Imran Jamal is at the Berkman meeting in Istanbul as the “unofficial UK representative” of the Burma Global Action Network, a group that advocates for the monks and citizens who protested the Burmese junta during the “Saffron Revoluion”. His focus is on the use of Facebook for digital activism, reporting his experiences using Facebook during a recent campaign.
He reminds us that Burma has been a dictatorship since 1962, when the military junta took over from a democratic government. The junta now calls itself the “State Peace and Development Council” – SPDC – a truly Orwellian name. Since the 8888 uprising (a widespread protest on August 8, 1988) the nation has been officially named “Myanmar” – Jamal contends, “It’s another way to make the world forget about Burma.”
Burma vaulted back onto the global stage in August 2007, with the “Saffron Revolution” – widespread economic protests led by Burmese monks. To document the events in Burma and to coordinate events in solidarity, Jamal and others began a Facebook group. The group, at its peak, reached 440,000 users, a fairly astounding number. The users it reached were different from the dedicated activists who were reading the main Burma advocacy websites. Jamal feels like the Facebook group served as a clearinghouse for information, as some of the Burma advocacy sites don’t work well together.
Some of the “features” of Facebook are problematic when using the tool as a professional organizer. The “wall” of the Burma Facebook group was a very popular feature… but thousands of comments asked whether the protests should be about “Burma” or “Myanmar”, a debate that’s taken place for years and has no good resolution. As the administrator of a Facebook group, you have limited control over your page. Messages can get lost – during the peak of the campaign, over a hundred pages of status messages appeared per day. In that flood of data, it’s possible to lose key messages, like the announcement of an event in Mongolia. There were major layout changes the organizers wanted to implement, but they weren’t possible within the Facebook system.
The Facebook group didn’t attempt to raise money – it partnered with an outside foundation to support that work. Instead, it focused on bringing as large a group as possible together. The people who got involved weren’t dedicated activists, for the most part. They were bored students, clicking on their friend’s links, possibly being drawn in by some of the striking images of monks marching in the streets. The hope is that some percentage of the people involved with these groups could turn into long-term advocates, but Jamal characterizes many of the users as “serial activists”, moving from Darfur to Burma to whatever cause is next.
There were clear upsides to the Burma Fcebook group. At the very least, it worked as an intermediary between the different Burma activist groups, some of which don’t communicate well with one another, and many of which are poor at communicating with the wider world. But there were a lot of downsides as well. The organizers found themselves characterized as spammers by the Facebook operators because they were sending too many messages a day.
Jamal wonders whether Facebook is simply a glorified petition. “It’s very easy for peopl to join, but there’s no guarantee they come back, and it’s not neccesarily the tool for building an activist base.” One of the major things the BGAN group tried to do is move dedicated users to their website, in the hopes they would get more engaged with the effort, and that communication could be organized outside the Facebook structure.
In a discussion after the talk, people speculated that Facebook might be more anonymous than blogging, suggesting that the Facebook operators would be loath to release information on Burmese users posting information on Facebook. Jamal explained that most Burmese bloggers weren’t actually posting directly, but were sending information to friends outside Burma via the phone, rather than posting online. Given the pervasiveness of surveillance in Burma, it’s likely that posting to Facebook is as dangerous as posting to a blog from within the nation.