Deep reds, blues and whites flooded Facebook over the weekend as users changed their profile pictures to French national flag colors in support of Paris after a terror attack that left hundreds wounded or dead. The gesture was presumably well-intentioned, and many clicked mindlessly without considering whether the move really offered any tangible support for France.
Research, however, shows social media trends like embracing Facebook's French flag profile picture can have damaging effects on giving. In a phenomenon researchers have dubbed "slacktivism," a study from the University of British Columbia revealed that posting support online enables people to associate with causes but makes them less likely to commit any resources to them.
“Charities incorrectly assume that connecting with people through social media always leads to more meaningful support," said graduate student Kirk Kristofferson, who co-authored the study. "Our research shows that if people are able to declare support for a charity publicly in social media, it can actually make them less likely to donate to the cause later on.”
In the 2013 study, participants were invited to either join a Facebook group, sign a petition or accept a pin or magnet. Participants were then asked to donate money or volunteer. Researchers found that the more public their endorsement of the cause was, the less inclined they were to contribute any "meaningful support." Those who offered support in a more private manner, such as participants who signed the petition, were more likely to donate and volunteer.
“If charities run public token campaigns under the belief that they lead to meaningful support, they may be sacrificing their precious resources in vain,” Kristofferson said. “If the goal is to generate real support, public-facing social media campaigns may be a mistake.”
Putting a filter on your Facebook profile picture doesn't help anyone in Paris.
— KB (@KaraRBrown) November 15, 2015
Facebook makes pledging support simple with just one click. The last time the tool was made available for a cause, one million people changed their profile pictures in the first few hours. The feature was invoked to celebrate the United States Supreme Court's decision to legalize gay marriage, but despite its popularity, not everyone was keen with Facebook being awash in rainbow for gay pride.
Writer Peter Moskowitz argued in the Washington Post that the fight for equality was far from over, and the focus still needed to be on the crises of homelessness, harassment and suicide suffered by LGBT people. "Covering your profile picture in rainbow colors doesn’t change any of those truths," he wrote.
— Caroline J. Mailloux (@theCJMview) November 15, 2015
Arguments in the same vein surfaced on Twitter after Facebook activated its French flag filter. "Change your profile picture to support France and the people of Paris," Facebook said.
"This is bigger than Paris," wrote one Twitter user. "The world needs more than our French-flagged profile pictures."