Facebook, Politics, Dissent & Social Networking

Facebook, Politics, Dissent & Social Networking

As Ramadan gets under way Muslims are turning to faith, family, and Facebook.com, a Web-based social networking site that hosts groups, like Are You Ready for Ramadan?, devoted to the celebration of the holy month. Ramadan well-wishers however, are not the only ones expressing themselves on Facebook, which boasts over 41 million active users worldwide. There are thousands of groups dedicated to everything ranging from pop culture icons like Madonna to pressing environmental concerns like global warming. There is also a growing number of groups within Facebook devoted to Islam, Muslim identity, Arab society and the Middle East. These groups are constantly updated on this 24- hour a day forum, making Facebook an entrenched part of the Zeitgeist of the 21st century. Facebook represents global culture, in which groups and people all over the world participate on equal footing.


Founded in 2004 by Harvard University students, Facebook allows members to create profiles, share personal information with friends, and interact with others. As the site states, Facebook facilitates information sharing “through the social graph, the digital mapping of people”s real-world social connections.” Applications like Photos, Notes, Groups, Events and Posted items, allow users to organize their online identities and social interactions with ease, which may be one of the key reasons why people spend a daily average of 20 minutes on the site as comScore, a leader in measuring internet use, recently reported. Facebook also includes a playful feature called Poke, which the company explains by saying, “we thought it would be cool to have a feature without any specific purpose.” Once reserved for students of the Ivy League and a few select schools in the Boston area, within its first year Facebook had already expanded to include over one million users. Today, with membership available worldwide (Facebook opened its proverbial doors to the general public in September 2006), Facebook has over 52.2 million visitors from around the globe, a 270 percent increase from June 2006 to June of this year. Facebook is also the largest photo sharing application on the Web, hosting more than 2.7 billion photos on the site.


In keeping with international trends, Facebook has increased in popularity in the Arab world, along with some other social networking sites geared more specifically toward the Arab public, such as d1g.com and Faye3.com. While comScore reports that only 5.7% of Facebook users are from the Middle East, Facebook remains one of the region”s most popular and most heavily trafficked sites. Alexa, a Web information company, reported that Facebook is the most popular site in Lebanon, and is the 4th most popular site in Egypt (the daily newspaper Al Ahram online edition is the 20th most popular site in the country and Masry Al Youm is the 36th). Facebook is also the 8th most visited site in Syria, and the 15th most popular site in Saudi Arabia. Egypt also ranks 5th in the number of active users on Facebook outside of the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., trailing only Australia, Norway, South Africa, and Sweden.


Like souks, the social and commercial centers of old, Facebook provides a forum, a social center for the exchange of gossip, ideas, goods, and even political views. This free exchange of opinions can be rife with conflict and hostility, but it also provides a medium to express faith, voice social woes and strengthen community. “Facebook groups,” the thematic pages that people can join by adding their names to the group roster and participating in the group forum, abound that are dedicated to themes in the Muslim and Arab world and are as varied as the regions these themes concern. For instance, groups like I LOVE PROPHET MUHAMMAD, Im a Muslim & Im Proud proliferate and claim thousands of members, as do many college Muslim Student Association groups. To the chagrin of some Facebook users, however, not all groups touting a religious message espouse tolerant and peaceful views. Recently, the creation of the Facebook group F**k Islam aroused controversy, and prompted the formation of wildly popular group like Petition: if “f**k Islam” is not shut down.. we r quitting facebook, against the group “F**K ISLAM” and Against “F**k Islam”? Join Here among others.


Facebook is by no means limited to the realm of religion, and the debate, dialogue and honest exchange of ideas it fosters about Arab countries’ socio-politico life is robust. Groups devoted to topics varying from the highly political – Free Ayman Nour Group – to groups with a more whimsical bent, such as Bring Red Hot Chili Peppers to Syria attest to Facebook’s versatility and diversity of viewpoints. In a region where press censorship exists to varying degrees and the mainstream media is oftentimes state controlled, the online world is increasingly becoming an integral forum for the expression of dissenting views and neglected news stories. The importance of online, alternative media sources was manifest in the reporting, commentary and photojournalism that bloggers provided to the international community during the 2006 Lebanon-Israel War. In a political climate in which journalists are taken to task for supporting opposition stances and bloggers have been jailed, as was recently the case in Egypt with the sentencing of journalist Ibrahim Eissa, and the jailing of the blogger Abdul Kareem Suleiman Amer, Facebook may still be flying below the radar, providing another medium for voicing views stifled in the mainstream media. 


In contrast, Facebook has made its way into mainstream politics in the United States. An application called US Politics allows presidential candidates, members of congress, and state governors to create profiles that any Facebook user who has downloaded the application can then access. The application also allows users to support candidates. Most current U.S. presidential candidates have profiles on which users can view the candidate’s positions, watch posted videos, and post their own comments. Barack Obama leads in the number of supporters on Facebook with 146,611, followed by Hillary with 42,396, John Edwards with 19,172, Mitt Romney with 17,758, Fred Thompson with 15,132, Dennis Kucinich with 10,704, John McCain with 10,658, and Rudy Giuliani with 3,082. According to their profiles, McCain’s interests include sports, hiking, boxing, basketball, football, baseball, and history (in that order); Mitt Romney’s interests include “winning the war against the jihadists to ensure that Americans are kept safe;” Giuliani lists 24 as a favorite TV show, and Kucinich includes veganism and his wife Elizabeth among his interests. A particularly striking feature of the above figures is that they do not reflect the candidates’ standings in national polls, suggesting that the U.S. demographic represented on Facebook has different political priorities from mainstream America.


While no comparable application currently exists for politicians outside the U.S., political figures from the Arab world are not entirely absent from Facebook. Saad Rafik Al-Hariri, son of the assassinated former prime minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri, and newcomer to the Lebanese political scene, for instance, has a Facebook profile. Unlike with U.S. politicians, Hariri’s use of Facebook is limited to the realm of social networking and his profile is only accessible to the people he permits to see it. Perhaps, though don’t hold your breath, President Hosni Mubarak will one day have his own Facebook profile and wall on which anyone can post comments, and members of Free Ayman Nour Group can raise their hackles…or poke him.