Online causes may attract more clicks than commitments

Collecting 'likes' via social media doesn't always translate into real-world donations

TOKEN GESTURES  Collecting “likes” online or asking supporters to wear ribbons may not translate into real-world donations of time and money for charitable organizations. 

Chris Gash

The Save Darfur Cause on Facebook had all the makings of a slam dunk cyber success. More than a million people joined the social media site’s digital movement a few years ago to save the people of Sudan’s Darfur region from mass slaughter.    

There was a hitch in Facebook’s humanitarian giddy-up, though: The vast majority of people who enlisted in the Save Darfur Cause recruited no one else to the digital crusade and contributed no money. The sum total of their support amounted to a computer click.

“Facebook conjured an illusion of activism rather than facilitating the real thing,” sociologist Kevin Lewis of the University of California, San Diego says about the Save Darfur campaign.

While the effort managed to raise nearly $100,000 after almost three years, the money came from less than 1 percent of the 1.2 million Save Darfur members. Fundraisers and serious activists call the horde of nondonors “slacktivists,” people with an activist’s righteous intentions but a slacker’s lack of follow-through.

Lewis and his collaborators analyzed records of donations and recruits at the Save Darfur Cause. Their findings, published February 18 in Sociological Science, provide the first long-term look at the donation habits among members of a massive online social movement. Lewis conducted the study with psychologist Kurt Gray of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and political scientist Jens Meierhenrich of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Taken together with other recent experiments, this exposé of slacktivism among digital do-gooders suggests a need to rethink the potency of online awareness campaigns. Whether cruising Facebook or ambling down a crowded street, people gravitate toward slacktivism when others can see their minor act of support for a cause, researchers find. Impressing others with a public but trifling display of civic-minded concern may be all most people are willing to muster, at least those who don’t have a burning passion for a cause.

Charitable organizations that encourage people to wear pins, bracelets or other ornaments as a first step toward becoming a donor or volunteer also may need to revise that strategy, researchers say.

Still, some forms of online activism undoubtedly succeed. An online network of protesters played an important role in defeating proposed federal legislation to regulate the Internet in 2012. Facebook and Twitter users also have helped coordinate mass real-world protests against authoritarian regimes, as in the 2011 Egyptian uprisings.

Many social scientists assume that online social networks enhance all types of social and political activism, says Stanford University sociologist Sarah Soule, a deputy editor at Sociological Science. But little research has addressed that issue. Some studies of face-to-face encounters have indicated that individuals are more likely to carry out a large request after first consenting to a small request. In contrast, other investigations find that token acts of support provide an excuse for doing nothing more.

Even less is known about whether pop-up Internet humanitarian campaigns, such as this year’s #bringbackourgirls movement to rescue more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian girls, kindle successful activism.

“In the case of the Save Darfur Cause on Facebook, Lewis and his colleagues show that the effects of online activism were pretty minimal,” Soule says. Whether Save Darfur’s disappointing results represent an exception or the rule for digital movements will remain unclear until other online campaigns are evaluated.

Cause without effect

Meierhenrich wasn’t sure what to expect to learn about Save Darfur when he began to delve into its members’ online activities in 2009.

That investigation grew out of a larger project Meierhenrich had organized to probe the recruiting and money-raising prowess of the Save Darfur Coalition, a worldwide alliance of more than 190 advocacy groups founded in 2004. Shortly after that time, Facebook gained popularity among charitable organizations as a tool for attracting recruits and donations.

Some writers and Internet gurus touted social media as a game changer for activism; others doubted that digital connections made any difference. But their arguments rested on anecdotes, not investigations.

Meierhenrich responded to the debate by calling on Lewis and Gray to help him analyze donation and recruitment records for Facebook’s Save Darfur members from May 15, 2007 — the day the online movement was founded — to January 27, 2010.

During those 989 days, nearly 1.2 million people joined the Save Darfur Cause on Facebook. Of that number, about 81 percent were recruited by other members. The rest signed up independently.

Meierhenrich, Lewis and Gray focused on the 1,085,463 members who joined within the first 23 months, so that those who wanted to recruit and give money had enough time to do so. A total of 1,082,858 members — 99.76 percent of the sample — never donated a cent. That left a smidge more than 2,600 members who forked over some dough. Almost 95 percent of that select group gave only once.

About 72 percent of members recruited no one else into the online movement. Of those who did, nearly half recruited only one other person. Members knew they could recruit as many people to the cause as they wanted, but they weren’t prompted to do so on the site. In other words, a tiny number of what the researchers call “hyperactivists” breathed life into the Save Darfur Cause. The most active recruiter corralled 1,196 new members. The top donor gave $2,500 in a series of payments.

