Where Facebook Ends And Foreign Diplomacy Begins

By Jackie Cohen Comment

As the Egyptian protests enter their second week and the number of possible copy-cat nations in the region continues to grow, I’m seeing some confusion about the scope of Facebook’s role in these so-called revolutions.

The Washington Post announces its confusion right in the headline “Facebook treads carefully after its vital role in Egypt’s anti-Mubarak protests.” This disappointing article doesn’t appear as an editorial nor opinion piece — it’s in the business section — yet the whole thing editorializes and in doing so, shows that perhaps the writers wanted sensationalism more than accuracy.

I think if the writers had better understanding of where Facebook ends and foreign diplomacy begins the article would have read more like news than an editorial. Here’s an example:

The recent unrest in Egypt and Tunisia is forcing Facebook officials to grapple with the prospect that other governments will grow more cautious of permitting the company to operate in their countries without restrictions or close monitoring.

The Silicon Valley giant, whether it likes it or not, has been thrust like never before into a sensitive global political moment that pits the company’s need for an open Internet against concerns that autocratic regimes could limit use of the site or shut it down altogether.

I don’t mean to minimize the political importance of events in Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, Syria and possibly other middle eastern countries; but the world needs a reality check about what Facebook can and can’t do. The site and its employees do not engage in foreign diplomacy, nor any revolutionizing per se — only the people using the social network do that.

The folks in the middle east are employing the same sets of features that people in the U.S. to plan happy hours and ask professional athletes not to go on strike. Facebook is not creating the events, but only offering a way to make them happen more easily. The social network certainly doesn’t create a conflict between players’ unions and team owners, but rather gives people a way to communicate about the issue more readily. And similarly, the site is not fomenting revolution, but rather making it easier for revolutionaries to organize themselves and plot strategy.

Of course, when a government blocks access to Facebook, that sends a stronger message than anything the revolutionaries have sent when the site wasn’t blocked — Egyptian officials are saying the social network is the voice of the people.

But that’s not the sentiment of Facebook. We’ve never seen any official communications from the company nor any of its employees saying the social network is the voice of the people.

So I think suggesting that Facebook engage in foreign diplomacy confuses the work of politicians with that of social network employees; and for the governments where the revolutions are occurring, pointing fingers at the social network seems like a way of dodging responsibility for accumulating such long lists of grievances among Arab constituencies.

What do you think about arguments that Facebook needs to participate in middle-eastern diplomacy?