Does social media wield the power we think it does? Not when it comes to mobilising the masses to action.
Most people recall the Save Darfur campaign which took Facebook by storm between 2007 and 2010, attracting more than one million members all expressing outrage at the atrocities in Sudan.
On the surface, the cause hit a nerve across the world. Yet what good came out of it? With that kind of membership, the online campaign should have been amassing millions of dollars through Facebook alone.
Instead, after three years, the Facebook component of the Save Darfur movement raised just £55,000 with an average donation amount of a mere £0.05. If not for the offline activities – direct mail alone garnered more than £596,000 – the campaign would have been in dire straits.
Jens Meierhenrich, an Associate Professor in LSE's Department of International Relations, is co-author of a study which has examined the impact – or lack thereof – of Facebook on the Save Darfur movement.
Along with a sociologist from the University of California and a social psychologist from the University of North Carolina, he set out to understand why such a powerful communication tool failed when it came to engaging people beyond the click of a keystroke.
The academics found that, of the million-plus members of the Facebook Save Darfur cause, more than 99 per cent donated nothing towards the anti-genocide campaign. Also, only 28 per cent actually recruited others to the online platform, defeating one of the main purposes of online activism.
"These findings surprised us, given the power that Facebook has as the world's largest social medium," Associate Professor Meierhenrich said.
As a means of recruitment and fundraising, it appears that Facebook fell far short of expectations in the Save Darfur campaign.
Possible explanations include a lack of strong ties that are widely believed to be necessary for creating and cementing social movements. Despite Facebook's popularity, it is a relatively shallow medium. This is an important factor that inhibits activism, Associate Professor Meierhenrich said.
It also encourages “free riding”, where people can bask in the glow of membership pride and take credit for any success, even though their own contribution was minimal.
"If a group is large enough, the majority often believes that others will do the hard work or pick up the slack and that their membership alone is sufficient. Responsibility is diffused so it is easy not to get involved beyond a very superficial level," Associate Professor Meierhenrich said.
The majority of the Facebook activity in the Save Darfur campaign was due to what the authors term “hyper-activists”. These are dedicated individuals who created and sustained the Facebook campaign by recruiting large numbers of members and by donating at higher rates.
"They were likely more invested in the movement because their involvement extended beyond social media. We suspect that they were also embedded in offline activities such as campus groups and various Save Darfur chapters around the country," Associate Professor Meierhenrich said.
While the study was confined to one particular social medium (Facebook), a single platform (recruiting and fundraising) and only one cause (anti-genocide activism), it does demonstrate a key point about social media, according to Associate Professor Meierhenrich.
"It appears that Facebook is less useful a mobilising tool than a marketing tool. Although it enabled more than one million individuals to register their discontent with the situation in Darfur, it failed to engage the vast majority of them at a deeper level."
Posted 25 March 2014
The full study, "The Structure of Online Activism,” is published in the journal Sociological Science.
Jens Meierhenrich is Associate Professor of International Relations at LSE and previously taught for a decade at Harvard University, where he was an Assistant Professor of Government and of Social Studies. He is the author and editor of several books, most recently Genocide: A Reader (Oxford University Press, 2014)