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Empty Promises

Darsha Indrajith's picture

 Facebook likes don’t save lives. Yet, most ‘likes’ and retweets come from slacktivists. Can organisations and activists use digital media for activism?

Yes, but they probably aren’t using it efficiently at the moment – unless they’re UNICEF Sweden. The institution launched the “Likes Don’t Save Lives” campaign in 2013. One of the aspects of their multi-media campaign was a series of videos uploaded to Youtube that satirise the premise behind slacktivism.

According to Emma Grummas, UNICEF Sweden’s communications officer, the campaign enabled the organisation to raise enough funds to vaccinate over 600 000 children against polio.
Part of the campaign’s success was the recognition that most people simply click the ‘like’ button and do not engage any further. UNICEF Sweden found that 1 in 7 Swedes surveyed believed that liking an organisation’s Facebook page is equivalent to a monetary donation. This thinking, the organisation believes, needs to be changed.
Part of the video’s caption states that slacktivism is popular because “[t]he organization gets one more supporter and you get positive publicity among your friends. But even though it's important to be liked, likes can't fund medicine, water or food. In this we highlight the absurdness of our blind faith in likes, to raise money for vaccine” (sic).
Personal Publicity
UNICEF Sweden was correct in identifying “positive publicity” as a motivation for slacktivism. A number of studies were conducted to identify the sociological motivation behind slacktivism and predict when it would or would not occur.
This research, discussed in the journal article “The Nature of Slacktivism: How the Social Observability of an Initial Act of Token Support Affects Subsequent Prosocial Action”, enables organisations to refine their online and offline campaigns.
The studies showed that people who show public token support for a cause (examples would be liking a Facebook cause page, or wearing a pink breast cancer ribbon in an offline context) are significantly less likely to engage in any further action. One study showed that they are almost three times less likely to do so than people whose token support is private.
This is due to what the study refers to as “impression-management”. People engage in public token support because it communicates “a positive self-image to others”. However, the cause must be viewed positively for this to occur.
This was only the case with people who were not already deeply active within the cause. For those who were, token support such as Facebook ‘likes’ tended to increase their participation.
Increasing Engagement
What does this mean for activist organisations? Symbolic support in the form of ‘likes’ is great to spread awareness, but it might not be as beneficial as a more focused campaign and it certainly should not be a goal. However, the research showed that individuals are more likely to engage further with a cause if the initial symbolic support requires them to consider their values in relation to the cause’s. Whether the two or congruent or not does not change the increased likelihood of the individual’s further participation.
Organisations should therefore make their values explicit and focus public token support campaigns on people who are already involved in the cause. Most organisations currently use online public support to increase general awareness amongst people who are not involved in the cause. Evidence shows that this is a waste.
The advisable route would be to discourage slacktivism and encourage sustained, comprehensive engagement. UNICEF Sweden seems to have gotten this right. Who’s next?