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Slacktivism: Do ‘likes’, ‘shares’ really help the cause?

How many times have we come across posts on social media asking us to hit the ‘like’ button or share a post to help a cause. Wearing a ribbon, signing a petition, or joining a Facebook group are other forms token displays of support for a cause that are gaining popularity. One reason for the increasing in such acts is the increasing presence of charitable organisations and advocacy groups on social media. These are called token acts because they require little or no effort from the user’s end.

A study titled The Nature of Slacktivism: How the Social Observability of an Initial Act of Token Support Affects Subsequent Prosocial Action published in Journal of Consumer examined the conditions under which such “slacktivist” behavior occurs.

What is slacktivism

Slacktivism is the willingness to perform a relatively costless, token display of support for a social cause, with an accompanying lack of willingness to devote significant effort to enact meaningful change.

Opinions are divided on whether slacktivism actually helps. Its proponents believe that even if it doesn’t convert into a tangible support, it at least orients a person towards a certain problem. Some regards it as the first step towards helping for a cause.

For example, the ice bucket challenge raised more than $115m (£88m) for motor neurone disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in a single month. The money was used to fund a research that discovered a gene variant associated with the condition. Initially,many had dismissed the exercise as slacktivism.

On the other side is the UNICEF Sweden’s “Likes Don’t Save Lives” campaign. It  communicated to consumers that meaningful financial contributions, rather than mere token displays of support for the cause, are required to protect children in developing nations against diseases.

That brings us to the question: do token acts of support for a social cause increase subsequent meaningful contributions? Here are the findings of the study.

Conceptual framework

The study proposes that when the initial support situation is high in social observability, impression-management motives become activated. Consumers can satisfy these impression-management needs by engaging in a publicly observable token act of support for a positively viewed, prosocial cause. As a result of these impression-management motives already being satisfied, consumers will not be particularly motivated to contribute to the cause when a subsequent request for more meaningful support is made.

Conversely, they propose that when token support is low in observability, consumers will be focused on the private (vs. public) self. Under private conditions, the desire to maintain consistency with one’s own values and behaviors will be most relevant for consumers when deciding to provide subsequent help for the cause. Thus, after engaging in a private (vs. public) initial act of support for a cause, consumers are predicted to be more likely to act consistently with their previous behavior and therefore be more inclined to help in response to a subsequent request.

Results of the study

The study found out that when the motivation is intrinsic, users tend to make more meaningful contributions. If the values of the cause and the user is aligned, or say, if the user strongly believes in the cause, the chances of him/her making tangible contributions are higher.

“Our work can provide guidance to charitable organizations planning to undertake a public token-support campaign. We find that this form of support is most effective in garnering subsequent meaningful support among those already highly connected to the cause,” it says.

When you hit the ‘like’ button, ask yourself how you connect to the cause. Would you have ‘liked’ it when there’s no on watching or in private? What message would you like to send across when you make token gestures: that you support it or the cause needs support? 

“We find that providing public token support satisfies impression management motives, leading to a lower likelihood to provide meaningful support for a cause,” it added.



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