UNICEF Tells Slacktivists: Give Money, Not Facebook Likes

A harsh new ad from the group says social shares aren't enough, in a new turn in the online-activism debate.
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Israeli President Shimon Peres writes on a blackboard with Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the company's headquarters in Menlo Park, California in March 6, 2012. (Reuters)

In the beginning, organizations wanted you to like the heck out of their Facebook pages. Why? You know, community-building, awareness-raising, general "engagement"-upping. After all, social sharing can do amazing things. It helped spark the Arab Spring (err, or maybe just sort of). And more tamely, it can shame a homophobic fast-food chain, temporarily make Joseph Kony a household name, and even help you find your birth mom.

But one thing clicking "like" doesn't do is, say, get malaria nets to African villages or boost funding for charity groups. And now that Facebook is nearly 9 years old and Twitter is 7, we're seeing the inevitable backlash against social-media "slacktivism."

"Right now, gay activism needs all the help it can get. But do you know what's not helping? Changing your Facebook profile picture to a silly red-and-pink equal sign," wrote Vice columnist Brian Moylan in the wake of the recent gay-marriage Face-demonstration.

Now, UNICEF Sweden is the first major international charity to come right out and say that people who actually want hungry, sick children saved need to donate money and supplies -- not just virtual support.

"We like likes, and social media could be a good first step to get involved, but it cannot stop there," said UNICEF Sweden Director of Communications Petra Hallebrant. "Likes don't save children's lives. We need money to buy vaccines for instance."

Here's the poster, created in conjunction with ad agency Forsman & Bodenfors:

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There's also a video ad that's a bit more intense. It shows an apparently orphaned child standing in a third-world hovel, with his brother on the mat on the floor behind him. He's worried he'll get sick, the captions say, "like my mom got sick, but..."

"But I think everything will be alright. Today UNICEF Sweden has 177,000 likes on Facebook. Maybe they will reach 200,000 by summer."

It ends with this stern message:

"Likes don't save lives. Money does."

Let it never be said that the Swedes pull their punches.

UNICEF's might be an extreme perspective, but it does raise interesting questions about how charity organizations should spread their messages online without allowing their potential donors to get stuck in slacktivist land, retweeting links and changing profile pictures without ever opening their wallets.

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A 2,000-person study by Georgetown University and Ogilvy Worldwide found that social promoters were just as likely as non-social-promoters to give money, but they were slightly more likely to volunteer their time (30 percent, versus 15 percent for non-social-promoters). So it seems that at least for some online agitators, liking a cause on Facebook doesn't mean that's all they're doing. And in a 2011 study by the Internet journal First Monday, Henrik Serup Christensen found that there is no so-called "substitution effect," meaning online activities don't reduce off-line mobilization. Indeed, the author concluded, "It is at worst harmless fun and can at best help invigorate citizens."

Then there's the argument that "slacktivists" aren't simply ineffective "activists" -- they're just bored Internet users posting another status update. As Zeynep Tufekci, a sociology professor and a fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society, wrote on her blog last year:

What is called commonly called slacktivism is not at all about "slacking activists;" rather it is about non-activists taking symbolic action--often in spheres traditionally engaged only by activists or professionals (governments, NGOs, international institutions.). Since these so-called "slacktivists" were never activists to begin with, they are not in dereliction of their activist duties. On the contrary, they are acting, symbolically and in a small way, in a sphere that has traditionally been closed off to "the masses" in any meaningful fashion.

If Tufecki's theory is correct, UNICEF and other groups shouldn't worry about the slacktivists: They were never the people who would have given money, anyway.

Of course, the other interesting part of the UNICEF campaign is that it's in the form of a shocking video and a shareable image, both of which are geared toward social-media users. So it seems virality is virality, no matter whether you want dollars or digital cred.

h/t Tom Murphy

Presented by

Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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