The potential of Facebook for activism

Chua Sue-Ann | Dec 5, 07 (Malaysiakini)
SEEMS like there’s no escaping Facebook. If you haven’t already succumbed to it, you probably would have received countless invites and pleas to join.

Everyone – from college kids to corporate suits to activists – has jumped aboard Facebook, the latest social bandwagon.
Combining social networking and information dissemination on a fun, user-friendly interface, Facebook looks like a promising tool for activists.
Besides, not so easy for cyber-troopers to hack into Facebook, eh?
Bersih + Facebook
I’m not ashamed to admit that I first heard about the Nov 10 Bersih rally for electoral reform through Facebook. Two weeks before the planned-protest, I received an “invite” to the event.
Bersih secretariat Faisal Mustaffa and Robert Kee created an event posting to publicise the rally. These invitations can be sent to friends, who are then able to RSVP and invite others. The e-invite page is also a one-stop information centre where people can obtain event details, have discussions, share videos, photos, notes and other relevant material.
Facebook has since seen a surge in Bersih-related postings. Many concerned citizens, both here and overseas, have carved out their own spaces in Facebook to discuss issues raised by the memorandum for clean and fair elections.
A group of Malaysian students used Facebook, among other means, to publicise their Bersih-inspired protest in London.
The Facebook group Free and Fair created by Rachel Leow has grown to more than a thousand members. Like Leow, a PhD candidate of Cambridge University and Gates Scholar, many of this group’s members are Malaysian students overseas.
By encouraging people to photograph themselves with something yellow, Free and Fair has amassed an amazing collection of photos – very creative activism indeed! Nobody took up the “yellow Post-it note on your face” suggestion, but Homer Simpson did make an appearance in the photo gallery.
“It’s more than publicity that the Facebook group has helped create…people have already gotten up and done something!” said Leow in an email interview. These photographs show that political awareness need not be dull and depressing, people can participate in their own way.
Leow believes that the Internet provides an alternative space, especially for those who are unable to overtly participate in politics and activism. She adds that several non-Malaysians have joined Free and Fair and are now taking an interest in Malaysian politics.
Meanwhile, the Wear Yellow, Save Malaysia cause, with a membership of more than 500, are continuing the “Yellow revolution” both in cyberspace and in real life. Its administrators are not only urging people to wear yellow, but also to change their Facebook profile photos to a bright yellow square – a clever move to paint cyberspace yellow.
The Bersih rally may be over but these Facebook groups are growing by the day, with many still active.
It’s all pretty exciting stuff!

How promising?

We will never know for certain how helpful Facebook has been in drumming up support for the Bersih rally. Only 115 people confirmed their attendance via the e-invite and not everyone would have honoured their two clicks on “RSVP: Attending.” But regardless, more than 1,300 people were informed of the planned protest through this simple Facebook invitation!
Sure, 115 and 1,300 may seem like an insignificant proportion of the estimated 40,000 who turned up on the streets on that Saturday afternoon. But every single person counts.
The Internet has played a massive role in generating buzz for the Bersih event and in providing live updates. I believe Facebook too has lent a hand in raising awareness amongst the youth. Facebook offers young people a space to voice their views and participate in discussions. It might also create a sense of fellowship with others who are passionate about the same cause.
Creator of the Wear Yellow, Save Malaysia Facebook cause Wong Chin Huat is optimistic “but won’t have unrealistic expectations.” He believes that Facebook, blogs and the Internet can complement activism. Traditional methods of raising awareness and galvanizing support are still crucial particularly since not everyone in Malaysia has access to the Internet, let alone Facebook.
“In Facebook, there is less hard sell. It’s how you approach people,” said Wong who is also chair of the Writers Alliance for Media Independence (Wami). The Internet can be used to spread messages passively rather than throwing a cause at people, he explained. People are free to participate, read and discuss issues that are relevant to them.
It doesn’t get easier than this – several clicks, join a cause, rant on discussion walls – and voila, welcome to cyber activism!
The question remains: How do you get people to do something?
As Washington University student Eve Samborn bluntly said, “Ten years from now, what will you say about your response? ‘I tried to stop global warming by joining a Facebook group?'”
How do you get people to do something? I don’t know. People have to want to do something on their own initiative. Influential American journalist George Seldes was quite right to say “Apathy is the curse of civilisation.”
If the recent issues involving the judiciary, electoral rules, Indian rights and media control are not enough to make people sit up and take notice, then Malaysia really needs a miracle.
CHUA SUE-ANN is an intern with Malaysiakini. Comments can reach Rentakini by emailing [email protected] .