Why do you click “like” on an organization’s page on Facebook? Possibly to show support for the group. But if you’re like me, I also want to get occasional updates in my newsfeed about current activities and actions of the group or cause. However, to boost the chance that subscribers see more of a group’s posts, Facebook is now charging them money for “promoted posts.” This policy change points to the continuing challenge to the utopic idea that costs have been virtually eliminated for virtual activists.
Digital activism is not “flat,” or without hierarchies, when it is dependent on money and stratification, a fancy sociology word for social class divisions based on power relations. As more social movements and organizations become dependent on these types of social media platforms, they are also more and more tethered to corporations with the end goal being profit. Ultimately, rather than leveling the playing field of activism, people with more money will have an advantage of getting their message out – which crowds out the grassroots viral ideal of digital democracy. It doesn’t make it impossible for un-promoted posts to be seen, but your Facebook feed could be jammed with people paying to be in it.
The digital divide restricts individuals’ ability to participate online in the first place. But “promoted posts” go further and affect the organization or cause as a whole. How much do you think an activist group would pay to reach all of their Facebook “members”? Facebook is charging based on the number of people you are trying to reach in $5 increments up to hundreds of dollars per post.
Ninety-seven percent of the top 500 non-profits use Facebook. For those of you who may not use Facebook, organizations and causes can set up their own Facebook Page, much like a personal profile on the social network, which enables a social movement to give basic information about the group. More importantly, Facebook Pages allow groups to invite fans, those who have clicked “like” to the cause, to events and encourage them to participate in online conversations.
However, particularly for groups that have moved much of their online presence to Facebook, people may not be getting the message.
Facebook didn’t necessarily pull a fast one. Visibility for causes is challenging on Facebook and other social media sites, such as Twitter. Because some people have been using Facebook for so long, have a lot of “friends,” and are fans of a lot of causes, the number of posts people see in their feed is pretty small. A small subset of fans will then actually click on the post.
Promoted posts could solve this problem of groups trying to get people to see their posts. For organizations and causes that have the resources, a promoted post may be a useful way to increase the chances that someone sees their announcements, conversations, and events. With promoted posts, groups with at least 400 fans have the option of determining which posts they want to pay for by pushing a promoted button. The more money they spend the more people will see it. And unlike Facebook ads, it may not be necessarily annoying for a user to see a promoted post since they have already clicked “like” on that cause.
Reaching members or potential members and keeping them engaged has historically been challenging for social movements. A crowded bulletin board of flyers only reaches a certain segment of the population or handing out flyers at an event never reaches the entire audience. Certainly groups have always had a problem maintaining current databases of members’ post or e-mail addresses. And the Internet has made it much cheaper for many groups to communicate with members online than photocopying and post mailing information.
In fact, some scholars (i.e. Bimber, Flanagin and Stohl) contend that the lower costs of online activism allow groups to overcome previous barriers to participation since being in the same physical space is no longer necessary, for example. However, with this policy, only some people will be in the same online space while other fans of a cause or a group won’t. Groups that can afford to pay Facebook’s fees can eliminate this problem. But how effective is this social media powerhouse when costs are high and the reach is low?
Facebook has been slowly moving toward a system that eliminates any romantic vision of social media as a free way to engage in activism. It is regularly changing its settings, usually without notifying its users. All of these changes require users to constantly figure out whatever the latest way is to see posts they want. For anyone’s post to appear in someone’s news feed, the individual needs to indicate that they want to see all postings from that group or to post comments or likes to that group’s comments, similar to Facebook’s current notification system when you tag someone as a close friend. Of course, even if people have kept up with these changes in order to see their favorite cause’s or friend’s posts, they have to be online and on Facebook to see what they’re doing.
Because Facebook is constantly changing these visibility rules and settings, it makes groups that are overly reliant on these private platforms more subject to their changing rules. Communication scholar Laura Stein describes this lack of transparency and control as the minimal way in which Facebook allows users to participate in the governance policies of the site. Of course, people could set up their own social media organizing tool that they control, and these do exist, but the audience of potential activists is then greatly reduced.
Twitter has always gotten more geek cred with how people use it and build on it, but now Twitter, in an effort to have a sustainable business model, is taking more control, tightening the rules and making it less open, so people have reacted by building an open source version of Twitter. For social media companies to make more money, they are taking more control of their systems.
Ultimately, you can’t decide what to see, Facebook does, and now that many groups have migrated to Facebook for what listservs and Web sites have historically done, they now have to pay for that engagement. It’s classic bait and switch.