Facebook takes protest into whole new world

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The Independent Online

Social networking has taken on a radical new edge after a Facebook campaign forced HSBC bank to reverse plans to cancel interest-free overdrafts to new graduates.

A raft of new protest zones have been rolled out on the site as grassroots social and political groups discover that they have a potent new weapon at their disposal.

No longer do eco-warriors have to rely solely on sit-ins and protests. Anti-poverty campaigners now have a platform that allows them to constantly update their message. And local activists can tackle issues such as supermarket expansion plans without leaving their living rooms. Today's revolts are mounted from the mousepad.

Recent groups established on Facebook have shown that the networking site is losing its vacuous image, with users keen to flex their political muscle.

HSBC this week announced it was "not too big to listen to the needs of customers", after thousands of Facebookers signed up daily to the site "Stop the Great HSBC Graduate Rip-Off". Students across the country had been calling for a boycott of the bank. The U-turn comes as a warning sign to other institutions, governments, organisations and individuals. For now virtually no issue goes unnoticed on social networking sites.

Appeals to save local services coexist with campaigns for human rights and appeals for the return of Madeleine McCann.

Ben Allen, 26, who runs a Facebook group which campaigned to save a section of Camden Market from being replaced with a purpose-built complex containing chain stores, said that he thought the web was empowering people who would not ordinarily protest.

"It makes it easier for those who were never going to take to the streets, and empowers people to vote with their clicks rather than their feet," he explained.

Like many Facebook activists, Mr Allen is part of the generation for whom protesting has been a relatively alien concept. "I'm no Che Guevara", said the music PR, "I've never actually been to a protest, but networking sites make it easier. At its peak my group had more than 20,000 members, and that's because its so much easier just to click to support a cause".

Steve Huff, an American networking site expert, said the phenomenon has been noticeable on the other side of the Atlantic for some time. "It's a trend that I've noticed over here especially in the last year, where people all over the country form online groups to campaign for a single issue", he said. "I'm not sure yet that they do achieve change", said Mr Huff, "but I would like to think that something can be achieved, if only in establishing a connection between people."

While the majority of Facebook groups, such as "the biggest group hug", or the popular "petition to revoke the independence of the United States of America", are still fairly pointless, serious campaigns for social issues are on the rise.

But, in a sign that Facebook is not likely to shake its navel-gazing image, its most popular campaigning group yet is the one to keep the site going. Formed during a lawsuit against the site's founders, it attracted more than a million members.

The campaigns

* "Please help! They're trying to knock down Camden Market!!!" – 18,776 members. One of several that sprang up after Camden council published plans to demolish a portion of the Victorian stables in favour of a mall-style complex. Planning permission has been granted, but members have been encouraged to write to No 10.

* "Save the British Library!" – 2,321 members. This group sprang up following the Government's consideration of funding cuts to the library. A link to an online petition shows almost all members have signed in disapproval. The group has been running since January, but there are several others dedicated to keeping membership free.

* "Object to the Tesco depot" – 416 members. Plans to build a Tesco warehouse the size of Heathrow's proposed Terminal 5 in rural Hampshire, near Andover, have angered the local community. With a link to a local council petition, the group urges users to complain directly to the council.

* "Against Dublin Dog Ban" – 83 members. After 11 breeds of dogs that were considered a public danger were banned from housing estates in Dublin, this local group was formed to petition Dublin City Council to revoke the decision. The banned species category included bull terriers and alsatians.

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