Going Viral: Using Social Media for Activism

By Cindy Xu, SML Research Assistant

In the eyes of thousands of social media obsessed users and companies, “going viral” is seen as the ultimate form of online success. But what does it mean, exactly, for something to “go viral”?

The term “viral,” in the literal sense, has its origins in the word “virus,” but in today’s social media driven world, it refers to the “tendency of an image, video, or piece of information to be circulated rapidly and widely from one Internet user to another.” This means that, online, certain kinds of content can spread like a virus, and “infect” other users with emotion when they see it, prompting them to continue sharing the content in turn. In general, it is content that evokes emotion characterized by activation, positive or negative, that tend to become more viral.

Think back to the various things that have blown up on the internet over the last decade or so. You’ve definitely heard of everything from nyan cat and the sneezing panda from the really early video sharing days, to Gangnam Style and the Blue/White dress in the more recent years. Social media platforms such as YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook all have played their part in trending such topics, putting the content on their home pages, trending pages, trending hashtags, and more. They’ve brought these topics to the attention of hundreds of thousands of people, and have been shared an endless amount of times. In this way, social media has served as a powerful tool in rapidly spreading information. Although we may like the humorous memes that go viral, we should also realize that social media platforms have the potential to quickly bring to the attention of millions an important social campaign.

Campaigns such as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, #LikeAGirl, #BlackLivesMatter, and more all serve as examples of social activism campaigns that have gained much attention. Serving as content that evoked emotion in online users, these campaigns were powerful, personal, and interactive.

Changing the tone of viral content

In more recent years, online social campaigns have been popping up everywhere, changing the online world’s history of mainly entertainment viral content to also include more serious matters. In 2014, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge practically took over all major social media platforms, asking individuals to record themselves dumping ice water on themselves, and then nominating their peers to do the same in 24 hours or donate to ALS. Such a challenge, although seemingly ridiculous, wound up earning tens of millions in dollars towards ALS research. In a similar fashion, hashtags such as #LikeAGirl and #BlackLivesMatter served to bring awareness towards issues of gender stereotypes and community violence throughout Twitter.

AP/Elise Amendola (via Forbes)

But how exactly DO social activism campaigns go viral?

That’s the question that every aspiring social media activist wants answered. Looking at the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, for instance, we can see how some of its characteristics contributed to its overwhelming success. Why exactly did the challenge go viral?

  • 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.

Along with all these aspects, the Ice Bucket Challenge continued to maintain its overwhelming popularity through social media sites that kept the challenge trending. For instance, YouTube kept the challenge alive by leaving ice bucket challenges on its home page, as well as in countless users’ recommendations, which encouraged users to view videos of the challenge. Twitter spread the challenge through its trending section, users’ hashtags, and the likes and retweets of challenge tweets. Popular celebrities and well-known individuals online also served to contribute to the popularity of the challenge.

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

While most campaigns or trends that go viral typically do so by chance, that doesn’t mean that the campaign you have in mind won’t kick off. If your social activism campaign supports an important cause, is as personal, interactive, credible, and doable as the Ice Bucket Challenge, and is discovered by all the right people, then it just might become the next trending topic. With platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter by your side, your campaign would constantly surface into people’s pages and feeds through the power of recommendations, retweets, likes, and more.

And even if your wishes for campaign virality don’t occur, keep on supporting existing campaigns. Tweet out those positive hashtags, give likes to those encouraging Facebook posts, and make videos to support a positive challenge. These actions make more of a difference than you think.

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