Feature

Does Facebook Have a Foreign Policy?

The social networking giant has the power to change the world for the better. But does it want to?

Toward the end of 2008, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was musing about a massive political rally in Colombia earlier that year. A young man had started a Facebook group to show his revulsion against the FARC guerrillas, and one month later, on Feb. 4, millions of people across Colombia and around the world rallied in opposition to FARC.

The anti-FARC protests were the first ripple in what would become this year's global wave -- the use of social media in massive political movements, as Facebook and Twitter have almost overnight become the world's collective soapboxes, petition sheets, and meeting halls. It may have started in the Middle East with outraged friends on Facebook, but the chain reaction eventually led to landscape-altering citizens' movements and demonstrations not just in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, where despots were toppled, but also Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and later in Spain, Israel, India, Britain, the United States, and elsewhere. Facebook is a common thread in all these movements -- it has become the new infrastructure of protest.

And more is coming. Zuckerberg has taken up the study of Mandarin in preparation for a Facebook push in China -- not as part of a Facebook political vanguard, but out of Zuckerberg's keen interest that his service succeed in China. Who knows what change, political or otherwise, it will bring?

Zuckerberg had a hint three years ago of what was to come. "In 15 years," he predicted, "maybe there will be things like what happened in Colombia almost every day."

Clearly, his time frame was much too conservative, which is why it's probably a mistake to call 2011 the Year of Social Media. Future years will likely see even more impact from these evolving online tools. Facebook, not even eight years old, is poised soon to pass 1 billion active users. Twitter may be smaller -- 100 million users -- but it's an elite crowd: media, political, business, and technology leaders. Meanwhile, legions of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and elsewhere are working on new social-media products that may eventually be even more efficient at helping ordinary people organize themselves.

What makes Facebook so effective in politics is the very fact that it is first a social tool. On Facebook you merely say, "I will be at the mall," and the system tells your friends. So if you want friends in Tunisia to know you are tired of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, it feels natural to employ a system you've already learned is efficient at reaching large groups of people. The message, whether of political dissatisfaction or more mundane matters, can spread virally with great speed.            

Of course, neither Facebook nor Twitter caused the Arab Spring. Social media may help people organize and spread awareness, but it can't force people to put their own lives at risk. The two together are an incendiary combination.

And that is what makes it unlikely that Zuckerberg will repeat his musings of 2008. He now has powerful reasons for keeping quiet. Facebook is banned, more or less successfully, in Burma, Cuba, Iran, and North Korea, among other places. But the service operates in scores of undemocratic countries, and he wants that to remain the case.

The biggest question mark for social media is China. Two massive national services modeled after Twitter, the so-called weibos operated by Sina and Tencent, have hundreds of millions of users each. Although government and company censors seek to carefully filter the comments, they aren't always successful. Following the deadly July crash of a high-speed train in Wenzhou, so many outraged citizen posts escaped erasure that it became seen as acceptable to criticize the Railways Ministry. That emboldened many in the press to cover the crash more aggressively, even in government-owned outlets.

The continued growth of the weibos and the public passion for them lends a new uncertainty to Chinese politics. While it can't be called democracy, it is a kind of manifestation of popular will. There are of course no illusions among denizens of the weibos that comments aren't monitored. To get around censorship, many users invent code words that stand in for the names of leaders or major controversies. Often such discussion of sensitive topics survives the censors.

On the other hand, the censors can still win. Tens of thousands of citizens of the northern city of Dalian massed in its central square this summer in what some say was the largest political demonstration in recent Chinese history. They were protesting an oceanfront chemical plant that had been flooded in a monsoon, potentially spreading noxious chemicals over the harbor and nearby sea. While the authorities agreed to relocate the plant, censors appear to have successfully kept information about the protest off the weibos. Most Chinese never heard about it.

While Zuckerberg says entering China is one of Facebook's top strategic priorities, it's hard to imagine the service being allowed to operate inside China without the filtering and censorship routinely applied already to other social media. A Facebook spokesman in Washington recently told the Wall Street Journal that the company could even conceivably cooperate. "Maybe we will block content in some countries, but not others," said Adam Conner. "We are occasionally held in uncomfortable positions because now we're allowing too much, maybe, free speech in countries that haven't experienced it before."

Even Mark Zuckerberg might not be able to anticipate how it will play out, but there's little doubt about this: Social media, once unleashed, will keep empowering ordinary people worldwide to have a public voice.

KIMIHIRO HOSHINO/AFP/Getty Images

Feature

A History of (Non)Violence

Why humans are becoming more peaceful.

The annals of human violence include enough kinds of victims to fill a page of a rhyming dictionary: homicide, democide, genocide, ethnocide, politicide, regicide, infanticide, neonaticide, filicide, siblicide, gynecide, uxoricide, mariticide, and terrorism by suicide. Violence is found throughout the history and prehistory of our species and shows no signs of having been invented in one place and spread to the others.

At the same time, the quantitative study of history provides some pleasant surprises. Abominable customs such as human sacrifice, chattel slavery, and torture-executions for victimless crimes have been abolished. Homicide rates have plunged since the Middle Ages, and rates of battle death in armed conflict are at an all-time low. Whatever causes violence, it is not a perennial urge like hunger, sex, or the need to sleep. The historical decline of violence thereby allows us to dispatch a dichotomy that has stood in the way of understanding the roots of violence for millennia: whether humankind is basically bad or basically good, an ape or an angel, a hawk or a dove, the nasty brute of textbook Hobbes or the noble savage of textbook Rousseau. Left to their own devices, humans will not fall into a state of peaceful cooperation, but nor do they have a thirst for blood that must regularly be slaked. Human nature accommodates motives that impel us to violence, like predation, dominance, and vengeance, but also motives that -- under the right circumstances -- impel us toward peace, like compassion, fairness, self-control, and reason.

