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Online Crisis Campaigns Need To Surprise To Engage Public

Online campaigns for humanitarian crises need to surprise people and challenge their well-established patterns of avoidance if they are to successfully engage them, according to new research from the University of East Anglia (UEA) in the UK.

The study, conducted by Dr. Martin Scott, a lecturer in media and international Development at UEA, aimed to find out why citizens respond to some online campaigns and communications about overseas crises and not others.

“We can’t respond to every humanitarian appeal we see on television or online. So I’m interested in why we respond to some appeals and campaigns and not others, and in particular, whether there is anything special about the Internet which makes people more or less likely to engage with a campaign,” said Scott.

It is widely believed the Internet can promote a greater understanding of humanitarian crises and therefore encourage people to become more involved by signing online petitions, making ethical purchases, and donating money.

However, the new findings identified a number of key reasons why people choose not to respond to campaigns or fail to actively seek out more information.

For example, one deterrent is the time it takes to find and search through online information, and another is the general lack of trust in sources such as governments and charities. Information from most non-news sources — including blogs and social media — was frequently rejected by many in the study for being inaccurate or biased.

“My findings suggest that the Internet is not a magic bullet for getting people engaged with or caring about humanitarian issues or crises,” said Scott.

People do, however, react much more positively to campaigns and information from organizations they did not recognize, such as Charity Navigator — which helps people make decisions about how and where they donate their money — and the Overseas Development Institute, compared to well-known charities like Oxfam, Christian Aid, and Save the Children.

Scott suggests that people have become accustomed to, and are often dismissive of, traditional campaigns and appeals.

“The reasons why people might dismiss a television appeal seem to be simply transferred or modified for online campaigns. For example, they feel they are being manipulated or that they are not being told the whole truth. The key implication is that campaigns, both online and offline, often have to be surprising in order to be effective,” said Scott.

For the study, Scott analyzed 52 UK Internet users’ online behavior over two months. At one stage participants were asked to go online and find out more about an issue that interested them related to international development or developing countries, a task most failed to complete. They were then asked to describe their experiences during group discussions.

“When the participants in this study did respond positively, it was when they were unfamiliar with the organization or not sure how to deal with the information they were getting. Campaigns that don’t challenge well-established patterns of avoidance are less likely to succeed,” said Scott.

High profile examples of the use of social media in humanitarian campaigns, such as One Billion Rising, Kony 2012, and the Enough Food for Everyone IF campaign, have drawn attention to the potential role of the Internet in enabling public mobilization and activism in response to suffering in other countries. However, little is known about the role of more everyday uses of the Internet in encouraging a sense of connection with, or awareness of, distant suffering.

The findings are published in the journal International Communication Gazette.

Source: University of East Anglia


Online Crisis Campaigns Need To Surprise To Engage Public

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2018). Online Crisis Campaigns Need To Surprise To Engage Public. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 21 Sep 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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