In last month’s column, a few of the more prominent critiques and criticism of Internet-based social activism were discussed and debated. In particular, critics charged that social media, online petitions and other forms of digital activism have effectively disempowered activism by generating a false sense of accomplishment. These slacktivists or clicktivists, as critics contend, engage with issues in a superficial manner that is devoid of personal investment and, at best, produces negligible results.

However, over the past few years an alternative form of digital activism has emerged that heavily relies upon the impulsive and ephemeral aspects that characterize slacktivism and clicktivism, yet requires greater personal investment on behalf of the activist and has a record of producing substantial results. Mobile giving – where cell phone users text specified messages to generate a, typically small, donation to a particular charity or cause – has become an increasingly popular form of charitable giving, institutional fundraising and social activism.

The donation of small amounts of money through mobile giving – or perhaps better framed as “textavism” – saw its first large-scale use in the aftermaths of the Indian Ocean Earthquake & Tsunami in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. However, based on an agreement between the Mobile Giving Foundation and major US wireless carriers that ensured that more than 90% of the donated amount was passed through to charities, this textavism reached new heights in 2008 when the United Way aired a 10-second commercial during Super Bowl XLII. This ad asked viewers to text the message “FIT” to a specified number in order to donate $10 to the organization’s Youth Fitness Fund, which supports youth activities designed to combat childhood obesity. This ad quickly generated $10,000 in donations and was widely hailed as the first successful mobile campaign. Similar campaigns were initiated in response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake ($43 million raised) and the 2011 Japanese tsunami  ($4.5 million donated to the American Red Cross).

In January, Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project released a report entitled Real Time Charitable Giving, which examined the phenomenon of mobile giving in response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Some of the key findings of this report include:

  • Nearly one in ten (9%) Americans have made a charitable contribution via text messaging.
  • A majority of the Haiti text donations via text messaging were “impulsive giving” where the decision to donate was made quickly in response to images they saw on television.
    • 50% of surveyed donors made their donations immediately upon learning about the campaign.
    • An additional 23% made their contribution on the same day they heard about the campaign.
    • After making their text donation, 43% acknowledged following the reconstruction efforts in Haiti “not too closely” and 15% acknowledged to have followed them “not at all”.
    • 74% of surveyed donors were first time mobile givers.
    • 56% of mobile givers to the Haiti earthquake have made text donations to other disaster relief efforts since their Haiti donation.
      • 40% texted a donation in response to the 2011 Japan tsunami.
      • 27% texted a donation in response to the 2010 BP oil spill.
      • 18% texted a donation in response to the 2011 tornadoes in the United States.
      • 43% of Haiti text donors encouraged family and friends to donate to the cause via text messaging.
        • 76% indicated that family and friends made a text donation to the Haiti relief effort.
        • 75% encouraged family and friend donations through face-to-face conversations.
        • 38% encouraged family and friend donations through voice calls.
        • 34% encouraged family and friend donations through text messaging.
        • 21% encouraged family and friend donations through social media.
        • 10% encouraged family and friend donations through email.

The Berkman-Pew study provides one of the first in-depth examinations of mobile giving and the results are a decidedly mixed bag in terms of how text donations function as a form of social activism. On the one hand, this textavism displays issues that the critics of slacktivism and clicktivism have long decried. In particular, textavism seemingly offers a superficial and ephemeral engagement with particular crisis or issue at hand; a point reinforced with the Berkman-Pew findings that 58% of donors to the Haitian relief effort did not closely follow the story after their donation. Furthermore, critics of this form of digital activism will invariably color the donation as an emotional reaction to graphic and heart wrenching images of people suffering, which further indicates an absence of personal investment on behalf of the digital activist.

Yet on the other hand, the Berkman-Pew findings undercut other critiques of digital activism. Rather than restricting activism to the realm of social media and electronic communication, the textavists relied heavily upon traditional social networks and face-to-face communication to elicit additional participants and, in the end, raise more funds for Haitian relief. In addition, the recurring criticism that digital activism fails to produce substantial results is effectively dispelled through the sheer number of dollars generated through textavism. 


