Facebook can be a change agent

Almost all of us are guilty of Facebook-ing excessively. Whether it’s to stalk people’s pictures when we’re bored in class, get people together for an event or send messages, we find many ways to stay true to Facebook’s goal of helping to “connect and share with the people in your life.” Did the creators of Facebook, now one of the fastest growing and most recognized sites in the world, know it would become the platform for an actual civil society in the Middle East?

In Egypt, freedom of speech and the right to assembly are limited; however, to the almost 800,000 Egyptians on Facebook, they have found their outlet for activism. In a country where newspapers and websites are monitored and censored by the government, walls and groups on Facebook become places not just for keeping in touch, but also for news stories and true personal accounts of events. Perhaps one of the most impressive examples of this is the April 6th Youth Movement. Now standing at just over 70,000 members, this group is dedicated not to being a political party, but a way for young Egyptians to dissent and organize protests. In the Iranian elections this past summer, social networking sites played a role they never dreamed for their sites when the government stepped past their already stringent censoring policies to shut down text messaging capabilities.

Both Facebook and Twitter became the sole means for people to express honest opinions and arrange the endless protests that took place across the country. Twitter even delayed a regular maintenance shutdown because they recognized what that would do to the tens of thousands of users in Iran that were updating each other via a #IranElection tag. Part of these sites successes are that they are more difficult to block than standard webpages created by groups in the past. “The government can’t simply shut down Facebook, because doing so would alert a large group of people who they can’t afford to radicalize,” said Mark Zuckerman, founder of Facebook.

Facebook is used by so many for non-political purposes, that angering the wider population would only hurt governments. Twitter is difficult to block because posts are submitted in so many ways. People in countries like Iran and Syria can download free proxy software from groups like Global Internet Freedom Consortium and even individual technology experts all over the world that believe in aiding the effort.

The US State Department has not let this surge of interest and activity gone unnoticed. They recently announced a $5 million pilot program to help expand social networking efforts in the Middle East and North Africa. The State Department also created their own Facebook group, called the “Alliance of Youth Movements” that brought together members from different political groups across the world, including some from the April 6th group. They recently organized a conference for some of these members, as well as representatives from Facebook, MTV and Google.

All efforts by the State Department should remain quiet and be executed very carefully, however. With a Gallup Poll approval rating of just 15% in the Middle East several websites in the Middle East are very hesitant to accept any sort of US funding, as it can lead to a loss of credibility by many in the region.

While a third of Egypt’s population is between the ages of 15 and 29, 67% of this group is unregistered to vote. Similar statistics exist across the Middle East, which hosts the second largest ratio of people in this age bracket behind Sub-Saharan Africa. Until social networking sites, these young people had no motivation to become involved with the slow moving, corrupt governments in their country. Young people begin so many revolutions, both of thought and of change. From Tianamen to Invisible Children, student-led movements have drawn some of the most recognized global attention that has led to action- they just need to find an outlet for their voice.

Fed up with ancient politics, this new Middle Eastern generation has finally found something fresh to develop ownership of, and engaging this massive group is key to any sort of success for peace and democracy in the region. With these sites they can do what they can’t do in reality: meet in large groups, talk freely about ideas and disagree with their government. In doing so, we hope they will redefine the way their society operates and break away from a leadership dominated by radicalism.

So next time you’re on Facebook, instead of just looking at pictures from last weekend, explore the new ways its being used: Arab Youth Emergence, Syrian Secular Youth, the list of groups goes on and on. You may be surprised to find something we take for granted every day is actually changing the world.