Overall, the top 1 percent of hyperactivists were responsible for 47 percent of the funds raised and 63 percent of the movement’s members.

By late 2009, donations had fallen to near zero and few new members were being recruited. What had burst on the scene as a viral movement of voluntary recruiters and donors petered out within about two years. “More and more people did less and less,” Lewis says. Occasional fund-raising e-mails sent to members had no impact on those overall trends, he adds.

As a result, donations to the online effort fell far short of the more than $1 million raised in 2008 by the Save Darfur Coalition through direct-mail solicitations.        

Getting to engagement

Not all online movements trigger a tsunami of slacktivism. Social media can inspire mass activism when lots of people have a direct stake in a cause, as occurred during recent uprisings against authoritarian rule in Arab countries, says sociologist Zeynep Tufekci of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. About half of 1,050 Egyptian protesters surveyed shortly after that nation’s president resigned in 2011 said that they used social media to communicate about the demonstrations, especially through Facebook, Tufekci and a colleague reported in the April 2012 Journal of Communication.

Social media makes it possible to assemble huge numbers of persecuted people into protest movements with astonishing speed, perhaps explaining why some political rulers have censored or shut down Facebook, YouTube and dissidents’ websites. But organizers have yet to figure out how to convert bursts of Internet-fueled activism into sustained movements, Tufekci wrote in a March 20 New York Times editorial. Crowds mobilized by the Internet typically hold demonstrations that disperse after a few weeks without changing government policies, she concluded.

Facebook’s Save Darfur effort faced participation and fund-raising challenges from the start, says political scientist David Karpf of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., the host site of the Save Darfur Cause, is a for-profit outfit that sells names of those who join its various movements to nonprofit organizations looking for donors. The site is set up to encourage people to join causes in a one-time action, Karpf says. An online cause such as Save Darfur that makes it far easier for people to join than to recruit or donate can be its own worst enemy, he suggests.

Karpf adds that many nonprofit organizations now skip in favor of mobilizing campaigns on independent Facebook pages, Twitter and other online platforms.

E-mail solicitations currently bring in the most money as well as new members for the Save Darfur Coalition, says Erik Leaver, director of digital strategy for United to End Genocide in Washington, D.C. The Save Darfur Coalition merged with other groups to form Leaver’s organization in 2011.

Save Darfur now attracts about 100 new supporters weekly through its own Facebook site, Leaver says.

“I don’t think anyone would have predicted the amount of slacktivism we found in the Save Darfur Cause,” Lewis responds. “It’s time to stop being blindly optimistic about social media activism.” For researchers, he adds, that means looking for factors that encourage true online activism once individuals digitally dip their toes in a movement of interest.

Impression managers

A research team at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and Florida State University recently explored motivators to online and other kinds of activism, even before learning of the slacktivism findings from the Save Darfur Cause.

Kirk Kristofferson, a marketing graduate student, and his colleagues noticed that previous studies made opposing predictions about how people should behave after providing token support to a cause. One line of research suggested that helping others in small ways gives people “moral license” to forgo future support. Yet studies on the “foot-in-the-door” effect indicated that volunteers more often comply with large requests for assistance after agreeing to small requests.

In the April Journal of Consumer Research, Kristofferson’s group tries to bridge the “moral license” and “foot-in-the door” perspectives. Results of several experiments begin to explain why joining an online activist site might or might not discourage serious involvement in that movement. The researchers also suggest how slacktivism can be deterred.

People are much less willing to go out of their way for a cause after engaging in public token support, versus private token support, the researchers find. An act of trivial backing for a cause that friends and strangers can see (say, clicking “like” on Facebook or donning a colorful wristband) satisfies a need to present oneself to others in a positive light, they propose.

“Token support that’s observable by others may not lead to increased support for a cause,” Kristofferson says. That’s when real-world behavior mirrors results of the moral license studies.

His group ran its first study shortly before a date when Canadians annually show support for veterans by wearing poppy flower pins. Participants consisted of 92 people who walked across a concourse on the University of British Columbia campus that leads to a cafeteria and shops. At the concourse entry, a researcher gave some participants a free poppy and asked them to pin it on their clothing. Others received an envelope containing a poppy inside. A third group got no poppies. At the end of the concourse, another researcher asked all volunteers if they wanted to put donations in a bin on behalf of Canada’s war veterans.

