Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


The World Wide Web

darfur1.jpg

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Do ‘Save Darfur’ Facebook Members Really Care About Darfur?

• March 07, 2014 • 8:08 AM

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

A new analysis proves armchair activism is alive and well.

On Facebook, people enjoy telling you things about themselves. Especially good things. Bonus points if these are things that signal a strong humanitarian heart and an advocate’s soul. Or, at least this is how it works on my Facebook.

For instance, joining or liking a page about saving Sudan’s violent Darfur region, a place that saw the exodus of approximately 400,000 people last year, tells people that you’re plugged into current events and that you’re working toward a philanthropic solution.

There’s something that makes social media particularly conducive to callous self-promotion. Facebook allows you to receive “reputational benefits” without encouraging you to do anything behind the scenes.

But the fatal flaw of advocacy efforts online can be the tendency to spend so much time providing hints about the great work you’re doing that you then forget to actually follow up and do it. Or as The Onion summarized it quite brilliantly in a recent headline: “6-Day Visit to Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman’s Facebook Profile Picture.”

A new analysis of the membership and activities of the “Save Darfur Cause” on Facebook indicates that these are more than just speculative hunches. Published last month in Sociological Science by University of California-San Diego sociology professor Kevin Lewis and his colleagues (Kurt Gray at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and Jens Meierhenrich of the London School of Economics and Political Science), the case study shows users who joined the advocacy group did embarrassingly little to advocate.

The researchers claim that it’s “the first data set of its kind in containing precise longitudinal data on the growth and donation activity of a massive online social movement.” Even though the group boasted a membership of 1,174,612 at its peak, almost none of them actively gave to the cause and only some recruited other members. In all, it only raised a total of $90,776 during the more than two-and-a-half years which the data covered.

Focusing only on members who joined within the first 689 days (N = 1,085,463) so that the proportion of recruiters and donors is not artificially truncated, 72.19 percent of members never recruited and 99.76 percent of members never donated. Of those members who did recruit, nearly half (45.57 percent) recruited only one other person, and of those members who donated, 94.72 percent did so only once. In other words, the vast majority of the Cause’s size and income can be attributed to a very small number of “hyperactivists.” … In fact, by going back in time and removing only the top 1 percent most influential Cause members—including all of their recruits, the recruits of their recruits, and so on, as well as all of their donations, the donations of their recruits, and so on—62.84 percent of Cause membership and 46.54 percent of funds raised disappear. Over time, then, diminishing increases in the Cause’s overall size were exacerbated by drastic reductions in donation and recruitment rates: more and more people did less and less.

The researchers also argue against the notion that this trend is true across all mediums:

Available data suggest that this explanation is implausible. Surveys show that 51 percent of American households donate to charitable causes—often through workplace incentives or other in-person appeals. Mail solicitations, meanwhile, typically generate rates of 2 percent to 8 percent of people donating $10 to $50 each, and the Save Darfur campaign received more than $1 million through direct-mail contributions in fiscal year 2008 alone (Save Darfur Coalition 2008). So although the average donation amount on Facebook ($29.06) was comparable to offline donations, the donation rate (0.24 percent) was substantially less and accounted for only a fraction of funds raised by Save Darfur in traditional ways.

There’s something that makes social media particularly conducive to callous self-promotion. Facebook allows you to receive “reputational benefits” without encouraging you to do anything behind the scenes, according to Lewis. “You don’t get any social validation from donations,” he explains. He suggests that online donations themselves should be more public to “maximize pressure.” Otherwise, massive membership numbers compel everyone to think that someone else will be donating in their place, a phenomenon known in the collective action literature as the “paradox of community life” and referred to in psychology as the diffusion of responsibility.

While Lewis believes that many in the Darfur group probably were “generally empathetic” to the cause, his results indicate that they cared more about the “psychological and social benefits” of having their name associated with it. “All of this is about showing off to other people.”

Ryan Jacobs
Associate Digital Editor Ryan Jacobs joined Pacific Standard from The Atlantic, where he wrote for and produced the magazine’s Global and China channels online. Before that, he was a senior editorial fellow at Mother Jones. Follow him on Twitter @Ryanj899.

More From Ryan Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


Follow us


That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.