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Do 'Save Darfur' Facebook Members Really Care About Darfur?

A new analysis proves armchair activism is alive and well.
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(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

On Facebook, people enjoy telling you things about themselves. Especially good things. Bonus points if these are things that signal a strong humanitarian heart and an advocate's soul. Or, at least this is how it works on my Facebook.

For instance, joining or liking a page about saving Sudan's violent Darfur region, a place that saw the exodus of approximately 400,000 people last year, tells people that you're plugged into current events and that you're working toward a philanthropic solution.

There's something that makes social media particularly conducive to callous self-promotion. Facebook allows you to receive "reputational benefits" without encouraging you to do anything behind the scenes.

But the fatal flaw of advocacy efforts online can be the tendency to spend so much time providing hints about the great work you're doing that you then forget to actually follow up and do it. Or as The Onion summarized it quite brilliantly in a recent headline: "6-Day Visit to Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman's Facebook Profile Picture."

A new analysis of the membership and activities of the "Save Darfur Cause" on Facebook indicates that these are more than just speculative hunches. Published last month in Sociological Science by University of California-San Diego sociology professor Kevin Lewis and his colleagues (Kurt Gray at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and Jens Meierhenrich of the London School of Economics and Political Science), the case study shows users who joined the advocacy group did embarrassingly little to advocate.

The researchers claim that it's "the first data set of its kind in containing precise longitudinal data on the growth and donation activity of a massive online social movement." Even though the group boasted a membership of 1,174,612 at its peak, almost none of them actively gave to the cause and only some recruited other members. In all, it only raised a total of $90,776 during the more than two-and-a-half years which the data covered.

Focusing only on members who joined within the first 689 days (N = 1,085,463) so that the proportion of recruiters and donors is not artificially truncated, 72.19 percent of members never recruited and 99.76 percent of members never donated. Of those members who did recruit, nearly half (45.57 percent) recruited only one other person, and of those members who donated, 94.72 percent did so only once. In other words, the vast majority of the Cause’s size and income can be attributed to a very small number of “hyperactivists.” ... In fact, by going back in time and removing only the top 1 percent most influential Cause members—including all of their recruits, the recruits of their recruits, and so on, as well as all of their donations, the donations of their recruits, and so on—62.84 percent of Cause membership and 46.54 percent of funds raised disappear. Over time, then, diminishing increases in the Cause’s overall size were exacerbated by drastic reductions in donation and recruitment rates: more and more people did less and less.

The researchers also argue against the notion that this trend is true across all mediums:

Available data suggest that this explanation is implausible. Surveys show that 51 percent of American households donate to charitable causes—often through workplace incentives or other in-person appeals. Mail solicitations, meanwhile, typically generate rates of 2 percent to 8 percent of people donating $10 to $50 each, and the Save Darfur campaign received more than $1 million through direct-mail contributions in fiscal year 2008 alone (Save Darfur Coalition 2008). So although the average donation amount on Facebook ($29.06) was comparable to offline donations, the donation rate (0.24 percent) was substantially less and accounted for only a fraction of funds raised by Save Darfur in traditional ways.

There's something that makes social media particularly conducive to callous self-promotion. Facebook allows you to receive "reputational benefits" without encouraging you to do anything behind the scenes, according to Lewis. "You don't get any social validation from donations," he explains. He suggests that online donations themselves should be more public to "maximize pressure." Otherwise, massive membership numbers compel everyone to think that someone else will be donating in their place, a phenomenon known in the collective action literature as the "paradox of community life" and referred to in psychology as the diffusion of responsibility.

While Lewis believes that many in the Darfur group probably were "generally empathetic" to the cause, his results indicate that they cared more about the "psychological and social benefits" of having their name associated with it. "All of this is about showing off to other people."