From the infamously viral Kony campaign in 2012 to the rise of online petitions, humanitarian campaigns are gaining traction on social media like never before. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with liking a good cause on Facebook. But critics of "slacktivism" worry that’s all we’re doing, rather taking more meaningful actions like making a donation or going to a protest.
Whether or not this criticism holds water depends, in part, on why people like a cause in the first place. A new study, published in the International Journal of Web Based Communities, provides a detailed breakdown, based on an online survey of Facebook users conducted by two researchers from the Scandinavian research organization SINTEF in Oslo, Norway.
The survey asked participants to describe, in their own words, why they like humanitarian causes and groups on Facebook and their opinion of whether their "likes" help. The researchers then analyzed and coded the answers. The 405 people who took the survey had all responded to a post on the Facebook page of Plan Norway, an organization that works on issues of children’s rights and poverty, and is a relatively savvy Facebook user, according to the study authors.
Here's the main reasons the researchers found about why we like causes on Facebook:
We aren’t all selfish brutes. The most frequently cited reason (62%) for liking a cause on Facebook was a genuine desire to raise awareness or otherwise help and support a cause in non-economic ways. (About half of the people whose answers fell into this category actually were members of Plan Norway and had sponsored a child through the organization). Whether or not, in the grand scheme of things, a Facebook like is a helpful means of doing so is another question. These people thought it was.
This was the second largest category (37%), and involves our knee-jerk surprise, anger, fear or compassion for humanitarian tragedies, with or without a person’s more rational desire to contribute or continue to follow a cause or organization in the future. The authors suggest that content that "supports this emotional state should be considered to enhance people’s committed engagement."
Getting updates about a group you’re interested in was the third most frequently mentioned reason (38%), but the authors say that "informational needs have not surpassed strictly social reasons for using Facebook." However, given that Facebook’s ever-changing algorithms control what people see in their News Feeds, Facebook users shouldn’t necessarily count on seeing posts from causes they like.
We want to make ourselves look good. It’s human nature, and social media clearly magnifies these tendencies. Of course, almost no one claims to be in this category themselves, but 22% believe others to be.
"Liking humanitarian organizations and causes can be a way for users to construct and present a social identity, whether authentic or false, and to gain acknowledgement from others. Thus liking humanitarian causes becomes part of the narrative of the self, the story that users tell their Facebook friends," the authors write.
In addition to other motivations, many people mentioned the low cost of liking a cause or post on Facebook. Clicking a button requires almost no effort or commitment to a cause, but can still serve the function of helping to distribute a message. This goes to the heart of the "slacktivist" criticism, but the authors of the study point out that, according to other research, "slacktivism does not replace, but rather can reinforce more active forms of civic engagement and participation." Really, that is debatable.
It could also be that we are becoming Facebook-using robots, a shadow of our former selves, who cannot do anything but click mindlessly on the Internet. Only 6% of people reported this, and they thought it was only other people who did it. "Instead of a real kind of engagement, this is a mechanically performed procedure, a standard activity," the paper says. "Thus, this activity is embedded in the culture of Facebook that makes sharing part of the routine, whether users truly like a cause or not."
The authors of the study caution that their study is a first gloss on the question, and has obvious limitations, including the fact that the people surveyed are all Norwegian and most already like Plan Norway on Facebook, and therefore might answer differently than someone who wouldn’t like a cause at all. Most interestingly, they report a heavy gender skew—many more females took the survey, perhaps, they speculate, because of the focus on humanitarian and child aid.
Despite the controversy about slacktivism, the study's results show that most Facebook users may believe a "like" does help, either a lot (12%) or at least somewhat (51%). Now nonprofits know a little bit more about what they’re dealing with on their Facebook pages.