Social media as a social good

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Social media is frequently in the news for all the wrong reasons.

Murders are broadcast on Facebook Live. “Challenges” go viral and end up causing serious harm. Children are bullied and exploited. Fights over politics, religion, and things much more mundane erupt. The list goes on. However, it’s important to remember that just like most things in life, social media is neither inherently good nor inherently evil. While it certainly has its pitfalls and problems, it also can be tremendously beneficial. The examples below are some of the best reminders that social media can make us more aware and compassionate while stimulating people to take action in a way that makes the world a little better.

  • Addict Aide and “Louise Delage.” When Addict Aide, a Paris, France-based nonprofit, sought to raise awareness about the dangers of addiction, they turned to a tool uniquely capable of reaching young people: Instagram. Addict Aide developed an Instagram profile for “Louise Delage” – a character created out of thin air, but presented as a real 25-year-old woman. Drawn to “Louise’s” good looks and seemingly lavish lifestyle, the profile attracted thousands of followers. What most of her followers didn’t notice – at least not immediately – was that each of “Louise’s” photos included a drink – a bottle of beer, a cocktail, or a glass of wine. Subtly included and rarely featured prominently, the inclusion of these drinks intended to make a statement: Louise is like many of the young people you know – and addiction is a factor in many of their lives. The campaign, designed to draw attention to the fact that one out of every five deaths of young people is related to addiction, had a real impact on Addict Aide’s mission. After “Louise” was unmasked, Addict Aide saw a five-fold increase in website traffic and the nonprofit received significant media coverage. Altogether, it was a small investment of resources that paid off in a huge increase in awareness and engagement.
  • Ami Musa and UNICEF on Pinterest. For many users, Pinterest acts as a sort of wishlist: everyone from do-it-yourselfers to brides-to-be use the platform to share an inventory of material things they believe would make their lives better. UNICEF took this idea in an unconventional direction to remind Pinterest users of an important lesson. In keeping with its mission of serving children around the world, UNICEF created a Pinterest profile for Ami Musa, a 13-year-old from Sierra Leone, featuring a board called “Really want these.” It included things like clean water, food, an education, and a pair of shoes – much more mundane than what the average Pinterest user would share, but basic needs that are severely lacking in Ami’s world. UNICEF’s message was clear: be grateful for what you have and be generous in supporting those who aren’t – by supporting, of course, organizations like UNICEF.
  • The Pilion Trust’s “F*ck the Poor” campaign. In today’s communication environment, a little shock value can go a long way toward capturing an audience’s attention. Often, this manifests itself in superficial ways, but occasionally it’s used to convey messages of substance. One example is the Pilion Trust’s “F*ck the Poor” campaign. The UK-based charity, which provides resources for the homeless and others in need, wanted to get people talking about poverty – and get people talking they did. Armed with a video camera and a sandwich board bearing the “F*ck the Poor” message, Pilion Trust representatives took to the streets of London. When they recorded the responses they received and compared them to how people responded – or, more accurately, didn’t respond – to a “Help the Poor” message, the takeaway was clear: people do care about poverty, but seemingly only when provoked. Pilion Trust’s efforts encouraged the audience to understand that apathy can harm those less fortunate just as much as outright attacks—and that to combat the issue, they needed to take action in the form of financial support for programs and services for those in need.
  • Social media’s impact on Amber Alerts. When you hear about social media and missing kids, you may first think of the risks – and there’s certainly plenty of cause for concern. What’s less well appreciated, however, are the considerable ways in which social media keeps children safe. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, social media is a contributing factor in the overwhelming majority of resolved Amber Alert cases, as civilians are transformed from mere observers into collaborators in spreading the word. Whereas milk cartons were once a primary means of getting information about missing children in front of those who might be able to help, we now use Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for the same purpose. As social media use has become commonplace, more lives are saved and more children are returned to their families.

There are many other examples, but there’s only one way to ensure social media becomes even more of a net positive in our society: through our individual use of each platform. So, today, consider what you share: does it add more than it detracts from the human condition? Does it make the world a little better, or a little worse? The next time you’re ready to click “submit,” remember the words of John Kennedy: “One person can make a difference, and everyone should try.”

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