool, Facebook has had a couple of ugly weeks of late. Students at Michigan State University recently used Facebook to revive Cedar Fest, an old campus tradition that had been outlawed by local officials in the late 1980s after it frequently escalated from a party into something more akin to a riot. This time around, after violence ensued, East Lansing police officials vowed to hold those Facebook users accountable. News headlines ran along the lines of “Facebook: Tool for Chaos?” and the social-networking site was demonized as a means for the rabble to wreak havoc.
But it’s only right to hold up the recent commotion in south-central Michigan against other Facebook-fueled collective action. It should be placed in context with how a Canadian university student named Alex Bookbinder has used the site to push back against state-sponsored violence in Burma. It must be judged against the worldwide attention to China’s policy on Tibet that activists have used Facebook to generate in recent weeks. And it is only properly understood against the backdrop of those Colombian citizens, sick and tired of the fear that racks their country, who used Facebook to say no mas in more than one hundred cities on the very same day.
Facebook is revolutionizing the way collective political and social actions are organized today, blowing the doors off old models of how volunteer lists are amassed, funds raised, and messages honed and delivered. And no one is more surprised by that than Alex Bookbinder.
After traveling through Burma (also known as Myanmar) before his first year at university, Bookbinder returned home last fall and did something seemingly inconsequential: He initiated a Facebook group called Support the Monks’ Protest in Burma to protest the Burmese military junta’s harsh crackdown on the nation’s religious caste. What’s remarkable is that “global group” — the social-networking site’s parlance for designating a group open to all comers — indeed became a global network of resistance.
“It was totally unexpected,” Bookbinder says of the group’s explosive growth. “It wasn’t intended to take off to the level it did.” After first attracting a handful of members of Bookbinder’s own personal network of contacts, it quickly grew to 25,000 members, then 250,000.
“It’s like a party,” says the first-year student at the University of British Columbia. “If it catches attention, it will go viral” — aided in part by Facebook’s News Feed feature, which functions as something of an EKG for your social network. In the last weekend in September, the group reportedly gained a breathtaking nine new members a second.
Burma Campaign UK, a well-established bricks-and-mortar advocacy group formed in 1991, took notice of the contagiousness of the idea Bookbinder had unleashed. “They thought the group had potentially the largest collection of people interested in Burma in the world,” says Bookbinder. The British organization made the decision to use the group as a catalyst for launching global boots-on-the-ground protests.
By the time the group’s roll topped 300,000, the “Saffron Revolution” had garnered worldwide notice. And on a Global Day of Action for Burma on Oct. 6, protestors took to the streets in more than 30 cities from Vienna to Seoul to Washington D.C., demanding the repressive Burmese military regime treat the red-robed religious leaders with tolerance and respect.
Of course, though the uproar in Burma has calmed of late, the country’s woes have far from passed. Attention is thus being paid to tending to the group, the membership of which stands at more than 387,000. As the group exploded, Bookbinder realized he needed help. The group now counts more than a dozen self-organized administrators, from Australia to Guatemala. Bold-faced names like Elie Weisel and Yoko Ono haveadded notes of encouragement to the group’s posting wall. Weisel’s note to the group reads “You are their hope and ours.”
One of the beauties of a Facebook group is the “Message All Members” feature, by which group administrators can reach out to entire membership rolls at any time. Asked when the group will again be provoked into mass action, Bookbinder points to a junta-authored draft constitution military leaders say they’ll put to the Burmese people on May 10. Pushing Burma into the realm of free and open societies is a tremendous challenge. “It’s not what one person can do. It’s what a critical mass can do. You need mass globalization, and that’s something Facebook can do.”
And while that Facebook coalition challenges the Burmese junta’s control over its people, activists who are part of the Tibetan Freedom Movement have taken to Facebook to challenge the Chinese government’s rule over that Himalayan region. It’s an auspicious time, with this summer’s Olympics in China and Beijing’s plan to take the Olympic torch up Mt. Everest. This past winter, Students for a Free Tibet (SFT), a New York-based activist group, saw both a window of opportunity and the need for more funds to ratchet up their work.
Luckily for SFT, the Case Foundation, founded by AOL co-founder Steve Case and his wife Jean, was at the same time eager to explore philanthropy and collective action, in particular “how people could use simple Web 2.0 tools and social networking strategies to put their own passions to work on behalf of their favorite charities and causes.”
Their Facebook Giving Challenge had a twist. Rather than awarding the $250,000 in prize monies to the cause that raised the most funds, the winning efforts would be those that attracted the greatest number of unique donors contributing a minimum of $10.
The focus on racking up small-dollar donors made the Giving Challenge seem like less like fund-raising and more like an online social moment. Students for a Free Tibet set to work encouraging its existing network to email, instant message, Facebook message and call their contacts to chip in a few bucks. Says Kalay’an Mendoza, SFT’s grassroots coordinator, “Since the minimum donation was $10, a lot of students who wouldn’t consider themselves donors were able to donate.” (The average contributionto the Facebook Giving Challenge ended up at just $17.38.)
As the clock struck midnight on Feb. 1, SFT’s 3,672 donors took second place to the 4,115 of Love Without Boundaries, a volunteer organization which tends to orphans in China. But SFT still won huge. In addition to the Case Foundation’s $25,000 second prize, it collected $121,000 in donations — representing more than a quarter of SFT’s budget in a normal year — and amassed a Facebook base of more than 13,000 people. And it had cost the organization little more than the time it took to prod a few contacts into action.
