NEW YORK – Facebook, MySpace and similar Web sites were created as social networks. Now they are being used to try to change societies.
"We are seeing communications technology as a powerful force for social and political change," said Matthew Waxman, an associate Professor at Columbia University who until recently was part of a special State Department think tank that advised Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on emerging issues.
Waxman is part of a conference at Columbia University Law School that is bringing together activists from around the globe who have discovered the quickest way to demonstrate for a cause is with a computer.
"This is a great way to get similarly minded people all over the world together," said James Glassman, under secretary of state for Public Affairs.
He represents the State Department at the Columbia conference, called the Alliance for Youth Summit. Politically active people are learning how to use the Internet to stage protests or pressure public policy change in their countries.
Glassman, the epitome of a distinguished gray-haired diplomat, seems to marry the old world with the new by embracing the concept. After all, he says, our enemies have harnessed the Internet to target us.
In January, he told FOX News, "Al Qaeda was eating our lunch on the Internet. I actually think that that has changed and that the violent extremist groups that use the Internet are using it in the old-fashioned way: they're using it to instruct, to exhort — basically tell people what to do.
"We feel that around the world, young people are using the Internet to push back against violence in a new way, using social networking, convening large groups to have conversations, basically, to share information. And that is something that Al Qaeda and the violent extremist groups cannot stand," he said. "We think the technology that exists today is one our side; it's not on the extremists' side."
Earlier this year there was a dramatic example of that, as 12 million people in 190 cities took to the streets in February to protest against the Colombian terrorist group FARC. They were all organized by one man who proudly admitted, "we created a groundswell."
The architect of the protest, and the person who so visibly demonstrated the ability of the Internet to do good, is Oscar Morales, a 33-year-old, unemployed computer technician who showed you can start to change the world by logging in.
Morales said he was so outraged by the kidnappings and acts of violence being committed by the rebel Marxists in his country that he felt compelled to do something, and started the Facebook group One Million Voices Against FARC.
"What we witnessed on February 4 was amazing. It was beyond all our expectations. We couldn't believe it," he said. And he did it on his own.
"He had no help from the government or no knowledge by the Columbian Government that he was going to do this," said Glassman, who noted the Facebook site "mushroomed into a membership of over 400,000 people."
Glassman joined with Jared Cohen, a member of Secretary Rice's Policy Planning Staff, to spread the word to other causes. Cohen praised Morales, who he said shows you can "actually be an activist from your bedroom."
Cohen says the Internet can be a vital tool to fight terrorism, violence and oppression, and that Morales' effort is just the first of many.
"Now with the Internet young people can speak out online or in the streets," he said.
Many are doing so. This week 17 groups from Latin America to Darfur will be learning how to connect via the Internet with others for their causes.
They include the Burma Global Action Network, which promoted democracy in Burma in the aftermath of the military junta's oppression of monks and other political activists; Invisible Children, a group aimed at abolishing child soldiers in Africa; To Write Love on Her Arms, an Orlando, Fla., organization that helps people find help for depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide; The People's March Against Knife Crime, a British group to pay tribute to people murdered by stabbings and try to prevent such crimes (21 teenagers have been killed this year in London alone); and the Center for a Better L.A., a group founded by the head football coach at the University of Southern California, Pete Carroll, to find a better life for former gang members.
While groups focus on countries from Egypt to Cuba, one notable effort includes the Iraqi Rebuilding our Country, which is aimed at giving job skills to young people who have been affected by the extremists' infiltration in places like Diyala and Anbar.
Almost 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Internet generation is showing the walls of repression can be breached by a click of the mouse.
Follow Eric Shawn on Twitter: @EricShawnTV