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Facebook Likes Might Be Hurting How Much People Actually Give to Charity

"Slacktivism" - easy online activism - could actually decrease how much people donate to their pet causes

Facebook allows people to connect around issues they care about: Help this dog! Save this historic landmark! Cure cancer now!  It takes just one little click of the thumbs up to show support. But recent research shows that this kind of “slacktivism”—easy online activism—could actually decrease how much people donate to their pet causes.

One study, after the Aurora shootings, polled 759 people about their position on gun control. They could sign a pro-control petition or an anti-control petition. Afterwards, some of the participants were offered the chance to give money to a group that was either for or against gun control. Another group was asked to give to a group that worked on education. New Scientist reports:

Those who signed were more likely than those who didn’t to donate to the group promoting their position on gun control. But that generosity only extended so far: signers were no more likely to donate to education than non-signers. What’s more, signers donated on average 30 per cent less than non-signers. When surveyed, signers also said they were now more likely to participate in future e-petitions, but not to attend a protest again. Hsieh presented the results this week at the Computer Human Interaction conference in Paris, France.

For foundations and policy changers, online support is nice, but money is what makes the wheels turn. When thousands of people changed their Facebook pictures to the red equals sign in support of marriage equality last month, some complained that there were far more active ways to show support, like giving money to a group or actually leaving your computer to go to a rally. Proponents of the campaign argued that when policy makers login to Facebook and see a wall of red, they might think twice about where their constituents fall.

After the Arab Spring, Malcolm Gladwell argued that “the revolution will not be Tweeted” and that real change requires offline actions, too. “Are people who log on to their Facebook page really the best hope for us all?” he asked. Those who study social media responded saying that actually Gladwell was probably wrong in his assessment of Arab Spring. Of course, it’s hard to measure, but according to the Atlantic Wire:

These studies all agree on two things: Lots of people tweeted and the messages facilitated conversations. Twitter volume is something scientifically quantifiable. And indeed Twitter use rose during these revolutions, as Casey explains. “The number of tweets from Egypt went from 2,300 to 230,000 in the week leading to the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak.” Not only did tweeting increase, but lots of that tweeting was about the revolution and helped shaped the debate. Of course, even the study that said Internet hurts revolutions conceded this point. “To put it another way, all the Twitter posting, texting and Facebook wall-posting is great for organizing and spreading a message of protest,” noted The New York Times‘s Noam Cohen.

So while actual revolution still requires actual people on actual streets, social media might be the best way to get them there. So far, however, there’s no way to turn likes into dollars for activist groups, so they would like you to like them, both on Facebook and with your cash.

More from Smithsonian.com:

The World’s Closest International Relationships, According to Facebook
We’re Better at Remembering Facebook Statuses Than Book Lines
How A Facebook Experiment Increased Real World Election Turnout

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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