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This morning, I received a notification on my Facebook profile that said if I sent a virtual plant to some of my friends, I’d help them “save the Earth.” If you’re a Facebook user, you probably wonder how much the incessant pleas by certain applications on the site might actually “change the world.” Modules built to help you attack your friends with zombies don’t seem like a very good use of one’s time, much less do they have an impact on anything important.

On the surface, Facebook seems like a place for sending fake toys and cocktails to friends, but not very useful for the more profound issues we deal with as a society. But like many web communities, Facebook is now being used for things it was never designed for. More so than other social networking sites, Facebook has become a hotbed for political causes, which are advanced through user-created groups and third-party applications that help raise visibility for these initiatives, from local campaigns to international issues.

While much of the activism only exists online, a movement against the rebel group FARC in Colombia — took the social network to the streets with the hopes of creating real, tangible change. Even causes that are only alive online show great potential for raising money, mobilizing and inspiring a new generation of politically aware young people.

Voices Against the FARC

The nation of Colombia has long suffered a violent relationship with a rebel organization known as FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), blamed for the deaths of hundreds of people, and countless kidnappings over the past several years. The FARC, a self-described Marxist-Leninist group, has been active in Colombia since the 1960s, and its history of violence has spanned most of that time.

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Last month, the decades-old history of bad blood came to a head as Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez became involved in the negotiations to free hostages that had been held captive by the FARC for over five years, among them a child called Emmanuel, born in captitivity. In the end, some of the hostages were freed, and the world found out about a series of lies by the FARC about the child, who the rebels were using as a negotiation tool, but in reality they weren’t holding, as Emmanuel had long since been given up to foster care and even had a new name.

Meanwhile, Oscar Morales created a Facebook group called “Un Millon de Voces Contra las FARC” (“One Million Voices against the FARC”) as a way to take what many Colombians were feeling about the situation and express it online. I spoke with Felipe Echeverri, one of the creators of the “Un Millon de Voces” Facebook application, who related the story of how he and his brother Daniel joined Morales in beginning an initiative which would make social networking history.

“On January 4, 2008, just after the liberation of the FARC hostages, the Hugo Chavez situation and the lie about Emmanuel, Oscar Morales created the group,” Echeverri said. “Oscar invited 20 friends, which is the maximum number of invites you can send in a 24-hour period. In less than 12 hours the group had more than 900 members, tripling the number of users every day after that.”

Echeverri said that the whole movement was spontaneous and was really born out of a need felt among a few users to do something. Some of the group members suggested organizing a virtual protest “march” on the group’s “wall” (a kind of bulletin board used for informal messages on Facebook), which they did. Echeverri says that by January 8, the group already had over 20,000 members. But members feared that if the movement stayed on Facebook only, it might die.

“We thought we’d just end up like other groups on Facebook,” Echeverri said. “Someone creates it and it just sits there. So we created the ‘Un Millon’ application, and all of the group members started putting the logo on their Facebook profiles, and sending out invitations to their friends. This helped refine the idea and make the group grow.”

Then the original group creator, Oscar Morales, took the seed planted on Facebook and began growing another online initiative, with a website called ColombiaSoyYo (“I am Colombia”). The simple website was a hub for information on real-world marches that were being planned throughout Colombia. Through the website and Facebook, more and more people from outside of the country wanted to know how they could get involved. “So many people were joining the Facebook group every day and everyone wanted to be the leader for their respective country,” Echeverri said.

By January 16, the group had grown to 116,000 members. By this point the initiative had extended beyond Colombia, and the group had already assembled organizers for marches in 160 cities around the world. The true test would be the day of the march. Would the online momentum translate into a successful offline protest?

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Anti-FARC March in Madrid, Spain

The answer was yes, and then some. On February 4, the world watched as people around the globe took to the streets to show the FARC that enough was enough. Spain’s EFE news service put the number of marchers worldwide at more than 10 million. Symbolic of the international nature of the initiative, Felipe Echeverri marched in Boston, Mass., as his brother Daniel, co-creator of the application, marched at home in Medellin, Colombia. Simultaneous marches happened all over the globe, from Paris to Saudi Arabia to New York, where protesters gathered at the United Nations to chant “No more FARC!” with the rest of the world. What began as a simple action on a social network became a worldwide phenomenon in roughly one month.

