Inspired by a sharp rise in the number of Facebook-organized political protests and mass demonstrations this year in cities around the world, dozens of youth activists from the U.S. and abroad met today at Columbia University for Day 2 of the Alliance of Youth Movements Summit—a first-time gathering hosted by Howcast, Facebook, MTV, the U.S. Department of State, YouTube, Google, and Access 360 Media.
Selected panel discussions—featuring many of the young people who organized these various mass-scale marches and civic actions in recent months—are being streamed live here. “We noticed a rise of movements all using social networking to fight extremism, so we thought now would be the perfect time to aid and help build momentum for those using online platforms to catalyze social change,” said Summit co-organizer Jason Liebman, the CEO and cofounder of Howcast. “All of these groups arose independent of each other. It was time to come together.”
Organizers also are using the two-day event to form a new nonprofit to unite global activists and to create a field manual that can be distributed to others about how best to affect Web-driven social change. Updated drafts of the manual can be viewed here.
Among conference highlights so far:
- Oscar Morales, a young engineer and founder of One Million Voices Against FARC, a Facebook group, discussed his use of Facebook to organize what many have described as the largest demonstration in Colombia’s history. Morales told conferees his success has proven that social networking can be used to organize citizen campaigns against oppressive forces all over the world. The February 4 protest used word-of-mouth campaigns over Facebook to repudiate FARC guerrillas and turned out more than 1 million people on the streets of Colombia—as well as smaller groups in some 200 other cities across the world, from Berlin to Barcelona, London, Madrid, Toronto, Dubai, Miami, New York, and others. “The Feb. 4 protest was a big slap in the face to FARC, who saw that its ideals were no longer supported by the people, and many members of FARC then started abandoning the group,” Morales said. “...Digital platforms are a means to social liberties…We proved that the digitally connected few can connect the masses.”
- Juan David Lacouture, the founder of No Mas Chavez, a Venezuelan group that originated on Facebook to oppose Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s policies, said his movement “couldn’t have started anywhere but on the Internet.” The group, which has some 80,000 members on Facebook, staged a mass protest on April 11 that mobilized some 2,000 people to visit Venezuelan embassies in 25 cities around the world to call for an end to terrorism and corruption in that country. The protest also brought thousands of Venezuelans into the streets to call for change. “Facebook lets us stay in contact with friends, relatives, colleagues, and people from our past,” Lacouture told conferees, “and it also helps us to express ourselves and carry our messages to thousands and thousands of people.” When asked if extreme left-wing or right-wing groups should have the same access to Facebook to organize, Lacouture said: “I don’t believe anything should be banned online. If an idea is not strong enough and you expose it for what it is, then the idea can be its own biggest enemy. Oppression is sustained by those who would keep bad ideas in the dark.”
- Gemma Olway and Sharon Singh, both 26, organized The People’s March Against Knife Crime in London on September 20, which drew 6,000 to a protest rally and gained the attention of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, other politicians, and the media. The group, formed in July, started as a Facebook group. “We noticed a lot of anti-knife groups already on Facebook but we wanted to unite them to say that enough is enough,” Singh told a Summit panel.
- Elias Kuri, a cofounder of Iluminemos, organized an anti-violence march on August 30 that was joined by 2 million people in 88 cities across Mexico and in six other countries. Kuri said he organized the march at a time when many Mexicans were horrified by what was then the recent kidnapping and murder of 14-year-old Fernando Martí, the son of a businessman. “Does a march work to make change?” Kuri asked his fellow panelists. “We think yes because when people are angry they want to do something…The important thing was that we didn’t use traditional media to protest. We used the Internet, Facebook, emails, and people just went to the march. The authorities were sure we were going to fail. They didn’t believe the Internet could have so much power.”
- Dustin Moskovitz, cofounder of Facebook, said the 40-and-older crowd is the fastest-growing demographic using the social networking site, a plus for the spread of social activism in the United States and abroad. “We started four years ago as a youth social network and now we are fighting that stigma,” Moskovitz told conferees. “In other countries where Facebook is being used, the average age is 45 or 50 years. Our fastest-growing [age] demographics in the United States are 40-plus and we expect that to continue.” Moskovitz acknowledged that Facebook groups are still “somewhat limited” in their ability to communicate to very large audiences but said the company is working to expand that capability. He also said Facebook is working hard to discourage al Qaeda and other terrorist groups from using social networks to advance their ideologies. “We work with law enforcement in many countries and we are going to fight people who try to repress free speech all over the world,” Moskovitz said. “We already work to expel anyone using Facebook for hate and violence. You can’t organize an al Qaeda group on Facebook and expect us to keep it up for very long.” Moskovitz did acknowledge, however, that there is a “fine line between harassment and free speech” and told conferees the company is planning to hire more people to help it handle site monitoring.
- James K. Glassman, Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs in the Bush Administration, commended Summit organizers for trying to create what he called “a giant global conversation about how individuals can oppose violence and extremism and stand up for universal values of tolerance, freedom, justice, and social change.” He said U.S. government officials have arrived at the notion that the Net is “the locus of civic society” and that governments which don’t use the Net to support pro-democracy movements at home and abroad face a greater risk of being ignored by the people they are trying to govern. “What we face today, these threats to liberty and security, cannot be overcome by governments, alone,” Glassman said. “Only popular opposition can turn the tide. The forces of oppression and terror have little support but they do intimidate and frighten people into inaction. The Internet is a tool that will help people to overcome.” Responding to a question, Glassman said he is confident that the incoming Obama administration will continue the State Department’s policies of “Web 2.0 diplomacy.” Said Glassman: “I would expect the new administration to take this new approach and expand it, and if they do expand it, I hope they also will provide the resources to do so.”
Marcia Stepanek is Founding Editor-in-Chief and President, News and Information, for Contribute Media, a New York-based magazine, Web site, and conference series about the new people and ideas of giving. She is the publisher of Cause Global, an acclaimed new blog about the use of digital media for social change. She also serves as moderator and producer of New Conversations for Change, Contribute’s forum series highlighting social entrepreneurs and new trends in philanthropy.