Social Media for Social Causes

Promoting social causes online can mobilise millions and raise huge sums of money. But it only leads to long term changes if the campaigns don’t fizzle out prematurely. Social...
16 February 2017


Promoting social causes online can mobilise millions and raise huge sums of money. But it only leads to long term changes if the campaigns don’t fizzle out prematurely. Social psychologist, Sander van der Linden from the University of Cambridge, thinks he’s found the formula for social media campaigns to be effective in the long run, detailing what he calls “viral altruism” in a study published in Nature Human Behaviour.

Citing examples such as the ALS Ice Bucket challenge, van der Linden proposes a framework called “SMART” for putting Facebook feeds to good use. In particular, he argues successful campaigns leverage social norms, such as public consensus and our desire to conform to the behaviour of our peers, as well as the moral incentive to act on a social cause.

These can be motivated by, or cause affective reactions, the feel-good factor that sustains our interest and garners our involvement. Alternatively, outrage or indignation can also compel us to donate or take part in some other way, dubbed translational impact.

In other words, make it popular, compelling and emotive, and you can convince people to act.

That's the proposed recipe for a wide reaching and, perhaps more importantly, effective campaign that can generate huge levels of public involvement. Analysing the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge of 2014, the study finds that it leveraged all of these techniques, managing to raise an extra $115 million for the ALS foundation.

Despite this, the very “virality” of some campaigns might be a hinderance rather than a help. Although the Ice Bucket Challenge raised a lot of money all in one go, our interest wasn’t sustained by it for more than a few weeks. The study suggests that viral altruism has a “half life”. This highlights the difference between so-called “extrinsic” and “intrinsic” incentives that affect how we participate in such campaigns.

Extrinsic norms relate to external factors such as the desire to take part in something our friends are involved with, or give the outward appearance of being generous. To really sustain our interest in a cause however, van der Linden says we need to develop intrinsic norms, an unconditional and personal investment in a cause regardless of the social hype surrounding it.

“The social tipping points tend to come and go before people have had time to internalise [an issue] and really make it their own. Often what you see with these sorts of campaigns is everyone participates because it’s hyped up and it’s hot right now, but by the time it dissipates, people haven’t really had the opportunity to become personally convinced that this is something they need to continue on their own.”

Compare that to the popular campaign “No-shave Movember”, in which men grow out their facial hair over November to raise awareness of men’s health issues. From 2003 to 2014, the campaign grew from just 30 participants to 5 million and the foundation claims that 3 in 5 now report seeking medical advice as a result. Framed as month-long event that happens every year, van der Linden thinks that it leverages the participants' intrinsic desire to define their identity with part of a larger movement.

“Now that more people are moving their social interactions and getting their news online, we have to think about ways we can actually get people engaged online, above and beyond simply clicking on something and being satisfied, because it’s very different to going out and, say, volunteering with a local cause. We know that when people get that real world experience, it’s very transformative for people in terms of how they think about charities and social causes.”


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