Putting Libya, forests and libraries to rights with one click of a mouse

CLICK here to help stop the crackdown in Libya!

No, I don’t mean here on this page – though if you could do it, it would probably be about as effective as what I was invited to do online.

Since I wrote last week about the internet’s influence on Arab revolutions, intensive farming plans, and forestry sell-offs, a few things have made me wonder.

One well-meaning message urged me: “Email the prime minister now to voice your opposition to selling arms to Arab dictators.”

OK, but do you think he’d take any notice?

Then there was the invitation: “To end the brutal killing of more than 20,000 dolphins in Japan. The petition now has 1,848,627 signatures; only 151,373 more signatures needed.”

Oh, if only it were that easy.

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One reader suggested to me that writing to your MP with paper and ink is a much more effective way of registering protests or opinions than clicking an online link.

Maybe – though I’m sure it depends which MP you’re writing to. Some are no doubt more influenced by letter-writing than others.

But the Facebook group or its equivalent is a very quick and impressive way for politicians to gauge public feeling, which ought to have some sway with them in a supposed democracy.

The 2009 campaign which put Rage Against the Machine on top of the pop charts may have been trivial, but it was a strong indicator of Facebook’s social power. MPs will ignore that sort of power at their peril.

Even as I was writing this column, an email arrived from the website 38degrees, which orchestrated the successful campaign against the forests sale.

“Now what?” it asked. “What new campaigns could we work on together?

“Library closures? Cuts to Disability Living Allowance? Bankers’ bonuses?”

Sure. I’d vote for – or rather, against – all of those things.

But you have to wonder whether a few mouse-clicks can really take the place of getting out in the streets and waving placards.

No doubt it’s safer – but is it any more effective?

In any case, it does depend on mass-membership host sites such as Facebook being allowed to function.

As my friend Jeremy pointed out: “The revolution in Egypt carried on despite the fact that the authorities turned off the internet. Similarly in Libya.

“Even in the United States, an internet off-switch is being mooted as a governmental self-defence mechanism.”

All true. But the fact that any government would consider imposing an off-switch for the net shows how much they fear it.

Even if, as Jeremy also remarked, Facebook is primarily concerned with serving up targeted advertising to its readers.

Which makes it not so much a tool for advancing democracy, as one for profiting from capitalism.

And where did Jeremy make this acute observation? On Facebook, of course.

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SIMON is my good friend in the real world – but he won’t be my Facebook friend.

He refuses on principle to join what he calls (jokingly, I think) “the work of the devil”.

It’s not that he’s unhappy with using the internet in general. In fact, he runs one of the largest and most successful websites in Suffolk.

On that website that he has this to say: “The Suffolk countryside is today being bled to death. Post Offices, shops and pubs close, the jobs on the land evaporate as the big supermarkets squeeze the life out of rural England.

“Once, not so long ago, we used to buy and sell our local produce in our villages rather than driving weekly to a massive Tesco store ten miles away.

“We had a sense of community and interdependence.”

On all of that elegy for a lost England, I agree with him – as he well knows.

But he goes on: “Now we have broadband. While her husband is something in the City, a London designer can sequester herself in her remote Suffolk second home and conference-call her clients in the States, while her children downstairs are groomed by dangerous strangers in chatrooms and on Facebook without ever meeting any of the local kids.”

Well, OK – up to a point. But Facebook as a place for “grooming” of kids by malevolent adults?

That sounds to me like buying into a popular fiction. Or, if not quite a fiction, then a stereotype so exaggerated as to have little relationship with reality.

Simon drew my attention to the sordid story of Michael Williams, the paedophile postman jailed last year in Cornwall.

As reported, Williams “used Facebook and Bebo to groom hundreds of children for sex”.

Unpleasant. Very. And also, thankfully, very rare. If predatory paedophilia was really commonplace, it wouldn’t be news.

But, few as they are, individuals of that kind will always find some way to do their dirty work. And, as it turns out, the internet was almost incidental to the way Williams did his.

He “targeted” children he met on his post round, on school runs as a taxi driver, and in his role as secretary of a football club.

So if we use his case to demonise Facebook, should we also condemn football, taxis and the postal service?