Every three to four months or thereabouts, a social movement takes off on Facebook or Twitter and pundits and social scientists begin another round of questioning about what digital activism accomplishes at the end of the day.

The #BringBackOurGirls campaign to encourage action on the kidnapping of 276 school girls by Boko Haram terrorists in north-east Nigeria has been particularly successful in attracting global attention. And one can argue that the decison by the U.S. in May to send military and law enforcement personnel to help in the search is evidence that such social activism works.

This time I haven’t seen too many of the usual inquisitions examining the value of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign except the usual rightist servants of orthodoxy (and much else that is not good) like#WillCain who called the campaign ‘cheap”. On the contrary, the Will Cain reference was in piece published by Laura Olin in Time called #BringBackOurGirls: Hashtag Activism is Cheap—And That’s a Good Thing. She contends that something apparently so trivial as a hashtag could in fact be “a little bit world-changing”.

Likely not so concludes a study released in February — The Structure of Online Activism by social scientists Kevin Lewis, Kurt Gray, Jens Meierhenrich. This may be unfair over-statement, but what they did conclude is that:

In other words, rather than upholding social media as the gateways to civic engagement, our findings support the notion that “the fast growing support and diffusion of protest enabled by the Internet is followed by an even faster decline in commitment” (VanLaer 20120:348). Facebook, in the case under investigation, proved a “weak tie” instrument par excellence (Granovetter 193; Kavanaugh et al. 2005)

The ‘case’ the authors looked at in detail was a Facebook campaign focused on Save Darfur on the social mobilisation site Causes — “At its height, the Save Darfur Cause was one of the largest Causes on Facebook, with more than 1 million members who had collectively donated more than $100,000.”

However, the authors observed that only a tiny percentage of those who joined the Facebook page over the 989 day study period donated or become active in the cause in any way, and that if someone was recruited to join rather than joined of their own accord they “were the least active of all.” There was also a steady decline in commitment and donations as time passed.
In my untrained assessment, it looks like they probably got the data right. And their conclusion seems reasonable in light of the facts. But there are a few contextual points I wished they had considered:

  1. The decline in commitment the authors saw over the 989 days corresponded with significant progress being made on resolving the Darfur question. The first round of the Doha peace forum talks began in December 2010. The question has to be raised: Could exogenous factors like actual progress influence recruitment, activism and donations to the cause?
  2. To what were people donating? One of the features of successful activism online or off is being able to connect people’s commitment to a clear and direct consequence of their pledge. People want to know that by ‘liking’ or donating they are making a difference, that change will happen as a result of their actions. Would that the authors had assessed the effect on behaviour of donating to a cause that could only be resolved by cohesive and concerted global intervention?

I am no social scientist, but wouldn’t consideration of these socio-political factors help us better understand how recruitment, commitment and action actually happen in digital activism?
Timing of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign—immediate and with the likelihood of probable action by some government actor — unquestionably encouraged, supported and rewarded participation.

Authored by: Boyd Neil