Facebook, with more than 500 million members, has now reached superpower status. If Facebook were a country, its supporters often say, its population would rank behind only China and India.
But there is a crucial difference here. There are less people online in the whole of China than there are logging onto Facebook worldwide.
In members alone, Facebook is a new superpower. Unlike the US, China or the old-style Soviet Union Facebook does not want to launch a military or economic offensive (except in the rather large glint in the eyes of the advertisers).
And so, Facebook can be a superpower but it is not a country. It is obviously not a state in the political science definition of the word. Its CEO and President Mark Zuckerberg is a self-made billionaire who does not seem to have traditional political ambitions.
In the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth and in the year that Mikhail Gorbachev celebrated his 80th birthday it’s worthwhile to re-visit the Cold War, the catalyst for the internet and our post-war definition of how a superpower should behave.
The superpowers, their allies and proxies often fought ideological and military battles in the media and on the battlefield to protect their national interests. And the internet’s technological predecessor ARPANET, was closely linked to the US military industrial complex.
With Facebook, power is neither located in Washington nor Moscow. However, as an online platform, Facebook does still influence world events – most spectacularly, in the recent Arab Spring.
Its citizens, to borrow founder Mark Zuckerberg’s terminology, which would be too cheesy if it were not true, are friends.
Let us examine a map not based on geographic borders but along friendship lines. In Facebook Connections Map The World the lines represent the social networks between friends.
Facebook intern Paul Butler who compiled the data wrote: “What really struck me, though, was knowing that the lines didn’t represent coasts or rivers or political borders, but real human relationships.”
Consider Perth, one of the most remote cities in the world. There are as many friendship links to Indonesia as there are to the rest of Australia. Unlike the bright lights of Java, West Papua, with its troubled status as an Indonesian province, is a big black hole. Contrast North Africa and its arc of lights – and Facebook connections.
On my last, rather paranoid visit to Jayapura I was convinced that the secret police were going to arrest me. Western journalists are banned. Instead of sweating it out in my hotel room I went to the nearest internet café and I logged on to Facebook.
I believed that my lifeline and sanity were linked to my continuing to write or read status updates. Unlike Twitter’s “followers” Facebook friends live in “a portable homeland” to rework Lina Khatib’s definition. In scary West Papua I felt connected and safe on Facebook.
Crucially, a more sophisticated technological state than Indonesia’s could also have found me online and arrested me as well.
Everybody who has ever logged onto Facebook knows that status updates can turn from the banal and the trivial to the political and indeed even to the inflammatory.
And indeed, there has been the recent hysteria concerning Australian soldiers on Facebook denigrating Afghans. This has pointed to the power of fellow soldiers or industrious investigative journalists revealing what to some can be banal or ‘obvious’ to others can be highly inflammatory.
Lina Khatib was discussing the online activities of Islamic fundamentalists separated by geography but united by an ideology and sharing an online platform. That is how they derived their power.
It doesn’t really matter where you live. The cliché: you could be a disaffected young Islamic fundamentalist living in XYZ and all you need is a computer and a modem to disrupt or, in the recent dubious case of Australian soldiers, monitor the status quo.
In the olden, cold war days it was also like this: people were divided by geography and often ideology. But rather than causing terror, citizens were often united around, for example, a letter writing campaign organized by Amnesty International.
Like Facebook, it relied on critical mass. But before Facebook the forgotten corners of the globe could only rely on committed but far-flung citizens to write a letter that would – hopefully - reach the dark corners of a prison cell.
Facebook has changed all this. In November 2010 the world was transfixed by the more explosive cables published by Wikileaks I began to read about the Tunisian version - Tunileaks. I quickly liked NAWAAT on Facebook.
It was the internet, Facebook and Twitter that broke the story of the Arab Spring. Along countless others I spread the message of what was taking place in Tunisia and Egypt on Facebook – and others would rebroadcast it to their friendship networks.
The dictatorial dominos fell. At the same time Morocco remains an upright human rights abuser, like Australia’s neighbor Indonesia in West Papua. It is Western Sahara that has the dubious status of being Africa’s last colony.
While some may sniff at the limited power of thousands of Facebook friends the combined critical mass is more powerful than such an established and respected organization as Amnesty International.
On Facebook everybody can hear you scream.