What do birthday parties and heated anti-Israel demonstrations have in common?
They can both, fairly easily, be organized as Facebook events.
This was proven in a recent New York Times article that looked into the use of social networking websites by young activists as a tool for gathering support for political causes and for planning protests or rallies.
The article focused on political involvement amongst youth in the Middle East, citing Facebook as a major forum for mobilizing Egyptian citizens in campaigns against Israel.
A simple group search on Facebook turns up a number of English-language anti-Israel groups from around the world, each one with thousands of members. According to the Times, many more of these groups exist in Arabic, and they have been especially active during the conflict in Gaza over the past few weeks.
The most well-known of these groups, representing the April 6 Youth Movement, has about 70,000 active members (a few of whom have been jailed for participating in protests and strikes organized online).
Egypt’s youth movement is not the only one using Facebook as a tool for mobilization. There are countless groups representing activist and political organizations in Canada and across the globe. “Causes” and “Protests” are even listed as potential categories when a user creates a new Facebook group or event.
It makes perfect sense to use social networking sites as a platform for engaging in political activism, especially in repressive states where oppositional groups are threatened by the government. Facebook offers a space for like-minded individuals to discuss issues and plan events while minimizing the risk of interference by the authorities. It can also provide a sense of anonymity…at least for those careful enough not to post their real information online.
Different types of unauthorized public events, like the annual longboarders’ Board Meeting in Toronto, tend to be organized primarily online for similar reasons. It is a cheap, quick and easy way to get the word out and unless somebody spills, the cops won’t find out beforehand.
Additionally, social networking sites allow individuals to form groups based on common interests and political perspectives, which ensures that the message gets to the right people.
Police officers and government officials are smart enough to have figured out what’s going on, but there’s only so much they can do by logging in and snooping around. The vast number of groups and events listed online make them very difficult to track, and it’s hard to tell which groups should be taken seriously – many of them never amount to anything.
There have been a few non-political incidents, such as “National Kick-A-Ginger Day“, that have prompted police investigations after the fact. However, it’s almost impossible to lay charges before such an event takes place and there are often complex issues involved in determining whether or not group administrators can be held accountable.
As thousands of people worldwide have discovered, Facebook’s remarkable ability to “rally the troops” can be a convenient way to plan a great party…or a violent uprising. Just make sure you consider the consequences before you RSVP.