On average, those who received their poppies in envelopes donated more than twice as much as those who were given poppies to display immediately on their coats. Those who got no poppies gave the least. Hidden token support, the exercise suggested, was the best foot in the door to making a substantial contribution.

Comparable findings emerged in a lab investigation. Participants read pamphlets the researchers created for two phony charities, one to combat poverty in developing countries and another to provide international disaster relief. Volunteers who privately signed petitions for either cause later made a verbal commitment to spend an average of 57 minutes stuffing envelopes for their chosen organization, versus an average commitment of 32 minutes by those who signed petitions in front of the other participants. Individuals who weren’t asked to sign petitions said they would stuff envelopes for about the same amount of time as those who had publicly inked petitions.

The team’s third study suggested that engaging in public token support resolves a popular desire to impress others. In line with that idea, volunteers felt less concerned about how others perceived them after signing petitions in front of peers, relative to just before public signings. In contrast, participants who privately signed petitions reported a greater desire to act consistently with their beliefs and values. People who provide token support without being observed don’t worry so much about social status as about contemplating how their personal values align with those of the cause, the researchers suspect.

Based on a fourth study, which focused on online activism, Kristofferson’s team thinks it has found a weapon to spur the “one-click-and-done” crowd to further action. In this experiment, 101 college students logged onto their personal Facebook accounts, where they linked to Facebook group pages created by the researchers for the two fake charities used in the petition study. Given the opportunity to join either online group, 74 students did so.

Some participants were told they had joined a public group, making their Facebook friends privy to their membership and future posts. Others were told they had joined a private group, inaccessible to Facebook friends.

One subset was then asked to think about how their personal values differed from those of their charity. In this test, only 32 percent of people who joined a public Facebook activist group volunteered to stuff envelopes for the campaign, versus 71 percent of those who joined a private group. Members of private groups, undistracted by social concerns, took the extra step of considering how their values matched those of a charity, Kristofferson proposes.

Aligning values

When other participants were encouraged to think about how their values aligned with those of the charities, comparably large majorities of both public and private joiners volunteered to stuff envelopes. People in public groups, it seemed, just needed some direction to forget about their public personas and embrace more active roles.

Charities generate a lot of publicity through online campaigns, “but seeking public expressions of token support may not attract new donors,” Kristofferson says.

His warning applies not only to online outfits obsessed with collecting “likes” from admirers but to organizations that exhort people, say, to wear ribbons in support of medical research.

The analysis of the Save Darfur Cause indicates that “slacktivism is more common than scholars of online activism have believed,” says sociologist Brayden King of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. However, he adds, Kristofferson’s experiments suggest that getting people to join private online groups may be a way to turn “likes” into meaningful participation.

Online campaigns can achieve success, though, by gathering like-minded, highly motivated groups into an operation that wields political clout without raising a dime.

A diverse network of bloggers, small media outlets, independent groups and private organizations fueled a 17-month online movement that helped to defeat federal legislation aimed at prosecuting copyright violations on the Internet, concludes Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler and his
colleagues in a July 2013 report published online by Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. The activists’ aim was to preserve the right of anyone with an online platform to post information from any source without being charged or
subjected to copyright-infringement lawsuits.

Benkler’s team compiled 9,757 online articles about the proposed law that appeared from its introduction, in September 2010, until revised bills in both houses of Congress got voted down in late January 2012. Using specially designed software, the researchers analyzed the content of each story and the number of links from other sites to each story.

The online protest movement snowballed, drawing in digital contributors from across the political spectrum and eventually triggering critical coverage of the proposed legislation by major television networks and newspapers. Laws that started out with bipartisan congressional support and powerful outside backers buckled under a counterattack launched by small technology media sites that had no political lobbyists or D.C. connections.

The spontaneous, anti–Internet-control movement may have achieved an unlikely political victory because it was managed by a core of highly committed, computer-savvy activists. Or maybe the campaign’s success heralds the rise of decentralized, citizen-run political lobbying crusades. Or perhaps the effort was perfectly suited to the medium of the exchange. For now, no one knows.

Lewis suspects that many Internet movements consist of slacktivist multitudes riding the coattails of hyperactivist commanders. “Slacktivism is nothing new, but the threshold for joining causes has now been reduced to a computer click,” he says.

In a famous cartoon, one dog is sitting on a chair in front of a computer and another is seated on the floor. The dog in the chair says, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Fair enough, Fido. But scientists will increasingly get to know which all-too-human Internet activists are dogging it. 

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