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Facebook activism out of Burma, Morocco and Egypt

September 12, 2010

Extracts from A DigiActive Introduction to Facebook Activism (2008), by Dan Schulz

“The social basis of  activism explains why  Facebook,  an  increasingly popular social  networking site,   is a natural companion for tech-savvy organizers.  Because of the site’s massive user base and its free tools, Facebook is almost too attractive to pass up.   However, the site has its flaws and is not a guarantee of organizing success.  This guide is written to provide some insights into what works, what doesn’t work, and how best to use Facebook to advance your movement.”

[…]

Pros: How Facebook Can Help Activists

  • Lots of People Use Facebook
  • The Price is Right
  • Hassle-Free Multimedia
  • Opt-in Targeting

[…]

Cons: Why Facebook Isn’t a Silver Bullet

  • Content on the Site is Disorganized
  • Dedication Levels are Opaque
  • Facebook isn’t Designed for Activism

A. Support the Monk’s Protest in Burma

…was conceived within Facebook.  Once it gained a following it served as a central hub for user-generated content;, acting in essence as a semi-self-moderated wiki.  Appointed group  moderators  updated   various   event   lists   directly   as   the   information   came   to  them  through   the membership network.  This practice resulted in something like a news feed for group members.

Initially the group provided a platform  for people inside Burma to contact  the outside world.   They used the tools to post information and media about what was going on in the ground.  Mainstream news outlets were  then able  to  use  this   Facebook  hosted  content  and quoted members  of   the  group,   adding  to  the group’s momentum.

Frustrations with Facebook

Outside   of   the   network   that   it  made   available,   Facebook  wasn’t   very  helpful.    Group  owners   had   little control over anything other  than  content, which made it difficult to  tailor the group tools to their activist efforts.  Moderators couldnt message all members due to an arbitrary cap of 5000.  Had this not been the case, there may have been a bigger turn out. at events   It also wasn’t possible to search for people within the group because there were too many names to sift through.   These shortcomings inspired the creation the external BGAN site to guarantee the effective distribution of information.

B. The Help Fouad Campaign in Morocco

On February 5, 2008, a 26-year-old Moroccan engineer, Fouad Mourtada, was taken into custody because he had created a false Facebook profile of the King’s brother,  Moulay Rachid, as a practical joke.  In police custody he was brutally interrogated and beaten.  Angered by this unjust treatment, a group of young Moroccans got together to protest his imprisonment and fight for Fouad’s freedom.

How They Used Facebook

The campaign to free Fouad Mourtada initially set up the Facebook group to publicize the case, aggregate information and solicit messages of solidarity from the more than 5000 members who joined it. Members were asked to change their profile pictures to a Free Fouad badge to spread the message further, and the group was used to upload press clippings, picture messages and various multimedia. On  February 23rd,   Fouad was  sentenced  to 3  years   in prison  by a Casablanca  court.     A  member  of   the Facebook group, writing a message on the group wall, suggested organizing a protest in Paris in solidarity with Fouad. Within a few hours the idea was quickly expanded upon and Facebook became the main tool in organizing simultaneous  rallies  in 8  cities  around  the world  (Rabat,   Amsterdam,  Brussels,   Paris,   London, Madrid, Montreal and Washington DC). Event pages were created for each each city, allies and local organizers were identified, and were asked to administer their local events, organize the logistics, and seek the appropriate government permits to hold a   rally  where   it   applied.   They  were   also  asked   to  take   pictures   and   videos   and   send   them  back   to  a centralized email address or upload them to Flickr.com or YouTube.com. These were used the day after the rally to create a YouTube video summarizing the case and showing the extent of the solidarity movement around the world.

Frustrations with Facebook

Responding to false comments or rumors posted on the group wall is extremely resource intensive as the administrators had to spend a  lot of   time moderating  the  comments.   The solution was  then  to provide extremely detailed background  information  in  the group description,  and within a  few days, other group members,  not  moderators,  started posting  comments  to  react   to  false  statements  or  accusations  and correct them. Because it is not designed specifically for activism, Facebook as a platform can present some technical challenges. It is not possible for an administrator of groups with more than 5000 members to message all of   them at  once,  and when groups  of  members were  sent  messages one at   time,  administrators were quickly  red-flagged  as   spammers  by   Facebook  and were  prohibited  from  sending messages  anymore.  One way  to bypass  this  issue  is  to invite all   the group members  to  the group’s events pages,   through which administrators are given the right to message all members.

