Two years ago I was working in Egypt for a local organization. In the three months I spent there I worked with 4 bloggers which I will not mention here.
One of the most interesting thing that they thought me was something that they called the Facebook Battle. At first I thought they were talking about one of those super annoying games that you play on Facebook, the ones that all your friends feel the need to invite you to, and that normally end up in my spam email, with a back flag close to the name of the bored friend that sent it to me.
I discover soon that they were not referring to a game, even if the activity was quite fun anyway!.
The story of the Facebook Battles starts on 1st July, 2010, when the Egyptian Ministry of Interior (MOI) established a special department to monitor Facebook activities and content in Egypt. The department was composed by a team working according to three shifts/8 hours each and composed of 15 individuals: 2 police officers, 10 secretaries of police and 3 engineers. The main task of this group was to monitor Facebook content like groups, pages and chat and to publish reports countering online criticism of current Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak or his son Gamal.
Paired with this department there were also groups of paid young Egyptians from the National Democratic Party (NDP) youth, hired to defend the NDP and the government, by creating Facebook group in support of president’s son Gamal Mubarak and 38 other groups supporting his father, Hosni Mubarak.
At the time it was not strange for Facebook users to face trials or get arrested based on their online activity in Egypt, like the trial taking place against Egyptian activists facing several charges, such as the misuse of world wide web (see here for more).
The activists I was working with were specifically targeting this last group: all of them were young Egyptian used to make extensive use of Twitter and Facebook for communicating, sharing information, coordinating and organizing demonstrations (much before “we” discovered that with the Revolution of 2011).
So, the Facebook War was something very simple: activists were very much extensively present on the net. So whenever a new Facebook page pro-regime was being created, they spread the voice in bw each other using Twitter, SMS, normal phone call or emails. Once the page was identified, the activists were using their social network to spread the voice. Then the attack was planned and organized: each activist was taking a shift, like the Facebook team from the regime was doing. Each shift had a couple of activists in it, and in that amount of time, their work was to go to the facebook page and simply answer to each of the pro-regime comments with a counter argument.
The activists were in this way in a matter of days simply filling the entire Facebook page with so many comments against the regime that the page was not anymore usable of its original purpose, advertising the regime, but instead became a full ‘revolutionary” page against the regime. This was forcing the original creators to shut it down. In one case at least, the activists even managed to get ownership of the page and transform it into a page to show the atrocity of the regime against activists.
This story came to my mind lately because I had the luck to meet with some of the people behind Peace Text and to discuss about the role of media in non-violent strategies in Kenya for the incoming elections. One of the main issues that came out in that conversation was the role that Facebook and Twitter are playing in the ethnic tensions in Kenya. While 4 years ago in fact, the main vehicle for hate speeches was radio and SMS, now we can notice that social media are (and probably will) play an important role in the incoming elections – and related tensions – in the country.
Sadly enough, it is already possible to find pages in Facebook that push for hate or violence against on of another group. So my question here is, how to face that? Would it be possible to create a Facebook Peacemaker Team that go into all those pages and counterbalance the opinions in there? And what about Twitter> Could we monitor socila media and use them for Peacebuilding activities? Can we just learn from the Egyptian activists and use social media as an early warning system, but also as a “battle” ground where we can fight against violence and hate in a non-violent way?
Happy to hear what you guys think about it!