Friday, February 8, 2008

Facebook vs. FARC

The massive rallies against the FARC earlier this week (between 500,000 and two million people rallied in Bogota, along with parallel rallies worldwide) were a watershed in many ways. It was an indication of how low the FARC’s standing has fallen. Whatever legitimacy their critique of the Colombian government may have had in past decades has been decimated by their own brutality. Insurgencies feed off their causes, but the FARC is without cause.

It also shows the maturation of Colombia’s democracy. Democracies need internal consensus about core issues and broad rejection of violence as a means of settling political disputes. Again, whatever the merit of FARC’s initial cause (Colombia – like much of Latin America – continues to suffer from massive wealth inequality), the people of Colombia recognize that armed revolution is not the response.

But, after hearing for several years how effectively terrorists use the Internet, these rallies were a profound example of how the Internet can be a potent counter-terror tool. These rallies were initially organized with Facebook. Certainly other aspects of the Internet (blast emails, websites etc.) have also been used to organize mass mobilizations. But social networking sites like Facebook combine the advantages of technology with the strengths of a social network to effectively disseminate the message. A core component in the effectiveness of online social networks is “Trust.” Because so much Internet activity can be done anonymously, most web users are suspicious (and with good reason) of many things they encounter online. But in Facebook, messages are not anonymous, they can be quickly tracked back to their source and this source can be placed in the context of other relationships. If the message came from a friend of a friend, it is probably ok. The message can spread at the speed of light, and people will respond and act on it because it comes from friends. (One of the foremost authorities on both the technological and human aspects of online social networks is my University of Maryland colleague Professor Jen Golbeck.)

In an article about how terrorists use the Internet entitled Cyber-Mobilization: The New LevĂ©e en Masse in the Army War College’s journal Parameters, National War College Professor Audrey Kurth Cronin wrote:
Mobilization is a crucial element, not just in producing numbers of soldiers but, more important, in inspiring violence and crafting the account of the struggle. The information revolution is not just changing the way people fight, it is altering the way people think and what they decide to fight for.
She calls for a counter-mobilization – not just public diplomacy. The rallies in Bogota and around the world is one example of the needed counter-mobilization.

May it be the first of many.

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