That membership now gives SFT a chance to not only raise money and spread its message of Tibetan freedom, but to give potential supporters a chance to vet the cause. “When someone asked our discussion boards why we were politicizing the Olympics,” says Mendoza, “someone from SFT responded, ‘Well, actually, the Olympics are political. It was used by the Nazi regime …'”
Facebook also lets SFT knit together its worldwide chapters into something that resembles a coherent federation of local activist groups. When protestors recently hung banners reading One World, One Dream — Free Tibet and Free Tibet ’08 from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, photos went from Mendoza’s Mac laptop to Facebook in just minutes. And that, he says, provided supporters with “almost a real time experience,” he says. Indeed, comments flowed in. From Ottawa came, “Oh my goodness! AMAZING!!!!!!!!! … I’m totally there in spirit!” And from Wisconsin came, “And that is why I am a proud SFTer: we get it done!”
Of course, there are concerns about “Facebook-style activism,” or to phrase it another way, if it takes about a second and a half to click “Join Group,” how committed are those supporters exactly? Says Kathy M. a member of the board of directors of SFT (who prefers her last name not be used), “If 100 people are cruising around Facebook and say, ‘Tibetan Freedom Movement, what’s that?’ and we get 15 seconds of attention from 75 of them and 25 of them stick around, we’ve grown the movement leaps and bounds.”
Where Students of a Free Tibet has an operating budget, offices, staff, and a board of directors, all Colombian civil engineer Oscar Morales Guevara had going for him was a Facebook account and a deep-seated frustration about the violence and fear that have long plagued his country.
On Jan. 4 of this year, Morales started a Facebook group in protest of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — People’s Army, a guerilla group blamed for kidnappings and killings, calling the group “Un Millon Voces Contra Las FARC.” Morales, a young professional living in the port city of Barranquilla, told Current TV, “I created the group around noon and then went to a family reunion. When I came back home that night, I was surprised to find that 1,500 people had already joined.”
In Colombia, Facebook stands as the social-networking tool of choice for young professionals. And the anti-FARC group’s immediate popularity suggested a rejection of violence enjoyed the social standing and safety in numbers that might make public street protests a reasonable idea. Morales and two other Colombian professionals — none of whom had ever met before, online or off — joined forces. Drawing ideas from the group’s Facebook discussion forum, the trio decided to broaden the focus of their effort and plan a national March for Peace on Feb. 4.
As interest grew on Facebook, it quickly became clear expat Colombians around the world were hungry for some way to reject the violence of their homeland. Just one month after Oscar Morales Guevara clicked “Create a New Group,” Colombian peace rallies were held in Paris, Sydney, Washington D.C., and nearly 130 other cities around the world. According to estimates reported by the BBC, the rally in Bogotá alone drew between 500,000 and 2 million protestors.
Now, Colombian politics are nothing if not messy. Some sympathetic to the peace protests questioned the focus on FARC, a leftist group, while others raised concerns about derailing the ongoing negotiations between the guerillas and the hard-line government. But the No Mas network created on Facebook didn’t silence those objections, far from it. The group’s discussion boards boast more than 3,000 topics, including vigorous debates over the use of the populist “People’s Army” in referring to the group and role of the Catholic Church in the ongoing negotiations.
It was the similarly lively discussion boards and wall postings of the Facebook page for Michigan’s Cedar Fest that drew the attention of East Lansing police, who had reportedly been monitoring the event’s progress on Facebook for some time. Both police and potential revelers watch the group grow. “I had no idea what Cedar Fest was before I saw [the Facebook posting],” one MSU senior told NPR. “I didn’t know the history of it. All I knew was that 7,000 people were going to be there.”
And what’s fascinating is that all that time spent trawling Facebook seems to have convinced East Lansing police of the organizing power of social networking. As the department continues its investigation of Cedar Fest and weighs charging its Facebook organizers with inciting violence, it is using some of the same web 2.0 techniques that give it power.
The website of the city of East Lansing now features a special section devoted to Cedar Fest, one marked by an eye-catching “Cedar Fest: Not a Party Anymore” logo. One particularly well-designed page highlights grainy photos from the night of the event and, in an embrace of crowdsourcing, asks the masses for help tagging troublemakers. A photo and video uploading tool empowers site users to submit their own media created at Cedar Fest. And the “I Got Arrested at Cedar Fest” photo wall resembles nothing so much as the very college facebooks from which Facebook took its inspiration and name.
From student street parties in Michigan to protests inspired by Burma, Tibet and Colombia, and conducted all over the world, Facebook is proving itself a potent means of organizing large-scale political and social movements. Of course, that does carry risks. For one thing, a social-network meant to knit together groups of people means exposing ourselves far and wide — including to those in positions of power who might not appreciate Facebook’s usefulness for organizing the masses.
As Students for a Free Tibet’s Kalay’an Mendoza, says, in reference to signs the Chinese government is beginning to take note of the group’s social-networking efforts, “We can expect to have our Facebook pages closely monitored from here on out.”
“But,” he quickly adds, “we’re ready.”
Nancy Scola is a Brooklyn-based writer who has in the past served as the chief blogger at Air America, an aide to former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner as he explored a run for the presidency, and a congressional staffer on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
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