You've Been Poked: Facebook As Freedom Fighter

It's a far cry from Scrabulous: according to a nifty piece in the upcoming New York Times Magazine, for young Egyptians, Facebook is an agent of political change.

It's no secret that freedom of speech is severely curtailed under Egypt's National Democratic Party regime. Human rights abuses are rampant; some estimate that 18,000 are currently imprisoned under the state's permanent "state of emergency law" — although it's hard to say for sure, as people can be arrested without charges. Meanwhile, the government keeps a tight reign on media and political organizations, and basically prohibit public assembly. What can't they monitor? Facebook.

Facebook is growing fast in Egypt — the NY Times Mag piece estimates 800,000 users — and it's easy to see why: while the government might be able to crack down on web pages, social networking sites are too wide-ranging to block completely. As author Samantha Shapiro finds, young people — traditionally politically apathetic — have taken advantage of this mode of assembling and the relative freedom of speech provided by the internet's anonymity. As a result, Facebook is something of a hotbed of dissent - as well as the wide-ranging opinions and crackpottery inherent to online communities. While it makes for some strange bedfellows, it's also served as a means of organization previously lacking amongst Egyptian activists. Most recently, Facebook has served as the nexus for organizing support for Palestinians in Gaza; groups range from philanthropic to angry to activist.

Perhaps the best-known product of the Egyptian Facebook phenomenon is the April 6 Youth Movement, which Shapiro describes as

a group of 70,000 mostly young and educated Egyptians, most of whom had never been involved with politics before joining the group. The movement is less than a year old; it formed more or less spontaneously on Face-book last spring around an effort to stage a general nationwide strike. Members coalesce around a few issues — free speech, economic stagnation and government nepotism — and they share their ideas for improving Egypt. But they do more than just chat: they have tried to organize street protests to free jailed journalists.

In fact, when site founder Esraa Abdel Fattah Ahmed Rashid was jailed after organizing a strike on April 6, she became something of a cause celebre: known as "the Facebook Girl," she brought attention — probably not all welcome — to the power of the new medium. But despite the risks, the rewards have already been substantial: one blogger was able to post video footage of police brutality from his phone, while another has documented the harassment women face in street demonstrations: in both cases, they've helped bring the perps to justice.

It will shock no one to hear that our own government has taken note of Facebook's potential in this regard: the State Department is seeking to harness its organizational powers. But can it ever have the same power here? Ours is a culture in which "donating your status" qualifies as Facebook activism, and probably keeps company with gifts, pokes, in-jokes and all manner of first-world fol-de-rol. (Not that I'm guessing people don't waste hours in Egypt, too.) That's a luxury, sure, but also a very stark contrast. We talk and read so much about the philosophical implications of the internet in terms of privacy and interaction: it's interesting to be reminded of its fundamental purpose: to connect with others and to serve, not as a sinister or independent entity, but as something that works for people.

Revolution, Facebook-Style [New York Times Magazine - not online yet]