Got a Cause? Facebook’s Got a Group

Facebook members everywhere are showing a desire to get involved in social causes, even if that involvement means just attaching a badge to their profile or joining a group. While Facebook’s groups feature has been instrumental in organizing like-minded people to support social causes, an application called Causes makes getting involved and even raising money easy for the (somewhat) socially committed.

Causes was created by Project Agape, a start-up founded by a former Facebook exec to harness the power of viral marketing for altruistic causes and to support non-profits. According to the developer’s description on Facebook, “donations to causes can benefit over a million registered 501©(3) nonprofits.”

One look at Causes and you can tell that there’s something for everyone. From countless environmental initiatives to the more tongue-in-cheek causes such as a campaign to support Swedish underwear models, the application allows for involvement in a cause at a variety of levels. Members can “recruit” their friends to join a cause, raise money, and organize online and offline events. The application also allows members to set personal fundraising goals and challenge others to raise more money. A group I joined to test out the Causes application, Save Darfur, has over 800,000 members who have together raised over $13,000 for their cause. Involvement is encouraged as members who recruit the most friends or raise the most money are assembled into a “hall of fame” displayed on the main page of the cause.

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Donors and Fundraisers on Facebook

While traditional non-profits might be reluctant to adopt Facebook as a means for social organizing and fundraising, the number of people signing up to support these causes online are not trivial. A cause called Support the Campaign for Cancer Research has over 3 million members and has raised nearly $60,000. Stop Global Warming, which supports non-profit Alliance for Climate Protection has 1.7 million members and has raised over $21,000. Monies collected might not seem like a lot, but engagement in the cause and an increased visibility for these issues might be worth their weight in social consciousness gold in the long run.

Borderless, Ageless Appeal

Last December I wrote about how Facebook was experiencing more growth internationally than here in the U.S. It seemed like a curious phenomenon, given the original target audience of the site (American Ivy League college students). The FARC protests are another testament to the international appeal of this social network. Not only was a major Colombian initiative launched and grown on an American site, but it even spread beyond the original group of Colombians who started it to the most remote parts of the world. Facebook may have started as a series of closed networks that didn’t interact with each other much, but with the help of invitations to groups and third party applications, causes can spread like wildfire from network to network, country to country.

Felipe Echeverri told me that online or offline, he believes that if you do something with passion, it’s bound to turn out well. He and his brother had never participated in any political activism campaigns before, and they aren’t sure if they’ll do it again. “I think we need to let some time pass before we do another one,” he says. But what is clear is that his countrymen and their supporters around the world showed that the combination of unprecedented reach via a social network and enthusiasm for a cause can go a long way.

As an added benefit, social networks might also affect how younger people see activism. While Facebook was created for people college age and up, younger users also use the site. MySpace, which has captured the attention of millions of American teens also has a significant number of cause-related profiles online. Perhaps the college years are a ripe age for activism, and this -– in addition to the communications tools the site provides — might be a reason for the success of Facebook’s online campaigns.

But social networks might also help get people involved in causes at an even earlier age. A younger teen might be unlikely to join a local environmental group in his or her hometown (or maybe such a group doesn’t even exist) but would add the cause-related profile to their group of friends. Such actions might not make much of a difference in terms of fundraising, but could show young people the value of civic engagement and an appreciation of social networking tools for something more than just a good time. In the U.S., at a time of such political division and confusion, social networks might serve as a platform for young people to seek answers to their questions and find common goals among their online peers.

What do you think? Is Facebook a platform for real change? What causes would you like to see on social networks? Are you involved in groups on Facebook? Why or why not? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Jennifer Woodard Maderazo is the associate editor of PBS MediaShift. She is a San Francisco-based writer, blogger and marketer, who covers Latino marketing at Latin-Know and Latino cultural issues at VivirLatino.

FARC protest image via juanpg on Flickr

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