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Using Facebook in the Arizona Immigration Fight

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, May 4 2010

That interest groups are turning to Facebook and Twitter to organize around the recently passed Arizona immigration laws are, as CBS News' Charles Cooper wrote, "a case of dog bites man."

The idea that people are using Facebook and Twitter to do activism is no longer interesting on its own. How exactly they're using it — and to what extent — is. And in the second week of debate over Arizona's new immigration laws, Facebook is seeing heavy use from everyday people as well as organizations that hope to convert people from Facebook friends into committed activists.

"This will serve as a very strong registration drive and mobilization ahead of the 2010 election," said Axel Caballero, a co-founder of Cuéntame. Cuéntame is a Brave New Foundation project to build a Latino community on Facebook. Thanks in part to interest in the immigration issue, it had nearly 29,000 fans when I checked on Tuesday.

The Arizona immigration bill, which Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law on April 23, requires law enforcement officers in the state to stop and demand identification from anyone they have reason to believe to be in this country without legal immigration status. For two weeks running, it has been a top national issue, sparking not just social media chatter but widespread debate — both for and against — online and in the streets. May Day rallies, some of which were organized on Facebook, drew thousands out nationwide to protest the bill and call for federal reform of the immigration system.

In Cuéntame's case, the spoils of Facebook activism are still relatively meager. In just a few weeks of existence, Brave New sold (for nonprofits, it's not selling per se; Caballero used the word "placed") about 3,000 t-shirts as a fundraising and messaging tool. An online petition collected 100,000 signatures, Caballero said, and videos posted to the Cuéntame Facebook page showed people wearing their "Do I Look Illegal?" t-shirts at rallies in Los Angeles.

But the meme — Do I Look Illegal? — also caught the attention of Donordigital. The online fundraising and advocacy firm hitched onto the wave with a website that allows you to put luchador masks on people in photos. There's a campaign to change your Facebook profile picture to one of yourself with a sign asking, "Do I Look Illegal?"

Plenty of people on Facebook also take the opposite view, and are noting their support for the Arizona laws. Their Facebook events don't look to be as well-populated as their groups are, but they do have their own t-shirts. And the Tea Party Patriots' online petition in support of the bill touted 43,500 signatures when I checked.

There is still a lot of debate in the online activism world whether Facebook is worthwhile. Consultants periodically share statistics that they say reveal a correlation between Facebook activity and increased action rates like donations or website visits, but these, after all, are often the same consultants that get paid to set up and manage Facebook campaigns. Some call social media activism "slacktivism." (I propose the more neutral "facetivism," for Facebook activism, but my fellow blogdwellers here tell me that one ain't going viral anytime soon.)

The so-far-milquetoast blowback on immigration from the right online is evidence that Facebook clicks don't always translate to actions — not a lot of people on those pages in support of the bill are directing folks to the Tea Party petition or to take to the streets waving signs, for example.

But Facebook organizing can work. In 2008, organizing on social networks was credited in large part for a massive rally against FARC in Colombia. The New York Times credited a single New Jersey high school student for using Facebook to start a push that turned into widespread student walk-outs and
last week protesting New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's cuts to public school funding.

Part of the point, too, is to use Facebook as a list-building tool. Issues drive interest, and interest drives pageviews, and pageviews can turn into email address captures and attendance at events. Caballero said Cuéntame is growing as a result of its involvement in the immigration issue.

"We hope to create a powerful Latino bloc that is ready to take action at any time," he said.

This is a road that goes both ways; there's also the Facebook-as-the-center-of-everything strategy at play here. For example, as Cuéntame exists solely on Facebook, I can't embed here any of the videos they posted. So if you want to be a part of Cuéntame's activism, there's only one place to do that: Facebook.

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