A provocative study in the inaugural release of Sociological Science shows that online activists may be less active/less engaged than the activist community would hope. The vast majority of people who joined the Save Darfur Facebook campaign “recruited no one else into the Cause and contributed no money to it.” The authors of the study concluded that “Facebook conjured an illusion of activism rather than facilitating the real thing.”
One possibility is that this pattern reflects activism of all kinds. In any cause, whether it be online or offline, there are many joiners but few participators. The authors hint at this potential when noting that the Facebook campaign reflects the traditional collective action problem. Once people join a movement, they have little incentive to exert energy, resources, or time if they think others will do it instead.
But the other possibility is that there is something unique about social media activism that is demotivating. A new study in the Journal of Consumer Research, “The Nature of Slacktivism” investigates this possibility at the social psychological level. In a laboratory experiment, the authors of this study show that people who are assigned to join a public Facebook activist group are less likely to participate in the movement subsequently (stuffing envelopes) than are people who are assigned to a private Facebook activist group. The key difference between a public and a private group is that in the public group your friends can see that you joined. The authors claim that there are two functions that activism often serves for individuals: impression management (i.e., looking good in front of others) and value consistency (i.e., a desire to align your actions with your values). Social media activism satisfies individuals’ need for impression management; hence, the reason a number of people dropped out once they felt their friends noticed their efforts. Only people who are reminded about their pre-existing values will likely follow through with a deeper level of engagement.
The two studies together suggest that there may be a reality behind this idea that social media facilitates slacktivism. Of course, this isn’t to say that movements would be better off without social media. There are many positive informational benefits that social media create for movements. And other scholars have suggested that online activism is simply a different form of social movement altogether – one that deserves being studied on its own terms. But these studies should also make us skeptical when Internet evangelists declare that social media have released traditional movements from past constraints.
Subscribe to comments with RSS.
Comments are closed.