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.
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