This Study Is the Perfect Response to People Who Hate on Social Media Activism

December 9th 2015

Many people use social media to discuss current events and important subjects. And while might some call this lazy or "slacktivism," a recent study reveals that posting about social issues might be more beneficial than people realize.

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg School for Communication recently published "The Critical Periphery in Social Protests" in the journal PLOS One and found that slacktivism can actually have significant reach and elevate activists who are out attending protests and trying to enact social change on the ground. The study calls these slacktivists "peripheral players" in social movements and concluded that they help get the word out on many issues.

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A recent example of slacktivism surrounds last month's horrific attacks in Paris. Many were called self-congratulatory for using the French flag backdrop as their Facebook profile photo following the tragedy in France, and the meme below illustrates the argument that such a move doesn't lead to actual progress:

Slacktivism memeImgur - imgur.com

The research, however, found that such slacktivism helps rapidly spread the word to many people. So while some criticize their friends changing their Facebook profile photos in reference to recent current events, the minimal effort behind this move might not be so pointless after all.

"Of course social media doesn't push you to risk your life and take to the streets, but it helps the actions of those who take the risk to gain international visibility," Sandra González-Bailón, a professor of communication at Annenberg and co-author of the paper, said in a press release for the study.

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González-Bailón added that movements can experience significant growth thanks to slacktivists signing online petitions, posting online, and tweeting and retweeting about the movements.

"If you want a product to go viral or you want a protest to grow, you need that influential core, but you also need the periphery echoing them," González-Bailón said. "Peripheral users are not 'slacktivists.' They are quintessential to understand why products go viral or protests go big."

The academics came to this conclusion after analyzing millions of tweets regarding specific protests, such as the 2013 Turkey demonstrations, and current events in the U.S., such as the 2014 Oscars and minimum wage debate. By noting location data included in the tweets, the study authors determined who was protesting on the ground and who was merely showing support from their devices.

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"Protest networks show a division of labor where there is a small minority active at the center, generating most of the messages, photos, and content," a release on the study reads. "Meanwhile a much larger group -- 'the critical periphery' as the researchers describe them -- amplify and echo the messages from the core group. In many cases, these 'slacktivists' may retweet only one or two messages, but in aggregate, their actions served to double the reach of the core protesters."

This is consistent with a 2011 joint study from Georgetown University's Center for Social Impact Communication and Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, which found that slacktivists are more likely to participate in activism offline compared to their non-slacktivist counterparts.

"This really redefines the way we think about slacktivists – how we motivate them, and how they really are engaging with and impacting causes right now," Denise Keyes, senior associate dean and executive director of the Center for Social Impact Communication, said in a release in 2011. "The presumption was that these individuals were replacing more 'meaningful' actions with simple clicks and shares. But what we found is that they're actually supplementing – not replacing – actions like donating, volunteering and planning events."

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In 2013, Human Rights Campaign launched a campaign that inspired millions of people to change their Facebook profile images to rainbows in preparation for the U.S. Supreme Court's marriage equality decisions. A research paper on the campaign found that users were more likely to upload the logo as their profile pictures if a lot of their Facebook friends had done so.

"While the number of friends played a role in the adoption dynamics, so did demographic characteristics and the general propensity of the individual to change their profile picture," the report reads. "[T]he adoption curve is consistent with a heterogeneous-threshold model, in which the probability of adoption depends on both the number of friends and the susceptibility of the individual."

Sociologist Philip Howard told the Washington Post over the summer that while these kind of campaigns don't necessarily inspire policy changes, they can allow your friends to see where you stand on certain issues.

“Profile picture campaigns are effective in showing the friends and family in your social network that you have some affinity for a political candidate or cause,” Howard said.

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