One of the most celebrated political uses of social networking in the last few years has been its embrace by the anti-FARC demonstrators in Colombia in February 2008. According to numerous reports in the media, millions of people poured into the streets of Bogota and other Colombian cities to protest against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the four-decade-old guerrilla group. Thousands joined similar marches held abroad; all in all, 165 cities had some kind of an anti-FARC activity going on.
What was really peculiar about the protests was that they were triggered by a grassroots Facebook campaign conducted by young Colombian professionals. DigiActive even published a research paper analyzing the value of Facebook and other social software for the purposes of organizing anti-FARC protests. The turnout was, indeed, very impressive: according to various estimates, from 500,000 to 2,000,000 people showed up.
It was a very successful experiment. So now, members of the anti-FARC network would like to use their honed Facebook-organizing skills to spur a global campaign against Hugo Chávez. The march -- widely publicized both on Facebook and Twitter -- is to take place on Sept 4th. According to Juan David Lacouture, one of the organizers, they expect 50 or 60 million people to join. A Facebook group called "No Mas Chávez!!!" ("No More Chávez!!!") serves as a major hub of the campaign; it has more than 156,000 members.
But Chávez is no FARC and it's no longer 2008. Anyone who wants to fight governments on Facebook or Twitter these days has to be prepared for them to fight back using the very same tools -- and often, more effectively than their detractors. Ditto Chávez: he's striking back with his own Facebook campaign built around anti-Americanism and aiming to capitalize on the growing Latin American discontent over the American bases that would soon be coming to Colombia.
Chávez's campaign -- which he says would be based around the "Yankee Go Home" themes -- was inspired by his numerous supporters begging him to allow them to protest too. Eva Golinger, a pro-government lawyer, is already urging Chávez's supporters to rally behind his own Facebook campaign called "ON THE PATH TO PEACE ... LATIN AMERICA TERRITORY FREE OF US MILITARY BASES, A ZONE OF PEACE".
Golinger's campaign calls upon Chávez sympathizers to meet in front of Venezuelan embassies and consulates worldwide on the very day of the "No More Chávez" protests. It doesn't yet look very impressive -- it only lists 14 members at the moment -- but it also didn't have 18 months to prepare like the anti-Chávez protests that are continuing largely on the anti-FARC momentum.
The recent developments in Venezuela fully dispel the myth that social media are somehow uniquely positioned to benefit those fighting against authoritarian governments. What many social media cheerleaders do not understand is that many of the world's authoritarian governments enjoy at least a modicum of popular support among their populations. Some are widely popular (like Belarus), others less so (like Egypt). However, even 10 percent popular support combined with unrivaled access to campaigning/organizing resources could easily crush a much more popular opposition movement, particularly if the latter's work is thwarted with arrests, intimidation of activists, and disinformation and propaganda...
Update #1: here is the official Web site of the anti-Chávez protests. The site is quite quirky: note the very first Flash-based pop-up that displays the spreadsheet with venues/times for the protests (this is the first time I see someone do a Flash pop-up of a spreadsheet!). The campaign's Twitter account is here.
Evgeny Morozov, originally from Belarus, is a visiting scholar at Stanford and a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation.