Opinion: Internet Activism Accomplishes Little

It has happened to all of us: a friend forwards an e-mail urging you to sign an online petition or join a Facebook group for some noble cause like saving Darfur or stopping deforestation. Most of us, out of respect for the friend or because we agree with the cause, click ACCEPT or AGREE, often without giving the issue much thought. After all, it can't hurt, can it?

The proliferation of social-networking sites like Facebook has spawned a new and particularly superficial form of activism. It asks nothing more from participants than a few mouse clicks and makes everyone feel good. But these empty campaigns may not accomplish much, if anything, in the way of social change, and could even distract people from supporting legitimate causes.

Take one of the most popular Facebook campaigns, which purports to "save the children of Africa." It has more than 600,000 members who have collectively raised the grand sum of $2,801 (0.4 cents each). Its "hall of fame" features a top recruiter, who persuaded 118 people to sign up; a top donor, who ponied up $115; and a top fundraiser, who netted $210. Most of the discussions on the group's Web page seem to be either links to other campaigns and sites or self-congratulatory messages. Given the low yield of a campaign like this, it's not clear what good it's doing.

Marc Lynch, a political scientist at George Washington University, who has studied the impact of new media on Mideast politics, is skeptical about the real impact of Facebook-based campaigns. "Joining a [Facebook] group is perhaps the lowest-cost political activity imaginable, involving none of the commitment and dedication necessary to go out to a protest—TO say nothing of engaging in the hard work of organizing required for real political activity," he wrote in a recent blog post.

Since requests to sign up usually come from online friends, Facebook-based "slacktivism" makes for a fascinating study in the psychology of group formation. To find out what makes people join, Anders Colding-Jørgensen, a psychologist at University of Copenhagen, recently organized a Facebook campaign for a nonexistent cause—to save a fountain in Copenhagen from demolition. He started by distributing information to 125 people, which led to more than 27,000 members signing up for the bogus cause (no demolition was ever planned).

Many campaigns appear to be based on the assumption that raising awareness is enough to solve any problem. That works for some local causes: gay-marriage activists, for instance, successfully used Facebook groups and other online platforms to organize a protest against a recent California Supreme Court decision on the issue. For global problems like genocide in Darfur or climate change, the payoff is unclear. According to some fundraisers and activists, the rise of awareness campaigns has made it that much harder to raise significant sums of money or elicit action from volunteers. A Pan-Arab initiative to free an Egyptian blogger from jail was recently trying to get people to translate and publish the blogger's writings for the purpose of proving to authorities that imprisoning him was counterproductive, says Sami Ben Gharbia, a Tunisian activist and one of the organizers of the campaign. The group's Web site featured a sign that said don't donate; take action.

The best Web campaigns may be those that don't pretend to ask anything high-minded of their participants. FreeRice, a Web site developed by the U.N. World Food Programme, offers a game that helps players learn English and shows them ads to raise money for sending rice to poor countries. This may not be glamorous, but at least it gets some work done.