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Changing your Facebook profile picture is doing more good than you might think

People gather at a memorial set up near the Bataclan theatre in Paris, to pay respects to the victims of a series of deadly attacks on November 20, 2015, in Paris, France.
People gather at a memorial set up near the Bataclan theatre in Paris, to pay respects to the victims of a series of deadly attacks on November 20, 2015, in Paris, France.
Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images

Following a set of terrorist attacks on Paris that killed 129 people in November, one thing was clear to pretty much every American with a Facebook account: their friends stood with France. That’s because soon after the attacks, Americans across the country enabled a feature on Facebook allowing them to superimpose the French flag on their profile photos.

The condemnations quickly started rolling in. Salon implored Facebook users to "Spare us your French flag filter." CNN ran an op-ed that declared, "Enough with the French flag Facebook logo."

It’s a popular sport on the Internet to hate on these so-called "slacktivists," the people who show support for a cause by little more than lifting a finger — to click the "like" or "share" button. And most people assume that their participation doesn’t carry any physical or practical effect. (Other than giving the slacktivist in question a reason to feel smug, of course.)

But what if these armchair activists are actually having a meaningful effect? New research suggests that this seemingly lazy form of collective awareness may be extending the life of various social movements.

How do researchers even measure this kind of thing?

In the study, published in PLOS One this December and called "The Critical Periphery in Social Protests," researchers at the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg School for Communication looked at several protest movements, including the 2011 Occupy movement in the United States and the 2013 Gezi Park protests in Turkey. They used location data from each post to determine whether the social media user was posting from the site of a protest or spreading the message remotely. They also analyzed how the users were connected to one another to map out how information flowed from on-site protesters to their slacktivist counterparts. For comparison, they also studied two events that didn’t involve protests: the 2014 Oscars and a year-long debate about raising the minimum wage in the United States. The second happening was chosen in particular because while it represented an organized political effort, it did not center on a massive demonstration or other focal event.

In the case of the protests, researchers found that a division of labor was crucial to the success of the social movements studied.

At the center are groups of active protesters, the small minority of people willing to sleep in tents at Zuccotti Park and document their discontents in photos, videos, and other content.

The study didn’t delve into what kinds of messages resonated the most — after all, specific calls to action might be a harder lift than simply changing your Facebook image to a sign of solidarity with a particular cause. But it did show that slacktivism can have real reach.

There are the many people around these sharers, sometimes tens of millions, whom the researchers call the "critical periphery." These are the people responsible for taking a highly local protest movement and ensuring it is felt nationally and internationally. And the researchers found that in aggregate, their likes and shares pack as much of a punch as those of hardcore activists.

Slactivism is activism

This shows the flow of information to those "periphery" activists.

That doesn’t mean slacktivism is as effective as the real thing

The Annenberg study is clear in its findings: The power of numbers is what make armchair activists so powerful in spreading a social movement’s reach. Each person who shares a photo is not doing the same work, for example, as the person who took that photo.

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

Researchers don’t yet know whether people who take the option to protest on social media are doing it in lieu of taking direct action. That’s a popular argument with commentators who believe the practice is hurting the future of social protest, since young people glued to their mobile devices will be too distracted or lazy to go out and march.

But what we know so far suggests the opposite might be true. According to a 2011 Georgetown study, the same people who are likelier to post about various causes on social media are also significantly likelier to volunteer, participate in a protest event, or encourage others to become more involved.

In other words, there is hope for millennials yet.