In Colombia, change has never been immediate. We have a tendency to pursue impunity instead of justice, to prefer oblivion to awareness. Let’s not forget that, in 1994, we failed to charge Ernesto Samper for funding his political campaign with money from Cali’s drug cartel. Instead, he became our president for the next four years. But Facebook awoke a part of the country’s population that had remained dormant for decades.
For the last 50 years, Colombia has been engaged in a battle against drug trafficking. Terrorist groups like the FARC and several drug cartels threatened the country’s safety, displacing people from their lands and spreading fear. Generations grew up bombarded with bad news on an almost daily basis. Those in the upper middle classes began to slowly detach themselves from the country’s reality and, instead of facing it, lived happily in oblivion. They could afford to do so — they had the means to protect themselves, to flee if necessary, to create a bubble around them.
With the former president, Alvaro Uribe, Colombia became safer. Urbe’s strong military policies crumbled the leading structure of the FARC and succeeded in freeing 13 hostages, including former politician Ingrid Betancourt. The country began to show economic potential after decades of being shunned by foreign investors — according to the website “Why Colombia?,” the country’s GDP increased 0.4 percent during global recession. With this economic boost and the guerrillas under control, the already aloof youths (almost 25 percent of the population) withdrew into their own world even more. They had less to worry about, so they could focus on the more trivial aspects of life, relinquishing their power of say to their families or to those in power.
Those who weren’t activists, but instead were Facebook fanatics, were suddenly drawn to the political spectrum and began to actually care about their country’s future. The fact that political issues popped up on people’s newsfeed made them harder to ignore. We could no longer live in oblivion because our country’s reality had permeated our leisure bubble. Checking out candidate’s profile became just as easy as keeping up with last Friday’s gossip, understanding political movements as thrilling as creepily viewing someone’s pictures.
Antanas Mockus was the first presidential candidate to fervently take advantage of social media advertising. Because of Facebook, an eccentric man, a mathematician and philosopher, rose to rival political golden boy Juan Manuel Santos. Soon, over 900,00 people had changed their profile picture to Mockus’s logo and another 800,000 liked his Facebook page. It became clear whom the Colombian youth supported. In the end, Mockus didn’t win — Santos was still the country’s favorite, and his political successes and academic background probably made him a much more capable candidate. But a new political age had undeniably risen — one in which young people mattered just as much as the rest of the voting pool.
On March 28, 2011, thousands of people will flood the streets to march against the insecurity in Bogota, Colombia. The robberies, muggings, murders have increased; the streets are unpaved and traffics jams occur so often that the city’s transportation systems are about to collapse — it is time to fight back, to demand change. It is supposed to be pacific revolution, a march to demonstrate that the city’s united and willing to fight for the public’s well being, and a chance to hold the mayor responsible for his mistakes and for the corruption and incompetence of his administration. Or so says Facebook.
The event exists only in the social website, as the leading newspapers are yet to cover it. But so far, over 2,000 people have pledged to leave their offices and walk towards the Plaza Simon Bolivar in downtown Bogota and protest for three hours. I’m only one of the 9 million Colombians that access Facebook on a daily basis, and every day at least someone I know joins the event. People post their comments and express their support on an hourly basis. At the rate the word is spreading, the march will at least succeed in gathering a large number of people who will show the mayor just how dissatisfied they truly are.
Facebook seems to have had glorious effects on the country’s current events — empowering young people and awaking them. Unfortunately, it has also become a threatening weapon. Last year, in Puerto Asis, several young adults received death threats via Facebook. Three days later, three men were killed. By using Facebook as their main tool, the murderous gang has preserved its anonymity. Fear spread in the region, forcing people to flee their homes, concerned for their children’s safety. Although President Santos pledged to devote his energies to solving this crime, in remote places like Puerto Asis it is hard to pinpoint criminals. Additionally, the fact that they are taking advantage of virtual tools gives them an ominous presence that Santos cannot dismantle as easily.
Facebook opened the possibility for youths to act — it showed them that, with a simple click, they could be part of change, part of politics. But it has also opened the door to a whole new level of terrorism. This shows just how much power the social network actually has — if threats sent via Facebook actually come true, then Facebook itself becomes an agent of fear. The media has been quick to venerate the website as the new means of socializing, but these events prove that it is also changing the dynamics of protests, terror and social commotion. We can’t simply dismiss Facebook as a tool that connects us to the people in our lives. It is the hyper-connectivity that has created the ideal platform for the mobilization of larger groups — both criminal and legitimate. It has been used to get people out of jail, to track down murderers, to get missing people back and to denounce illegal activities. What then can’t this website do? Where does its power end?
People now post what ministers say as their status; others denounce the mayor’s ineffectiveness. The most active ones use political logos as their profile pictures. Facebook has become a very public way of showing what people believe in and what they expect from the government. Whether these messages reach politicians or not is irrelevant because they still reach hundreds of other teenagers. Facebook travels faster than word of mouth, and once someone posts a message, it only takes a few seconds before dozens see it, like it and comment on it. As Julie Zelizer, CNN correspondent, puts it, Facebook “bring(s) like-minded citizens together and offer(s) an organizational infrastructure for movement politics.” The website has created a new political arena for non-politicians to act and voice their concerns. Colombia is now the country with the most Facebook users in Latin America. Everyone from the elite to low-income people has an account and use it so often that their lives revolve around it. We are a country on Facebook — a place where the political, social and economic scene have gradually changed with a few clicks.