According to a new study, viral causes that spread via social media rarely go deeper than clicking on a "Like" button.
Can social media mobilise the masses to action? It may not be as effective as people think, according to a new study.
At its height, the Save Darfur Cause on Facebook had over a million members — and yet very little was actually accomplished. Kevin Lewis of the University of California, San Diego, Kurt Gray of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Jens Meierhenrich of the London School of Economics and Political Science have found that online activism isn't necessarily as effective as it looks.
Examining the Save Darfur Cause in particular — created using the Cause.com platform that allows people to create, join and donate to causes using Facebook — the study found that very, very few people did more than like the page. Of the over one million active users who joined the cause between May 2007 and January 2010, 99.76 per cent never donated money, and 72.19 per cent never recruited new members from among their friends.
While the average donation rate — US$29.06 — was similar to other fundraising methods, the rate of donation was just 0.24 per cent, compared to mail campaigns, which have a rate of two to eight per cent. The Facebook cause raised just US$100,000.
The study also found that most of the members of the group — around 80 per cent — had been recruited, while 20 per cent had joined independently. Those who had joined independently were both more likely to recruit others and donate.
Of course, this study, which concentrates on the activity of a single cause, may not necessarily be indicative. For one, Darfur is far away from most of the people who had joined the cause. When recruiting activists in a local context, social media has proven to be relatively successful: take the Occupy movement, for example, or the Arab Spring. Other kinds of activism other than fundraising can be more successful too: signing an online petition, for instance, or recruiting volunteers.
The authors acknowledge that there are some gaps in the study. "It is possible," they said, "that the individuals in our data set contributed to Save Darfur in other meaningful but unobserved ways."
However, they believe that the study provides an informative look at online activism.
"The study is an important counter-balance to unbridled enthusiasm for the powers of social media," Lewis said. "There's no inherent magic. Social media can activate interpersonal ties but won't necessarily turn ordinary citizens into hyper-activists."
The full study, "The Structure of Online Activism", can be read online in the journal Sociological Science.