Contests for dominance, even when nothing tangible is at stake, are among the deadliest forms of human quarrel. At one end of the magnitude scale, many destructive wars have been fought over nebulous claims to national preeminence, including World War I. At the other end of the scale, the single largest motive for homicide on police blotters are "altercation of relatively trivial origin; insult, curse, jostling, etc."

There really is a commodity at stake in contests for dominance, namely information: a shared understanding of who will not back down. The socially constructed nature of dominance can help explain which individuals take risks to defend it. Perhaps the most extraordinary popular delusion about violence of the past quarter-century is that it is caused by low self-esteem. Self-esteem can be measured, and surveys show that it is the psychopaths, street toughs, bullies, abusive husbands, serial rapists, and hate-crime perpetrators who are off the scale. Psychopaths and other violent people are narcissistic: They think well of themselves not in proportion to their accomplishments but out of a congenital sense of entitlement. When reality intrudes, as it inevitably will, they treat the bad news as a personal affront, and its bearer, who is endangering their fragile reputation, as a malicious slanderer.

Violence-prone personality traits are even more consequential when they infect political rulers, because their hang-ups can affect hundreds of millions of people rather than just the unlucky few who live with them or cross their paths. Unimaginable amounts of suffering have been caused by tyrants who callously presided over the immiseration of their peoples or launched destructive wars of conquest. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association defines narcissistic personality disorder as "a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and a lack of empathy." The trio of symptoms at narcissism's core -- grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy -- fits tyrants to a T. It is most obvious in their vainglorious monuments, hagiographic iconography, and obsequious mass rallies. And with armies and police forces at their disposal, narcissistic rulers leave their mark in more than statuary; they can authorize vast outlays of violence. As with garden-variety bullies and toughs, the unearned self-regard of tyrants is eternally vulnerable to being popped, so any opposition to their rule is treated not as a criticism but as a heinous crime. At the same time, their lack of empathy imposes no brake on the punishment they mete out to real or imagined opponents. Nor does it allow any consideration of the human costs of another of their DSM symptoms: their "fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love," which may be realized in rapacious conquest, pharaonic construction projects, or utopian master plans.

Among the pacifying features of democracies is that their leadership-selection procedure penalizes an utter lack of empathy, and their checks and balances limit the damage that a grandiose leader can do.

The drive for dominance isn't just found in narcissistic individuals, however. It can also be manifested in a narcissistic allegiance to a group, such as a gang, tribe, team, ethnic group, religion, or nation, and the drive for that group to be dominant over its rivals. A part of an individual's personal identity is melded with the identity of the groups that he or she affiliates with. Loyalty to groups in competition, such as sports teams or political parties, encourages us to play out our instinct for dominance vicariously. Jerry Seinfeld once remarked that today's athletes churn through the rosters of sports teams so rapidly that a fan can no longer support a group of players. He is reduced to rooting for their team logo and uniforms: "You are standing and cheering and yelling for your clothes to beat the clothes from another city." But stand and cheer we do: The mood of a sports fan rises and falls with the fortunes of his team.

Nationalism, Albert Einstein said, is "the measles of the human race." That isn't always true -- sometimes it's just a head cold -- but nationalism can get virulent when it is comorbid with the group equivalent of narcissism in the psychiatric sense, namely a big but fragile ego with an unearned claim to preeminence. Recall that narcissism can trigger violence when the narcissist is enraged by an insolent signal from reality. Combine narcissism with nationalism, and you get a deadly phenomenon of ressentiment: conviction that one's nation or civilization has a historical right to greatness despite its lowly status, which can only be explained by the malevolence of an internal or external foe.

Group-level ambition also determines the fate of ethnic neighbors. Experts on ethnicity dismiss the conventional wisdom that ancient hatreds inevitably keep neighboring peoples at each other's throats. After all, there are some 6,000 languages spoken on the planet, at least 600 of which have substantial numbers of speakers. By any reckoning, the number of deadly ethnic conflicts that actually break out is a tiny fraction of the number that could break out. Neighboring ethnic groups may get on each other's nerves, but they don't necessarily kill each other. Nor should this be surprising. Even if ethnic groups are like people and constantly jockey for status, most of the time people don't come to blows either.

Political scientist Stephen Van Evera suggests that a major cause of ethnic conflict is ideology. Things get ugly when intermingled ethnic groups long for states of their own, hope to unite with their diasporas in other countries, keep long memories of harms committed by their neighbors' ancestors while being unrepentant for harms committed by their own, and live under inept governments that mythologize one group's glorious history while excluding others from the social contract.

Many peaceable countries today are in the process of redefining the nation-state by purging it of tribal psychology: India, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and the Netherlands spring to mind as examples. The government no longer defines itself as a crystallization of the yearning of the soul of a particular ethnic group, but as a compact that embraces all the people and groups that happen to find themselves on a contiguous plot of land. The machinery of government is often Rube Goldbergian, with complex arrangements of devolution, special status, power sharing, and affirmative action; and the contraption is held together by a few national symbols such as a rugby team. People root for clothing instead of blood and soil. It is a messiness appropriate to the messiness of people's divided selves.

SIMON MAINA/AFP/Getty Images