Can Facebook Defeat Terrorism?

by Steven R. Corman

In two recent briefings, one for the MSM and one for bloggers, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Jim Glassman spoke approvingly of an incident that took place in Colombia earlier this year.  It involved Facebook and a march against Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), a Bolivarian revolutionary guerrilla organization.  FARC is classified as a terrorist group by the government of Colombia, the United States, and the European Union because of the large number of kidnappings the group has committed over more than a decade.

In early January of this year, a 33 year old Colombian engineer named Oscar Morales expressed his indignation (and that of many other Colombians) against the FARC by launching a Facebook group called Un Millón de Voces Contra las FARC (UMVCF, “One Million Voices Against the FARC”).  It contained the declaration

Firmly and unanimously we want to express to the whole world that the FARC does not represent any of us, nor our interests, nor our people. We also want to express that we strongly condemn all their terrorist actions that, for more than 40 years, have been producing death and pain, while stopping the progress of the country we want for our families and children. For the previously listed reasons we want the whole world to know: We DON’T want more kidnappings. We DON’T want more death. We DON’T want more terrorism. We DON’T want more FARC.

The Facebook group, and its companion web site colombiasoyyo.org (I am Colombia), underwent exponential growth.  Within four days the group had 20,000 members, and by late January it swelled to almost one-quarter million members.

UMVCF became the basis for an anti-FARC protest march on February 4th that was one of the biggest civil events in Colombian history.  On the day of the protest, February 4th, an estimated 4.8 million people turned out across Colombia.  Numerous other protests were held simultaneously in 44 other countries around the world.

Press accounts tend to credit the Facebook group itself with causing the march.  For example, the Christian Science Monitor’s story carried the headline “Facebook used to target Colombia’s FARC with global rally.”  Glassman also seems to regard Facebook as a primary cause of the marches.  In his press briefing, the Under Secretary said

I recently came back from Colombia, and in Colombia, a small group of young Colombians, without government assistance, used Facebook to build a movement that put 12 million people around the world into the streets on February 4th, including 1 million in Bogota alone, in demonstrations against the FARC, a violent extremist group that has terrorized that country for more than 40 years.

Accordingly, he is launching efforts to “speed the use of the same techniques — again employed by foreign citizens, not governments — to build movements against violence.”

While there can be no doubt that Facebook played an important role in the events, it is a mistake to assume that it was the root cause of the movement.  What most press accounts of the march leave out is that the UMVCF group formed in the wake of an event in late December of 2007 that sources in Colombia describe as being similar in impact to the 9/11 attacks in the U.S.  Here is the rest of the story.

In the third week of December 2007 the FARC announced plans to release three high-profile hostages to President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, who was acting as an intermediary with the Colombian government.  They included Consuelo González, a former senator, and Clara Rojas, a campaign manager for former Colombian presidential candidate and FARC hostage Ingrid Betancourt.  In 2006 it was learned that Rojas had given birth in captivity to a son named Emmanuel, and he was also to be released.

The hand-over was to take place on December 31st in an area of Colombia near the Venezuelan border.  Chávez and numerous international observers waited to receive the hostages.  But at the last minute, the FARC canceled the release, citing military operations and a lack of security in the neutral area.

An infuriated President Álvaro Uribe of Colombia flew to the area and gave a televised address to the Colombian people in which he accused the FARC of duplicity. Uribe revealed that his Attorney General’s office was investigating the case of a foster child in the care of the Colombian Family Welfare Institute who they believed to be Emmanuel.  Four days later the Attorney General announced that a first round of DNA tests showed a “very high probability” that the boy was Rojas’s son.

Ordinary Colombians were off work for the holidays, and watched the address and other televised developments by the millions.  It soon became apparent to everyone that the release was canceled not because of security concerns, but because  the FARC had promised to release a hostage they did not hold.  The result was that public sentiment turned overwhelmingly against the group.  It is notable that UMVCF was launched on the same day that the Attorney General announced the results of the DNA tests identifying Emmanuel.

While Facebook played an important role in the development of the protest march, it can be better described as a catalyst than a cause.  Public resentment was building against the FARC, especially over 2007.  “Emmanuel-gate,” as it came to be called — plus its fortuitous timing when Colombians were home to follow events in the media — pushed things to a tipping point.  It was in this environment that something as seemingly innocuous as an online group could lead to a protest involving millions.

Under Secretary Glassman and other commetators like Marc Lynch have correctly pointed out that Web 2.0 technologies may offer important asymmetries (in our favor, for a change) in the effort to resist terrorist groups.  But at the same time, the full story of the anti-FARC marches in Colombia shows the danger of technological determinism in these efforts.

Had the conditions not been exacrly right, UMVCF probably would have become one more drop in an ocean of online groups.  Likewise, merely giving Facebook (or other social networking technologies) to people in other terrorism hotspots will probably do little until the right social conditions develop for them to have an imact.  Facebook, by itself, is not enough to cause social movements that can defeat terrorism.

UPDATE 11/18

Here is a post by Matt about a conference the State Department is sponsoring to catalyze similar uses of Facebook.

UPDATE 11/25

I have it on good authority that Under Secretary Glassman does not think of Facebook as a primary cause of the Colombia protests.  I suppose this illustrates the hazards of divining someone’s beliefs from press statements.  In any case, I’m glad to hear this is the case.

One Response to “Can Facebook Defeat Terrorism?”

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  1. drgilpin says:

    I find it interesting to look at the way social media tools have been presented in the news media: apparently Twitter is the tool of choice for terrorists, and Facebook for defeating them. It’s an epic battle between communication channels.

    More seriously, your point here is important: social media tools only produce real social capital, capable of effecting change, in conjunction with a “ground game” and real-life events. My own study of Twitter in public relations is still in its early stages, but it seems to be pointing in a similar direction. The virtual world only has power insofar as it intersects with the nonvirtual world.