Is Facebook a tool for social activism?

By Alex Park

It’s difficult, though not impossible to remember a time when “social networking” both within college and between different institutions implied something besides Facebook. In order to gather support for a social cause, for instance, all the low-tech devices once used in the 60s were the norm: petitions, fliers, pins and ribbons, simple requests for the interested to “tell their friends,” all of which would culminate in rallies, marches, and greater and greater social interaction in the real, carbon-based, non-digital sphere. But now, the case is leveled that not only are the activists of today increasingly reliant on digital means to advance their cause, but the ease of such means makes it so that virtually anyone with a mouse and a keyboard can join and claim to be a supporter. It’s part of what Timothy Den Herder-Thomas and other Mac Weekly contributors have dubbed the “passive activist,” or even more generally, a characteristic trait of what commentators throughout the popular news-media – the great majority of whom come from the generation immediately before ours – call the “apathetic generation.”

But with the advent of Facebook, it’s worth asking if the activist landscape has shifted ever so slightly into the digital realm and if the result is more than just the opportunity to pat oneself on the back and presume he’s done his part to save the world.

A quick search for groups that feature “Darfur” in their title gets over 500 hits, ranging from the specific “Darfur Action Coalition of Milwaukee” (150 members) to the more general “faces for darfur” (1,017 members).

One group titled “They say nobody cares, let’s hit 10,000 members. SAVE DARFUR NOW” has already passed its declared membership goal with 11,368 at press time, making it the third most popular such group on Facebook. I shot a message to the group’s founder, Alex Kantrowitz, a sophomore at Cornell, asking if this meant that the group or any of its members had made a political statement. I was surprised when instead of returning my message via Facebook, Kantrowitz insisted on speaking over the phone to discuss this.

“I don’t think of it as a political statement as much as it is a tool to raise awareness,” he said. “The group has become an effective forum to discuss what can be done about the situation.”

Kantrowitz said that in his experience, some people have come to the group uninformed but wanting to “do something” about the Darfur crisis and have found a way through the group to get involved. While the group might not have the same political influence as an organization such as the Save Darfur Coalition, it can direct people toward such organizations by posting a link on its profile.

And there are a lot of people who want to see action taken.

A poll in June of this year by the Pew Charitable Trust said that 49 percent of Americans believe the U.S. has a responsibility to “do something” about the Darfur crisis. That doesn’t mean that all of them are willing to stake their own time and effort to advance that cause. But those who do can use their Facebook accounts to find links about the situation and spread the word, what Kantrowitz and others consistently refer to as “raising awareness.”

Even so, not everyone is jubilant about the current political prowess of Facebook groups.

“I think Facebook has enormous potential that hasn’t been harnessed yet,” said Adrienne Christiansen, chair of the political science department.

Christiansen, who is an expert on political communication and occasionally teaches a class on cyber politics, said that while Facebook may now be exercising its potential as a tool to educate interested people about different issues, it has yet to capitalize on its potential for organizing people in the real world. Until it does, she says, Facebook’s political utility will be limited to its organizational domain, in cyberspace.

“If the people organizing are providing information, educating, I think that’s a good thing,” she said. But, she said, however real the passions of members may be, simply joining a group that only took a few clicks to create in the first place does not constitute any real lobbying power, no matter how many people join.

“At best, the group [membership] number shows to someone who has no knowledge that enough people are interested enough to flex their index finger,” she said. But “politicians don’t care that you’ve pushed a button. It doesn’t show any commitment at all.”

Realistically, she said, what politicians do care about is the same sort of thing they always cared about: “writing to legislators, giving cash, organizing people, writing letters to the newspaper,” and other methods that show sacrifice and substantial effort.

Still, not everyone appears to be getting that message.

With more than 1,500 members at press time, the group “Jews for stopping darfur” is the largest Darfur-related Facebook group that targets a specific demographic for its membership. With the almost jocular tagline “It only takes 2 minutes to help stop genocide,” it’s little wonder why some observers insist that joining a Facebook group is nothing more than easy self-gratification in the name of a humanitarian cause.

On its profile, the group’s founder (who goes to college in London) insists that by joining, “you are helping us to save lives since i intend to show the list of names to downing street as soon as this group is over populated with members.”

In other words, by coming together, not even through Facebook, but only on Facebook, an individual can move away from the category of apathy, perhaps even into the category of activist, thereby inducing some kind of political change.

This notion, Christiansen says, “is totally bunk.”

Some of Facebook’s other, more popu–lar groups have goals that are more immediate, and perhaps more tangible, but nonetheless deserving of scrutiny as well. With over 437,000 members at press time, the largest Darfur-related group by far on Facebook says that for every 1,000 people who join, the group’s founder will donate “$1 for Darfur.” The student who founded that group was unavailable for comment. But this is not the only group on Facebook that claims to make monetary support with the condition of popular backing.

I asked Lara Roslyn Abbott of Ontario, who created “For every 100 people that join this group I will donate $2 for Darfur” on Facebook why, if she had enough money to donate now, or some means to get it in the future, she had to wait for others to join her group to give it. Her response was vague, but echoed that of Kantrowitz.

“It isn’t necessarily about needing people to join in order to send money,” she said. “It’s about wanting people to join, and gain awareness about what is happening beyond their backyard.”And there again is that interesting notion of “awareness.” True enough, Facebook groups may have the potential to spread the word about various humanitarian causes among a demographic that has the potential to motivate themselves to call for those in power to “do something” about them. In the future, Facebook may even work to better organize young people to come together and make a substantive political statement in the real world. But as of now, its name invokes a sense of social- networking convenience, not power.

We cannot, of course, dismiss all Facebook groups collectively. There may be anecdotal evidence to suggest that Facebook has contributed to substantial political organization, and a social movement – however it was organized – is still a social movement. However, if the trend in cause-related Facebook groups should tell us anything about how to be better activists and better citizens, it is simply this: putting your name to a cause is not enough to show commitment, even interest, and organizing in cyberspace is no alternative to organizing in real space.

In the words of Christiansen, “At a certain level, you need to be there in the flesh.