Going Viral: Using Social Media for Activism

By Cindy Xu, SML Research Assistant

Changing the tone of viral content

AP/Elise Amendola (via Forbes)
  • It was personal, and about an individual. In general, people are more likely to support an “individual tied to a cause than a cause that affects many individuals.” We care more about victims that we have seen and can identify with personally, rather than victims that we hear about as “statistics,” or as numbers. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge started off as a challenge to support Pete Frates, a victim of ALS. As his friends, peers, and more shared the challenge on YouTube, the more the challenge grew.
  • It was social/interactive. The challenge involved a lot of tagging and posting online, and many participants either wanted to see who did the challenge, or challenge others to do it. There is great power in peer pressure and peer validation.
  • It created the “warm glow” effect. The challenge allowed participants to do something ridiculous, and to feel good about doing something ridiculous. The “warm glow” effect, or the positive emotional feeling that one gets from helping others, is a very powerful motivator.
  • It was under a credible organization. The ALS Association is well-respected organization that uses its money for research and support for suffering families. This is important, as one of the biggest reasons that people decline to donate to charities is due to a charity’s lack of credibility.
  • It was simple. The challenge at hand was in no way difficult — either pour water on yourself or donate to charity. This allowed for mass amounts of people to easily take part.

So how can YOU use social platforms to promote good, or support viral campaigns?



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Cornell Social Media Lab

The members of the Social Media Lab at Cornell University study the way people live, behave, think, share, and love online.