Originally published in Anthropology News.


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October 18th, 2015

Mapping the Dead in the Latest Israeli-Palestinian Violence

Basma Atassi at Al-Jazeera has put together a great storymap that explores the latest violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Complete with pictures, text and place location, this resource allows you to get a good sense of where, when and how the violence is occurring. Definitely worth a look.

October 16th, 2015

Netanyahu, Context & Responsibility

At the center of this current iteration of violence in Israel and Palestine stands the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu has reacted to this violence as if he was surprised that Palestinians would resort to violence when for decades he has done everything within his power to thwart the establishment and growth of a responsible Palestinian civil society, expanded settlements with the explicit aim of crippling an emerging Palestinian state, and undermining the responsible leadership of Mahmoud Abbas at every possible opportunity.

October 8th, 2015

Abbas, Netanyahu and Responsible Leadership

Abbas is demonstrating his commitment to deescalating tensions and calming the violence that is a direct result of Netanyahu’s persistent efforts to whip Israeli society into a panicked frenzy about an existential threat lurking behind every corner.

June 30th, 2015

Our Dictator in Cairo – Abdel Fatah el-Sisi

So, once again, the foreign policy of the US has chosen perceived immediate stability over the somewhat more bumpy and unpredictable evolution of democracy in the Middle East. It’s not the first time we’ve done this… it’s sort of our thing at this point… we’re pro’s out it.

June 22nd, 2015

The Many Victims at Mother Emmanuel

The problem with Gosnell and others who make these arguments is that they believe intentionality serves as some magical “Get out of Jail Free” card that absolves perpetrators of the violence they commit. Further, and in many ways far more problematic, is the realization that Gosnell and others only want to use this logical canard to absolve themselves or other like them. No such compassion regarding intentionality and the multiplicity of victims derived from violence will ever be used with the families of the 9-11 hijackers. In the end, the fundamental mistake that Gosnell and others make over and over again is that they focus on issues of intentionality rather than on issues of responsibility.

March 4th, 2015

Mr. Netanyahu Goes to Congress

There are two things to never forget when considering Netanyahu’s views of regional threats. First, he is desperately seeking his “Churchill moment”. Second, he has a record of being blinded by his own biases and is never, ever a sober analyst of a situation

February 16th, 2015

Cursed Be The Peacemakers?

This video, produced by Israeli settlers in the West Bank, has been released as part of the current Israeli political contest where the extreme right wing of Israel is attempting to maintain the rightist complexion of the Israeli government. For me, the truly offensive aspect of this video is how it makes the case that working for peace between Israelis and Palestinians or defending Palestinian and Israeli human rights somehow makes you a threat to the country.

February 14th, 2015

The Danger of Molly White’s Islamophobia

Rep. White is the new poster child for the anti-Muslim bigotry, Islamic hatred and Islamophobia that is so deeply embedded in American society that it can hide in plain sight.

July 15th, 2014

In Focus: The Gaza Strip

As Israeli bombs are dropped throughout the Gaza Strip and Hamas missiles are launched into Israel, the media coverage has focused on discussing Gaza as a known yet ill-defined entity. We are made aware of roughly where it is (next to Israel), who lives there (Hamas) and what happens there (rockets are made and launched). But this reductionist view of Gaza doesn’t provide any insights into the common, everyday lived experience of the 1.8 million Palestinians who live in the 360 sq. km that makes up the Gaza Strip.

July 14th, 2014

Middle East News Review #28

The Middle East was plagued with news of violence this week. In Israel, Palestine, Iraq and Libya, episodes of violence resulted in death and destruction. Iran continued its negotiations with the US and EU this week in the hopes of reaching an agreement over the country’s nuclear program and removing the economic sanctions that have crippled its economy. In Iraq, violence between the militant group ISIS and the Baghdad government reached new heights as 29 people were found massacred in an apartment and Human Rights Watch condemned the government for mass executions carried out earlier this year. The direct physical violence in Iraq was mirrored this week with political turmoil as the government of Nouri al-Maliki erupted into conflict with the semi-autonomous Kurdish government.