Whatever your philosophy about “doing good” may be, there can be no denying that part of the power of human, animal, and environmental rights campaigns is tied largely to their ability to mobilize people into action for the cause. And while Facebook may seem like the ideal venue to engage millions of connected users in an activity for the greater good, there are several pitfalls that Facebook activism can fall into.
Facebook activism can turn quickly to armchair anthropology
It was a phenomenon from over a century ago: the earliest Western academics who studied other cultures used second- or third- hand research (from missionaries, explorers and the like) to write authoritatively about a people they knew next to nothing about. This produced a bulk of misinformation, half-truths, and harsh criticism that prevented true cultural understandings to flourish for many decades.
This armchair anthropology might have a new reincarnation now that we are all connected by Facebook and other social media. When someone from one country joins a Facebook group that supports a particular leader or political party/ideology in another country, are they really all that informed about the issue? Some people are. But there are, no doubt, a number of people who read one or two second-hand articles or hear a story from a friend and believe they have the authority to speak for a group they are not part of.
This is not to say that we should cut ourselves off from caring about what happens “over there”. But there is something to be said about making informed decisions, rather than jumping on a trend or a popular group simply because it shows up repeatedly in our news feed.
The bandwagon effect in Facebook activism
Facebook can also lead to an overemphasis of certain issues, which is a criticism of the mainstream media as well. However, because Facebook is not only used to share links and discuss current events but also to mobilize groups to support or denounce certain causes, this can potentially lead to even more harmful consequences.
For instance, we have all seen the groups that broadcast “I Will Donate X Amount of Dollars for every X Amount of People That Join”. This is a great marketing technique to pique interest in a cause. But many people who join the group are ill informed or not all that interested in the cause itself – they are, instead, driven by the already large number of people who have joined. We often feel that it is “right” to do something if others are doing it as well. And if a dozen or so of your friends, as well as hundreds of thousands of others, have joined a group, what’s the harm in you joining too?
Again, having a large number of people supporting a good cause is not something that is in itself a bad thing. However, with Facbook campaigns that rely purely on numbers, you run the risk of devolving a truly noble cause into a superficial group that has little activity but plenty of members.
Facebook activism can disconnect people from their civic duty
So you’ve joined a handful of Causes on Facebook, one or two “awareness” type groups, and even one that promises to donate $1 for every 100 people. You’re pretty sure this means that not only will thousands of dollars be raised for a great cause, but people will hear more about it and be more inclined to act. You’ve done your part.
But, in reality, you haven’t done that much. How much effort does it really take to click “Join”? Or to send a link or two requesting some of your friends do the same? And can you be sure that the money will be raised, or that the word will spread, if you’re not actually a part of it?
Facebook activism runs the risk of replacing real activism and other forms of civic participation with a less tangible and, arguably, less effective activity. This is not to say Facebook groups and other social media campaigns are not effective at all – but they should not be seen as the only or best way to promote a cause.
Suffering happens offline, not online, and this distinction needs to be drawn when promoting causes through Facebook. Social media is a tool, not an end. It offers limitless potential to engage and inform people, and even to mobilize them via petitions and Twitter demonstrations. However, the root of these causes must be addressed with real, hard work – both on- and offline – in order for any form of activism to truly effect the change it desires.