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As recent events in the Middle East have clearly demonstrated, Facebook is more on the side of the politically disadvantaged and the poor as they have increasingly embraced Facebook and other social media while the governments in the region tried to ban them. Many governments such as that of China do not allow Facebook primarily because they want to avert scenarios they have seen in the Middle East.
It was in the wake of 2008 when Oscar Morales, a young man in Columbia, decided that he had had enough of FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), a Marxist group which routinely kidnaps people, keeping them as hostages for months or years, while many of the hostages die in captivity. Angry and depressed by the actions of FARC, one night he turned to Facebook which he had been using to connect with his friends and high school classmates. He used the Facebook search box for "FARC" but apparently nothing came out of that. Seeing that there was no group activism or outrage expressed against FARC on Facebook, he decided to start one. He designed a logo in the form of the Colombian flag with a caption "NO MORE KIDNAPPINGS, NO MORE LIES, NO MORE KILLINGS, NO MORE FARC," and named the group "Un Millon de Voces Contra Las FARC" ("One Million Voices Against FARC"). Although Morales at the time had around a hundred Facebook friends, his group garnered the support of 1500 people within six hours. 2500 people joined the group in the subsequent six hours.
As more and more people joined the group, many began to call for action.
Morales finally decided that he should organize a national demonstration against FARC in Colombia's capital Bogota on February 4. Morales received overwhelming support in the group's wall by people from all over Colombia as well as visitors from Buenos Aires, Paris, Los Angeles, Miami, and elsewhere. "What ensued was one of the most extraordinary examples of digitally fueled activism the world has ever seen," Kirkpatrick says. "On February 4, about 10 million people marched against FARC in hundreds of cities in Colombia according to Colombian press estimates. As many as 2 million more marched in cities around the world. The movement that began with an impassioned midnight Facebook post in one frustrated young man's bedroom led to one of the largest demonstrations ever, anywhere in the world" (4-5). The use of Facebook for mass rally against social injustice in Colombia was one of the first of its kind, also inspiring many millions of disgruntled young men and women in other parts of the world who yearned for political and social change.
It was noted in recent news coverage that government officials in Iran are increasingly wary of social networking, one official comparing Facebook and Twitter to Satanism he claimed the West uses in its war against Iran. The head of the Pupil's Basij militia, a paramilitary volunteer group established by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, described the expansion of social networking sites the country's 17 million Facebook users as harmful to the country's religious and cultural values. He dubbed Facebook, Twitter, the blogosphere, computer games, and films as the "most effective elements of soft war" waged by the United States against Iran, trying to undermine the core values of the country ("Iran Warns of Facebook's Soft Power"). These official statements by Iranian officials not only reflect the nature of repressive media maintained by the government but also their fear of social media's power that Iranians and observers around the world have witnessed after the elections in Iran were rigged in the summer of 2009.
When state officials proclaimed the incumbent President Mahmud Ahmadinejad as the winner of 2009 elections, many Iranians decided that they needed to act. The opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi used Twitter and Facebook to mobilize the masses against the government. The Iranian government kicked foreign journalists out of the country and the social networking media was the only venue through which international observers could learn about what was taking place in Iran. Social media allowed Iranians garner the support of outsiders. For instance, campaign "Help Iran Election," established by Topify.com's Arik Faimovich asked its followers to change their profile photos with green tint and their times zones to Tehran's, also encouraging them to retweet posts coming from Iran. At one time, Fraimovich's campaign had 160,000 followers, including high-profile U.S. foreign policy analysts. Sympathetic hacker groups attacked Iranian government websites and helped protesters to sidestep Internet filters used by the government (Burns & Eltham 303-304).
But Iranian officials also took Mousavi's twitter account offline. Mousavi's then turned to Facebook. Mousavi and his supporters used Facebook in a number of innovative ways. They posted photos showing the brutality of the policy, letting outsiders gain hard evidence against the government of Iran. Via social networking, as one analyst noted, Iranians using Facebook and Twitter provided "eyewitness accounts" of events in Iran (Alexanian). They also used Facebook to coordinate their actions, protests, and turned the Facebook page into a news hub which could be accessed by anyone. Prominent figures, including popular artists and singers posted their artistic illustrations and songs to support the movement. The page gathered 120,000 "friends" in addition to many more who regularly visited it. The followers were also highly heterogeneous, representing the views of young Westernized men and women, communists, monarchists, and others with Islamic views. Many members also protected themselves from the government officials by replacing their photos with the slogan "Where is My Vote?" (Marandi & Hughes 177-178).
The revolutionary activism did not succeed, as the results of the elections were not reversed and Ahmadinejad retained the Presidency, while the police and the paramilitary militia tracked down some activists through Twitter and Facebook and imprisoned or even executed them. Many analysts therefore warn against entrusting those who fight against repressive regimes with social media tools (Burns & Eltham). But while the danger of using social media by governments is real, the Iranian social networking revolution did not completely fail. If Facebook had been primarily used for staying connected with friends before the revolutionary attempt, more Iranians began to use it for discussing political issues. Iranians have demonstrated the power of Twitter and Facebook, inspiring like-minded people in neighboring Arab countries such as Tunis, Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Algiers.
The actions of Iranian activists were replicated in early 2011 by Tunisians who decided their dictator Ben Ali needed to go. Bloggers, musicians, political and social activists began to coordinate their civil disobedience and protest through social media. Facebook in Tunisia played even a greater role than Twitter because of more functions available in Facebook and also because there were numerically more Facebook users in Tunisia. 1.6 million people of the country's 10.4 million used Facebook (China). Thousands and thousands of Tunisians replaced their profile pictures with the flag, also posting graphic videos documenting the brutality of Ben Ali's forces, and turning Facebook into "an indispensable resource for tracking the minute-by-minute development of the situation" (Madrigal).
Like in Iran, during the revolution in Tunisia, Facebook turned from being a tool for social connections into a news hub, the center of organizational behavior, and the venue for echoing the voices of ordinary citizens. Rim Abida, a Harvard-educated Tunisian development consultant, working at the time in Rio de Janeiro, explained: "It basically went from being a waste of time or procrastination tool, to my go-to source on up-to-date information. My mom is back in Tunisia on her own, and my Tunisian network on Facebook was posting the most up-to-date info on what was happening on the ground. It was stuff the major media channels weren't reporting, such as numbers to call to reach the military and what was happening when in what specific neighborhood" (Madrigal). People's attitudes to Facebook changed as a result of the revolution which may not have been possible or at least not have been as effective as it was without Facebook. The Tunisian revolution succeeded, forcing the President to step down and allow new elections.
The revolution in Tunisia also turned out to be contagious, affecting events in neighboring countries. Egyptians, for example, took notice of what happened in Tunisia as can be seen in the following photo:
The Egyptian case was especially interesting as Facebook has been empowering the politically and socially disadvantaged groups, including women, for some years. Even before the revolution, many observers have noted women who had been spending their time at home began to learn the art of political and social activism thanks to Facebook. On April 6, 2009, female activists used cell phones and Facebook to mobilize protests against police corruption and the disregard for labor rights. Many women become more active due to Facebook because new connections and discussions they participate in broaden their political horizons and many women feel themselves empowered because they can express their voices on a variety of issues. An Egyptian woman, who began to work for a private…[continue]
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