Pissu Poona (PP for short) has over 150 friends on the social networking site Facebook. The profile isn’t the Facebook cliché either – a bloody hand print in place of a smiling partygoer serves as a profile picture and grim news updates replace inane status messages. Also, most unusually, PP has chosen to go anonymous.
As a social activist on Facebook, PP is something of a novelty to those of us who use Facebook primarily to stay in touch with friends and family. But with over 78,000 people in the Sri Lankan network alone, things are unlikely to stay that way. More and more people have begun to discover how powerful a tool such a site is – it can mobilize large numbers of people, circumvent repressive bureaucracies, and in theory at least, give you a shot at the global podium.
The worldwide Facebook community is large – many times more than Sri Lanka’s entire population, it now boasts something like a hundred and seventy-five million users and counting. Facebook users add each other as friends - joining or creating networks, exchanging photographs, playing around with simple applications and generally offering up the minutiae of their life for public inspection. “Facebook is very real; it’s not a virtual community,” says blogger Indi Samarajiva.
Indi swears by Facebook’s role in event organising. Employing the site’s group and page functions, he recruits members, who can then post photographs, video and text on the group wall. Members receive email alerts on group activities and can invite other friends to join. The service has become so ubiquitous that a friend recently used it to send out invitations to his wedding in Unawatuna. Guests were encouraged to RSVP.
“Facebook gets its power from enabling real world stuff,” says Indi. While Sri Lankans at large are yet to feel significantly affected, in many other countries social networking sites like Facebook are considered instruments in the brave new world of online citizen activism. America’s Barak Obama famously used his Facebook account to great effect, and Egypt’s youth – led April 6 movement made its Facebook group a key element in organising large scale protests. Group administrators even faced jail time. In Sri Lanka, M.I.A’s comments post-Grammy performance inspired over 10,500 Facebookers to join the group “I hate M.I.A because she is a L.T.T.E Supporter”.
“....., Stop playing with ...... Girls. We need to protect our nation” – its name ensured that this Facebook group would draw plenty of comment. That the group’s profile and its accompanying blog are built around inflammatory and frankly imbecilic racist sentiments was enough to have Sanjaya Senanayake on the warpath. In true Facebook style, the documentary film maker recruited a few friends and set out to become the group’s worst nightmare – he sent members hostile emails and spammed the group’s message wall. Within days, the group took down its comment section, and went from being open (allowing individuals to just sign up and see basic content) to being closed (new members must be invited or approved by the administrator). The group did not respond to requests for an interview.
Taking such groups down entirely can be difficult. Though numerous complaints have been lodged, Facebook hasn’t intervened. Its devotion to freedom of speech, the internet’s great nemesis, has kept it neutral in cases with even more obvious racism, despite revenue loss after advertisers like Vodafone have pulled out of the site.
And so, hate groups on Facebook remain distressingly common. “Bigotry is being internationalised,” says Sanjaya. “The online world mirrors the real world: it’s full of people who want to join hate groups that want to do terrible things to other people and a minority of people who are appalled by that.” It is perhaps Facebook’s insistence on real identities (accompanied with pictures) that make it far less likely that comments will deteriorate into the often crude, incendiary responses that are common on sites like 4chan and YouTube. But it still hasn’t stopped people from signing up for groups that support things as universally condemned as genocide. Doesn’t it bother Facebookers that they can be so easily identified with their often very politically incorrect sentiments?
“If you’re going to do something that’s going to upset a lot of people, anonymity only matters if you’re in the same neighbourhood as these people you’re upsetting,” says Sanjaya. “It allows you to sit in this little room in your mother’s house in Vancouver and add to all the hate, all the way across the world.”
Activists like PP are attempting to be the voice of reason. “All I'm really trying to do is make people more aware of what's going on with regards to the conflict in our country at the moment. I try my best to post up articles, interviews, video clips, blog posts and reports that the average Sri Lankan youth may not be exposed to,” said PP in an email to The Sunday Times, adding that links sent in by friends were also posted on the profile.
Certainly, there are plenty of pleas for peace circulating around Facebook, often accompanied by a blizzard of other petitions. People show their support and sign up by the thousands - and then promptly forget about it. Understandable then that it’s been dismissed as ineffectual, as “armchair activism” that requires neither thought nor action.
Nevertheless, Sanjana Hattotuwa of the Centre for Policy Alternatives believes that such sites can be put to good use. As the man behind the citizen journalism initiative Groundviews, he is deeply interested in how new media can be used for peace building and has blogged extensively on the subject. In a paper titled “Thoughts on democracy, peace, the internet and new media”, Sanjana notes that new media promotes citizen driven content, and that “in this paradigm, control of information rests with the citizens themselves...”
For those desirous of speaking out against repressive regimes for instance, Facebook is a haven, in part because shutting it down would mean tangling with the large majority who use it to exchange only the most mundane content. It only helps that Facebook can now be accessed in a multiplicity of languages, and when combined with the ubiquity of cheap multimedia devices employing local vernaculars, “it is increasingly difficult for governments to stifle voices from the ground giving a picture radically different to that which the government seeks to promote”.
Of course, this doesn’t mean all you read is true. “I’ve seen plenty of Facebook groups, blogs, community websites and even news services that promote lies, half-truths and vicious propaganda as the one and only Truth...” Sanjana noted. This is why PP wants the readers to do some of the work. “I also try to ensure that the content of these articles offer a range of views...this way, whoever reads this content can reach their own individual conclusions, based on their own perceptions and insights.”
But as people continue to log on, activists succumb to the lure of this wonderfully diverse audience. At times, it must seem a little like setting up shop in the market and shouting as loudly as you can, cheek by jowl with the other vendors...and it can get frustrating. “On the internet it’s very easy to start things, it’s much harder to sustain them,” says Indi frankly. Both he and Sanjaya agree that while it has the potential to be a powerful democratic tool, Facebook simply needs many more Sri Lankans online and engaged before it can be used as such.
Facebook: Its young history & impact
In the light of its inordinate impact, it bears repeating that Facebook was founded less than four years ago by Mark Zuckerberg, and that its impact is only likely to grow as more people sign up. “When we change the way we communicate, we change society,” says social media guru Clay Shirky. He loves to point out that we used to need institutions and organisations with brick-and-mortar identities to accomplish some of the things we do with such ease online. He also conveys an infectious sense of excitement, one that web activist and renowned science fiction author Bruce Sterling shares: “It’s the whole world into transition toward something we don't even have proper words for”.