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The pros and cons of digital activism

By Monica Hesse
The Washington Post / July 4, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Facebook activism, the trendy process by which we do good by clicking often, was in its full glory last week after the death of Iranian student Neda Agha Soltan, killed by gunfire in the streets of Tehran.

First, Neda showed up in Twitter feeds, then in Facebook status updates: “is Neda,’’ some wrote after their names. And when people started Facebook groups inspired by her death, we quickly joined them, feeling happy that we’d done something, that we’d contributed.

But whether virtual virtuousness will result in real-world action is unpredictable, and has as much to do with human nature as it does with amassing enough numbers. This is the problem with activism born of social networking sites.

The numbers are impressive. News outlets cited the groups, with names like “Angel of Iran,’’ as examples of public outcry, potential signs of a turning point in the disputed Iranian elections. The largest of these groups, called simply “Neda,’’ currently has nearly 36,000 members; dozens more had 1,000, or 100, or 10.

Click click click. It was so simple to join.

And . . . now what? Was clicking an end unto itself? Do Facebook groups ever translate into significant change?

Mary Joyce is the cofounder of DigiActive.org, an organization that helps grass-roots activists figure out how to use digital technology to boost their impact. When she refers to “the pluses and minuses for the low bar of entry’’ of Facebook groups, she means that joining - or starting - a cause is easy, and that causes can reach and educate a wide range of people. That’s the plus. But that ease also means that well-intentioned groups could balloon to thousands of members, most of whom lack activism experience.

“Commitment levels are opaque,’’ says Joyce, who last year took a leave from DigiActive to work as new-media operations manager for Barack Obama’s campaign. “Maybe a maximum of 5 percent are going to take action, and maybe it’s closer to 1 percent. . . . In most cases of Facebook groups, members do nothing. I haven’t yet seen a case where the Facebook group has led to a sustained movement.’’

There have, of course, been big examples of single-event success: The Internet-based organization Burma Global Action Network began as one American’s Facebook group, formed to support monks’ protest. The group coordinated a global “day of action’’ in 2007 that drew protesters around the world. More measurably, the release of Fouad Mourtada, imprisoned for impersonating a member of Moroccan royalty online, was attributed in part to protests that began on Facebook and Flickr and spread offline.

But more often the stories of Facebook activism look like Egypt’s April 6 Youth Movement earlier this year, in which a Facebook group calling for a national strike in support of laborers gained a much-publicized 75,000 members - and then fizzled out in real life.