Given that most people use Facebook under their real names and identities, many of the group members expressed   concern with  the   lack   of  anonymity  and   some   chose  to  leave   the  group  or   create  different accounts under aliases because of the political danger of being identified with the protest.

C. The Free Kareem Campaign in Egypt

Kareem Amer is an outspoken Egyptian blogger who challenged the oppressive regime of President Hosni Mubarak   and   criticized   Islamic   extremism  and   violence.   While   his   posts   were   considered   offensive   by some because of his harsh assessments of  Islam, he was one  the most prominent secular bloggers  in Egypt and many admired this courage in calling for civil rights and freedom of expression in his country. On   November   6,   2006,   he   was   arrested   by   Egyptian   state   security   officers   because   of   his   blog.   On February 22, 2007, he was sentenced to three years in prison for insulting Islam and inciting sedition and one year for insulting President Mubarak.  Shortly after his arrest, a group of digital activists, led by Esra’a El   Shafei,   created   a   web   site,   FreeKareem.org,   and   began   a   campaign   to   fight   for   his   freedom  and subsequently   support   him  during   his   imprisonment.   As   of   the  writing  of   this   guide,   Kareem  is   still   in prison.

How They Used Facebook

As part of  their   campaign,   FreeKareem.org used Facebook  to spread awareness among  college students and   to   recruit  members   for   the   Free   Kareem  Coalition.   They   found   at   least   two   solid   contributors   on Facebook who heard about the cause via their groups, threads, and wall posts and immediately wanted to help  the  campaign.  Most   importantly,   they used  Facebook  to organize worldwide  rallies.   They  created a Facebook event page for rallies in France, Germany, the USA, and other countries.   Facebook allowed people to get involved with the campaign who would not otherwise have been aware of it. Students attended these events without ever contacting the campaign.   They were able to get involved because campaign organizers used the Facebook group to post a description of the rally, why it was held, and where it was going to be held, and people just showed up. Following the events, people forwarded the digital  pictures they had  taken  to  the campaign,  noting  that  they heard about   the event   from  Facebook and wanted to support in any way possible.

Facebook is a great recruitment tool for digital activists, but it’s tricky. So many things go on in the world of Facebook, so the campaign had to work hard to gain people’s attention. Free  Kareem’s   Facebook  groups  were  generally  active.   People  discussed  Kareem  in  wall   posts,   through group  messages,   and   by   sharing   videos   and pictures.   One   great   thing   about   Facebook   now   is   its multimedia tools, which really helped the Free Kareem campaign. It allowed the campaign to personalize Kareem’s situation as much as possible. Videos always help. They are much more powerful than photos, so the campaign tries to use them often.

Frustrations with Facebook

Facebook is generally disorganized. It’s currently full of junk – fun walls, gifts, pokes, games, etc. So with all of these distractions,  it is very hard  to generate any interest in something serious.  Every  time  Facebook adds a useless tool, it makes the work of activists a lot harder, because it means they have to make more effort   to be  interesting  to  their   target   audience.  Member   spamming   (posting   irrelevant  material  on   the wall/board or repeatedly publishing insulting and inappropriate messages) is also increasingly challenging because it requires you to moderate the group all the time.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 12, 2010 10:39 pm

    See also this blog post:

    “OVER three million Aussie’s tuned in to the reunion special of the country’s famous 90s lifestyle entertainment show Hey Hey It’s Saturday last Wednesday. Although it was odd to be watching a show supposed to be on Saturday on Wednesday, the movement to get this iconic variety show back on TV was perhaps the most interesting aspect of the whole thing. You may not know but one of the main reasons the reunion specials were approved by Channel 9 was because over 250,000 people had joined a ‘bring back Hey Hey’ fan group on Facebook.

    With the development of social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and blog sites, a debate is emerging about the potential for these Internet-based platforms to encourage a new breed of activists. Social media strategist Jye Smith in a blog post on The Age online argues that Internet-based campaigning is an effective way to empower a large audience. “Social media raises awareness like never before because it’s more accessible to larger audiences”, Smith said.”

    http://matt3010.wordpress.com/2009/10/07/social-networking-sites-encouraging-public-mobilisation/

Trackbacks

  1. Facebook and Digital Activism « The Documentalist
  2. Facebook Activism « Public Diplomacy, Networks and Influence
  3. Digital Activism – “The Students are Revolting!” « Paul Martin's Blog

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