What Can Facebook Do to Better Support Activists?
Tweeted by @richardengelnbc
Recent events in Tunisia and Egypt have demonstrated how social media tools and platforms can be strategically and thoughtfully used to share news, record human rights abuses, and generate worldwide support. Despite the challenges associated with using any online tool to drum up support for a cause, many groups turn to Facebook because it's one of the easiest ways to quickly connect with your friends and spread a message. In fact, while the crisis in Egypt pushes on, a rash of Facebook pages have sprung up for "days of rage" and solidarity protests in countries like Morocco, Bahrain, and Syria (Syrian forces quickly quashed potential protests) and from Kurdish activists in the region.
These latest movements, however, have also underscored the limitations that can be found when using social networking sites to organize and plan a protest. As recent events in Sudan have demonstrated, grassroots organizers may not even be aware of the hazards present when using Facebook.
So what are some of the risks associated with using Facebook?
- Facebook currently prevents users from creating profiles with pseudonyms. According to Facebook's terms of service, profiles must be associated with real names. This is obviously problematic for activists fearful of their safety and wanting to protect their privacy. Numerous Egyptian activists with presences on Facebook were arrested last week. Joe Sullivan, the company's chief security officer, defends the current policy, saying "We get requests all the time in a few different contexts where people would like to impersonate someone else. Police wanting to go undercover or human rights activists, say. And we, just based on our core mission and core product, don't want to allow that. That's just not what Facebook is. Facebook is a place where people connect with real people in their lives using their real identities."
- Hacking by opposition parties or government authorities looking to either deface a page or surveil what organizers are planning has become much more commonplace. During the Pink Chaddi campaign in India, the group's page was hacked repeatedly and Facebook suspended the lead organizer's account. It's also well known by now that the Tunisian government used malicious code to record users' login information when they visited Facebook. Governments are becoming savvier about taking measures to monitor Facebook for any signs of opposition and to gather data about activists. In Sudan, government officials pretending to be protest organizers used Facebook and Twitter to lure participants to a specific location—only to arrest people when they arrived.
- Trolls have appeared on the We Are All Khaled Said Facebook page posting pro-Mubarak comments and disparaging the movement's supporters. While trolls like these are usually easy to spot, they are still a nuisance that is hard to avoid.
- Facebook has frequently deactivated accounts associated with movements' organizers. Jillian York has written extensively about how Facebook appears to selectively enforce its terms of service and has deactivated the accounts of numerous activists. Both the We Are All Khaled Said and the April 6 Movement pages have found their pages deactivated in the past, but both were able to restore them after conversations with Facebook.
It's a good idea to frequently back up your Facebook content and contacts so that if your account is deactivated by mistake or because you violated the company's terms of service, you at least still have a copy of your information (including photos, messages, wall postings, and friend list). To do this, login to your account, go to Account --> Account Settings --> Download your information --> Learn more. Click on the Download button. A pop-up will give you additional information. Click Download again. You will receive an email when your archive is ready to be downloaded as a zip file.
The company appears to be slowly moving in a direction more supportive of activists, recently rolling out the option to use HTTPS during visits to the site. Joe Sullivan also told the Washington Post that they are in the early stages of creating a special complaint reporting process for NGOs and other activists. But is that enough?
Facebook treads lightly when it comes to taking a definitive stance on how the site can be used for activism and has not been extremely outspoken regarding governments that block access to social networking sites. After the Egyptian government shut down the internet, Twitter quickly responded to the block in a blog post titled "The Tweets Must Flow," while Google (along with engineers from Twitter and SayNow) launched Speak2Tweet, a service allowing Egyptians to leave a voice mail message that was instantly transformed into a Tweet. Facebook, on the other hand, noted drops in traffic, but did not offer a more pronounced reaction to the block.
It's clear that there is a need to better educate activists about how to safely and securely plan events via the web. While Twitter and Facebook can be useful tools, it's important that activists start using tools like Crabgrass (for secure social networking) and Pidgin (for secure instant messaging). This is where Movements.org hopes to provide guidance and advice through our how-to guides and case studies. For example, many activists can learn from the example of Oscar Morales in Colombia. After his One Million Voices Against FARC Facebook page rapidly reached a critical mass, he and key supporters then moved to "take the momentum from the internet to the streets." Much of the coordination for nationwide protests took place off Facebook; while some planning information was posted on the group's Facebook page, most of the tactical work was done via e-mail, Skype, and instant messaging. Flyers and word-of-mouth were also used to spread the word.
As Facebook moves into its seventh year of business, what should the company be doing to more actively support the work of grassroots organizers and activists? Is it a matter of having Facebook representatives specially designated to vet activist organizations and then provide special support? Should the site provide better education and outreach about privacy and security issues? Share your thoughts below!