A Study Suggests Online Activism Doesn’t Work, But The Truth is Probably More Complicated

Email a Friend

A recent study seems to confirm what most of us already suspect - that Facebook activism isn’t likely, on its own, to lead to real world consequences. Researchers looked at the “Save Darfur” Facebook group and found that despite having 1.2 million members, the group only raised $100,000. That works out to a donation rate of 0.24 percent.

The researchers concluded that, in this instance at least, “cause members recruited no one else into the Cause and contributed no money to it-suggesting that in the case of the Save Darfur campaign, Facebook conjured an illusion of activism rather than facilitating the real thing.”

The story’s a bit more complicated than that though. As fun as it is to criticize stuff like this, not every piece of online activism is the same. People use to coordinate protests in countries with authoritarian regimes, for instance. “Save Darfur” is a broad, global cause, which means the Facebook group is likely to contain a lot of well-meaning people with a weak connection to Darfur and a vague commitment to the cause. But there are plenty of examples of online activism where the people who care are more directly tied and more invested in its success - some of those might have higher participation rates.

Lastly, as University of North Carolina Professor Zeynep Tufekci points out, a study like this only measures a very narrow variable for success, since it only measures success as it happens online:

Do we know how many high school students who never considered donating to Save Darfur, since that age group rarely does, nevertheless became engaged participants in the civic sphere after being introduced to politics through this movement? I’m not making a claim but highlighting measures we need. 

I’m convinced by these findings that “Save Darfur” cannot convert clicks to donations, though I’m not clear on how more donations would have allowed Darfur to be saved, and it’s possible many participants felt the same way. Donations or other online-only (worse, one platform-only) behaviors as outcome measures are frustratingly limited windows into civic behavior. I emphasize this as a comment on the field rather than only to this paper.