Why Facebook Hurts Democratic Movements

There are lots of things about Facebook that annoy me (mostly how it went from being a useful way to find out what your coolest friends were doing, listening to or reading to becoming an echo chamber of your most annoying friends' scores on idiotic quizzes, but that's a different blog post on a different blog) but the thing that bothers me most these days is all the groups and petitions devoted to "supporting" various democratic movements.

Moldova introduced itself to hundreds of thousand clicktivists earlier this year. Then there was Iran. (The online response to China's cracking some Uighur skull has been, at best, muted, at least in my network. I suspect it's because there aren't as many hot girls involved). The most recent example comes from Baku, where two Azeri youth activists were beaten up by sportsmenki and tossed in jail for doing little more than having dinner at a downtown Baku restaurant.

Since this happened, I have been invited to no fewer than six groups that express support for them, but have not joined one. I feel bad about this, but the only things less effective than Azeri youth activists are the Facebook groups set up to "draw international attention" to their situation. (Harsh? I know from Azeri youth activists).  Furthermore, they fail to achieve even that amorphous goal: the tepid support most of the groups receive does little but illustrate what is already screamingly obvious -- very few outside Azerbaijan care what goes on there.  And after generating all the international attention, then what?

Like Twitter, Facebook democracy support groups bug me for several reasons.

First, Facebook groups prolong the illusion held by many in opposition movements in the Former Soviet Union that democratic change can come from anywhere but inside the country.  One of the Azeri opposition's favorite strategies for achieving power was writing lots of letters to foreign leaders, taking expensive junkets to Brussels and beseeching visiting OSCE diplomats plaintively. Really, who can blame them for wanting to spend more time in Vienna than Yevlax? However, challenging despots requires hard, risky groundwork, convincing skeptical voters in your own country that you're responsible enough to be trusted with the reins of power and that it's worth the risk to join you.

Second, it prolongs the illusion that organizing is as easy as clicking a button. It's a lot more fun to organize several thousand Europeans and Americans to support your "cause" than it is to mobilize IDPs still living in train cars 14 years after the oil-rich country lost a war. It's a lot easier to broadcast a Twitter to the universe than it is to go out and talk to people in Lenkoran who don't have electricity, much less internet, face to face.

Third, it diminishes the stakes. If people in Azerbaijan truly want to boot the kleptocrats (and there is plenty of evidence to suggest most don't), they have to join civil society organizations or political parties or labor unions that oppose the government. They have to volunteer to monitor elections. As a result, jobs will be lost, university places sacrificed, nights spent in jail and heads cracked. The idea that it can be done any other way is an insult to the people who have tried and succeeded (or, tried and failed).

The situation in Azerbaijan right now is terrible. It was terrible before Facebook and will continue to be terrible long after Facebook joins Friendster and MySpace in the dust-bin of social networking history. If you're going to click, click on something like Daily Puppy or your favorite porn site. It will have about as much impact on Azerbaijan.