Empty Clicks: Why Online Activism Is Often Meaningless

Twitter and Facebook have proven their roles stretch far beyond connecting with friends.

Social media has played an undeniable part in organizing social change and political protest.

When we look at the London Riots, Arab Spring and the revolution in Egypt, we can’t deny social media played a key role in organizing the unrest, and connecting those looking for change.

While there is no refuting the importance of social media’s role in social change, the impact of online activism, or clicktivism, may be more modest than we originally anticipated.

For the Millennial generation, online activism has an indisputable appeal. It allows people to raise awareness simply by updating their profiles, liking a post, retweeting, signing an online petition or taking part in a challenge.

Making a difference suddenly became as easy as clicking a button; all you have to do is read the headline and share the link, and suddenly you are a supporter of a cause.

While social media can undoubtedly raise a new level of awareness, it begs the question, what does awareness really mean? How frequently does sharing, liking or retweeting turn into meaningful action?

I agree the knowledge of reading a headline is better than no knowledge at all, but will it create the same level of commitment that existed when protestors and activists had to truly understand the issue in order to champion it?

Facebook and Twitter can provide a powerful network to broadcast over, but the impact of this noise is hushed.

When individuals shared the link in support of the Maasai residents ,who were going to be kicked off their ancestral land by the Tanzanian government, how many of them took the time to research the issue?

We now have activists who take to their computers and generate noise, but they lack the motivation to take real, substantive action.

Our new form of social engagement is more about exposing an issue and judging it, rather than learning, investing and championing a cause.

In The Structure of Online Activism, a study conducted by Sociological Science, the majority of people who like a Facebook page in support of a cause do not follow up with a donation.

Return rates for charities on Facebook are a tenth of those whose charities take traditional routes.

For example, the Save Darfur cause was one of the largest causes on Facebook, with more than one million members who collectively donated more than $100,000.

Despite the cause’s longevity and massive size, only a fraction of the members ever engaged in any type of activism beyond the act of joining.

Focusing on the first 689 days, 72.19 percent of members never recruited others to join, and 99.76 percent of members never donated.

Even when we look at campaigns like the Ice Bucket Challenge, the campaign was designed so participants can perform an action to replace meaningful donations and learning.

This brings into questions the motivation for online activism. Are organizations and charities simply interested in the visibility of membership that is created from social media?

Conversely, do Millennials want to give the impression they are engaging in social change, but lack the follow-through when it comes to donating or actively contributing?

Regardless of the reason, social media has historically been most effective when acting as a tool for the organization of activists, rather than as a platform for change.

However, this does not mean future campaigns cannot use social media more effectively to entice true action and involvement.

Despite the possible lack of true understanding that was generated during the online campaign in support of the Maassai people, the campaign was designed in a way that forced real change.

In order for individuals to be able to share the link, they had to sign an online petition that was to be delivered to the Tanzanian government protesting its decision to take the land.

The Millennial generation wants to, at the very least, appear to be involved in social change.

By requiring them to take action before sharing with their followers, it will allow campaigns to see measurable action, rather than a lot of meaningless noise.

The Millennial generation wants to be philanthropic. They want to show others they are invested in social change and are looking to create a better world.

Organizations need to adapt to change to meet the demands of this generation, all while still accomplishing their philanthropic objectives.

When creating a social media campaign, the approach should be action first, share second. In order to join the Facebook group, you must donate.

In order to retweet, you must sign the petition; in order to take part in the challenge, you must first be directed to an educational forum.

By designing an "action first, share second" campaign, it will allow organizations and movements to better engage with younger demographics.

Additionally, it will allow social media to move beyond its role as an organizer in social change and become a true vehicle.