Advocating for social change on social media is often derided as useless “slacktivism.” Many people who actively tweet about protests don’t actually show up to those protests. For a recent example, it's likely that only a fraction of the people who turned their Facebook profiles pink in a show of support for Planned Parenthood actually donated to the organization. These acts of support only cost the time it takes to click a mouse, while more serious participants will dedicate their days, donate money, or, in some cases, risk their safety for the cause.
But a new study in PLOS ONE argues that social media slacktivism isn’t all that deplorable. In the case of protests, as researchers from New York University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Oxford found, social media activism helps spread the word of a cause further than it would otherwise reach.
The researchers used a dataset of millions of tweets surrounding both the Turkish protests in May and June 2013 and the United for Global Change movement in May 2012 to analyze how activists mobilize protesters and spread awareness. They also analyzed tweets using hashtags related to the 2014 Academy Awards and to the campaign for a higher minimum wage, neither of which were related to protests.
They found that the people retweeting information about protests did make a difference, as news of the protests was effectively spread to a wider audience. Though most of the information was being tweeted out by a core number of protesters on the ground, the sheer numbers of users on the periphery who were simply retweeting the news helped disseminate information, helping the protests make international news even though Turkish media didn’t cover them.
However, the United for Global Change movement provides a test case where social media fails to gather momentum when there aren't enough people participating. Here, it "fail[ed] to raise sufficient awareness of the actions taken by the committed minority,” the researchers write, and the May 2012 protests didn’t attract as much media attention as previous Occupy-related protests.
Previous research on slacktivism found that people who engage with advocacy organizations in very public ways like changing their Facebook profile pictures are less likely to engage deeply with the cause later (say, in the form of a donation) than people who make a private gesture, like contacting their Congressional representative. However, it seems that in great enough numbers, especially in the face of censorship, Internet-bound activists can play at least a partial role in helping a movement gain attention.