Online activism has its shortcomings, but is not a failure

unicefActivists have turned to social media as a way to get people involved in their campaigns. Critics say that the ‘slacktivism’ or ‘clicktivism’ is nothing more than a cheap way to make a person feel like she did something while not doing anything. Proponents say that every little bit helps and there is value in creating awareness as people share information with their social networks.

The popularity of the Kony 2012 video and its ensuing backlash brought the debate to center stage two years ago. Some charities are pushing back on the trend. UNICEF Sweden released a series of videos that shunned Facebook likes and asked for cash donations

So, who is right?

Two new pieces of research shed a bit of light on the answer. Those who sit firmly in pro and against slacktivism camps will be disappointed. Both sides are right and wrong.

Using social media for activism can make a difference, but it matters most to the people who are already interested in an issue. It is not terribly hard to get people to participate by liking a Facebook page or sending out a Tweet. The challenge is converting bystanders into engaged activists.

In one paper, researchers evaluated what happened during the roughly three years (May 2007 – January 2010) that the Save Darfur campaign took to Facebook. Kevin Lewis, of the University of California, San Diego, Kurt Gray of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Jens Meierhenrich from the London School of Economics looked at the actions of the roughly 1 million members of the Save Darfur Cause on Facebook.

The cause was at one point the largest on Facebook, managing to raise $90,776 over the period measured by the researchers. The trend of giving closely follows the increase in the number of members, but only a few people actually gave.  In total, 99.76% of the cause’s members did not give. Of the few that did give, 94.72% did only once. That means that the majority of the money given was driven by what the researchers call a small group of ‘hyperactivists.’

Recruitment was another thing that was measured. That too was an activity that the majority did not undertake. Some 72% of members never recruited another member. The top 1% of donors and recruiters wielded a significant impact over the cause. They accounted for recruiting more than 60% of all members and 47% of funds raised.

“Despite the chorus of voices touting the transformative (and even democratizing) potential of social media, when it came to recruiting for – and donating to – the Save Darfur Cause, the most popular social network site in the world appears to have hardly mattered,” conclude the researchers.

With the majority of members of the Save Darfur Cause being recruited in, the evidence suggests that the people most likely to continue engaging are the ones that were reached through more traditional activism channels. It in many connects to the findings of University of British Columbia graduate student Kirk Kristofferson and Katherine White of the University of British Columbia and John Peloza of Florida State University.

They find that people are more likely to give when their first actions are taken privately as opposed to publicly. In other words, the person who gets involved in a cause by sharing a Facebook status or wearing a pin is less likely to give.

“Charities incorrectly assume that connecting with people through social media always leads to more meaningful support,” explained Kristofferson. “Our research shows that if people are able to declare support for a charity publicly in social media it can actually make them less likely to donate to the cause later on.”

The findings are based on a series of experiments in the field and lab settings. Taking more private actions, like signing a petition, are more closely associated with the likelihood of providing meaningful support in the future.

Most interesting is that they team concludes that people who take the public actions do so to look good to others. That also imparts a feeling of having done enough. The people who are taking the private actions are doing so because the cause or issue is more closely aligned with their beliefs.

So what does this all mean for online activism? The two studies show that the most important actions take place before people go online and in private. However, social media are tools that very engaged activists will use and they can succeed in reaching a large audience. The hype about social media activism is probably overstated, but it does not mean that slacktivism is deserving of the derision that it can garner.

HT Laura Seay and Nicohlas Tufnell

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.