'Click Here to Save Darfur'

Generation Facebook is using the Net not only to pledge online support for causes, but to take action in the real world
A picture posted by one of the 5,000-plus members of the Habitat for Humanity group on MySpace.

When student Brandon Sabbag first learned of the genocide in Sudan he did what many of his peers have done. He logged on to social network Facebook, decried the human rights catastrophe in a public blog, and bought a Save Darfur T-shirt. Well-intentioned as they were, the moves may not have counted for much on a World Wide Web where donning a virtual ribbon or joining a cause is as easy as posting last night's party pictures.

But Sabbag didn't stop there. The 21-year-old followed his online missive with an offline meeting at Gordon College, the Wenham (Mass.) Christian university he attends. Then he hosted another one. Within a year, Sabbag was helping organize benefit concerts and several thousand-person-strong protests urging divestment in companies thought to be indirectly funding Sudan's civil war. "It spawned from joining Facebook groups and posting things," says Sabbag of his activism. "Facebook is the platform that allows us to make social change and realistic things happen."

Facebook is but one of many new Web tools that have wrought a sea change in how activism is carried out online, spurring millions of Internet users not only to pledge online support for causes, but to take action in the real world. The age when organizers can drum up support by sending an e-mail blast is giving way to a new era of online activism, where Web organizers employ social networking groups to mobilize protesters and use media-sharing sites to promote relevant articles, images, and ideas. They are tapping into vast streams of small donor funds through "widgets," small shareable programs easily embedded in Web pages. And they are using new Internet telephone technologies and Web sites to help people contact a senator with a mouse click. "We go beyond signing up on an online petition," says Mark Hanis, executive director of the Genocide Intervention Network. "The Web is very much the gateway into taking substantive action."

From Small Widgets to Big Turnouts

Evidence of the success of online organizing graces headlines daily amid the neck-and-neck face for the Democratic Presidential nomination. Senators Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) both are using social networks like News Corp.'s (NWS) MySpace and media-sharing tools such as Google's (GOOG) YouTube to get out the vote.

But the impact of activism 2.0 is felt far beyond the 2008 Presidential election, raising awareness of far-flung causes, including conflict in Darfur, where more than 200,000 people have died and an estimated 2.5 million people have been displaced since 2003, according to published reports. "Human rights has really become a huge political platform now," says David Ross, a 21-year-old Minnesota resident who helped raise more than $2,000 for antigenocide groups through "Causes," a Facebook widget created by Project Agape to enable nonprofits to easily promote their platforms, garner support, and collect donations on the social network. "There must be hundreds of groups dedicated to human rights on Facebook," says Ross.

On Feb. 4 an estimated 5 million people poured into streets in Colombia and more than 100 other major cities outside the country to protest the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, a Communist guerrilla group opposed to Colombia's government. The massive march stemmed from a Facebook group, "One million voices against the FARC," which grabbed headlines after hundreds of thousands signed up online to protest the FARC's alleged involvement in thousands of kidnappings, murders, and the drug trade.

PayPal Gave Online Donations a Boost

Another tool online activists are using is Google Maps. Groups have created programs using the popular service that show everything from the eventual impact of global warming on Britain to the numbers of military casualties in a given country.

The effectiveness of Web organizing can also be measured in dollars. In 2006, online giving surged 51%, to nearly $6.9 billion, from a year earlier, according to ePhilanthropy, a nonprofit foundation that helps other nonprofits raise money online. The organization expects another increase in 2007 but won't have figures until later this year.

In 2007, the year eBay's (EBAY) online payment service PayPal created its "donate now" feature, more than 42,000 people downloaded the button, which makes it easier to contribute money to charitable causes. The feature helped fuel a greater than 40% annual increase in payments to nonprofits, according to PayPal's data.

The increase in online fund-raising is, in part, fueled by new donors. Organizations can now reach smaller givers who previously would have been considered too expensive to court due to the high cost of mass mailings. Some are simply more inclined to give because of the convenience of the Web. "It is much easier and accessible to make a donation online," says Ajaz Ahmed, a 30-year-old media executive from London who donated more than $6,000 through Causes to aid Africa. His recent blitz of giving, which included $2,000 to help eradicate malaria on the continent, was the first time he had become involved. "I think the Internet will play a huge role in solving a lot of these issues," he says.

The Significance of Action Beyond the Web

There are also potential drawbacks to new Web forms of organizing. The tools help online organizers tap new sources of funding, but they increase the threshold for what is required to be taken seriously. Since anyone can advocate a cause on a Web page, sign an online petition, or forward a form e-mail to a senator with a mere click of a button, those actions have begun to carry less weight with those in political power, say advocates. As a result, organizers have to ensure that the large numbers they grab online do more than the minimum in order to truly count. Moreover, they have to make sure that those who take action send a clear, unified message to political officials, rather than a cacophony of discordant views. "It's easier to build the movement, it is a little harder to organize the movement," says Sarosh Syed, director of online communications for SaveDarfur.

Still, new social tools are making it much easier for the average person to go beyond adding a name to an e-mail list. More than 4,000 of SaveDarfur's 800,000 Facebook members, for example, wrote personal e-mails to local representatives in a matter of hours after the group sent an appeal to its group list on Causes. At least 11,000 people called their senators last year urging action against genocide thanks to a 1-800-Genocide Web site and accompanying hotline that uses Internet-calling technology to automatically place a call to a legislator, says Genocide Intervention's Hanis. More than 39 senators took additional action on genocide following the campaign, says Hanis.

And where an organizer can't use Web tools to rally constituents, a close friend can. The nature of social networks themselves lets activists harness peer pressure, says Joe Green, co-founder of Project Agape, the company behind the Causes application, which has 11 million users on Facebook alone. It's harder to turn a deaf ear when a big portion of a person's peer group is not only affiliated with a cause but showing up for an early morning rally or coughing up cash for it. "It allows you to apply social pressure," says Green. "There is this power locked into everyone's social network."

Check out the BusinessWeek.com slide show to learn more about the people and organizations helping to fuel this new wave of Web activism.