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Facebook Groups And Digital Activism

Facebook has recently revamped its Groups, meaning that you can now better section off your “friends” into work colleagues, soccer friends, close friends, lovers of Michael Cera movies, concerned citizens calling for the overthrow of the North Korean regime etc.

Brannon Cullum at posted a good piece looking at what the new Groups function could mean for digital activism:

These groups, in a sense, become mini-Facebooks within Facebook. Group members can chat with other members in real time, collaborate on a document via a shared notepad, and share news and other content like photos and videos.


While Facebook groups are not intended to be used by people who don't know each other offline, the new features like group chat and a shared notepad are too helpful for activists to pass up. This is in large part because they can help you to turn interest or issue based ties among activists into stronger connections that will persist both on and offline.

For a good example of recent Facebook activism, take a look at the piece in “The New York Times” about how a video of Syrian teachers beating young students went viral and ended up with the teachers being reassigned to desk jobs. (Although as Jillian C. York reminds, we shouldn’t focus on the individual platforms, “but about the individuals who find innovative ways to get information out into the world.”)

The main problem with the revamped Groups, as Larry Magid puts it, “there is the danger that you could actually be talking to lots of people who aren't on your Friends list at all.”

The problem is that if I’m your Facebook friend I can add you to a group. You’ll then get an email notification that says, “You have been added to the Flyfishing Group.” If you don’t want to be in the group, you can leave. Your joining of the group, however, shows up on your profile and in your friends’ news feeds.

To make the point, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg was added to the North American Man/Boy Love Association group. He quickly quit. No doubt mischievous teens the world over will have a lot of fun with this function, for instance adding friends to groups they obviously wouldn’t want to be a part of. (From the harmless: hard-core Emo kid gets added to Britney Spears fan group. Oh the shame! To the not-so-harmless: kids invited to groups that somehow out their sexual preferences.)

It’s early days and I’m not sure how relevant this is to digital activism. The new groups function does allow three levels of privacy. Summarized here on CNET:

Public: groups where both the membership list and the contents of the group is accessible to anyone.
Closed: groups--the default setting--where the contents are private but the membership list is public so it's possible to search for Closed groups and know who is in them. And when you are added to a closed group, that information may appear on your News Feed.
Secret: groups where the member list, the contents, and the existence of the group are secrets to anyone other than the people in the group.

Two problems as I see it. Public or closed groups are relatively easily infiltrated by governments/intelligence agencies. (Although, arguably so are offline groups.)

The other problem is more subtle. Activists working in repressive regimes regularly face terror and oppression in the guise of bureaucracy. Groups are shut down because of tax violations, not having the right permits, or the wrong software licenses. Under more repressive regimes, elaborate criminal cases are constructed involving witnesses and grotesque fictitious details in order to taint and imprison dissidents.

This is purely speculation, but just say a friend of an activist added someone to a Facebook group calling for the violent overthrow of Dear Leader X. Quick screengrab before dissident Y has time to remove themselves from the group and there is documentary evidence that the dissident was a violent terrorist calling for the overthrow of the state. It might sound far-fetched, but it isn’t when you consider the lengths repressive regimes will go to to implicate dissidents in all manner of supposed subterfuge.

By the same token, I’ve always wondered whether in the future people will be judged by who they follow on Twitter, or who follows them. (For example, big public-relations problem for conservative politician who becomes a darling of right-wing extremist groups who follow him on Twitter.)

Social media makes activism easier and cheaper in some ways. But it also makes vilification by association easier. These days, you really have to know who your Friends are.