Social Experiments on Social media : A tool for social change?

Social Experiments on social media-A silent protest against prejudice & discrimination

In this post I am going to do a short discussion on yet another ICT4D phenomenon that continues to gain prevalence on social media. this phenomenon is called social experiments. There has not been extensive research in this area and I find it interesting enough to devote this,  my last post on discussing it. Cook & Campbell (1979), describe social experiments as,

a research project conducted with human subjects in the real world. It typically investigates the effects of a policy intervention by randomly assigning individuals, families, businesses, classrooms, or other units to different treatments or to a controlled condition that represents the status quo.

In recent years, owing to the vast possibilities awarded by the internet, creating media content and publishing it at a global scale has become almost a daily reality to most users of digital technology. One of the outcomes of this is the creation of social experiment videos by young people, individual members of society, institutions, organisations and many different groups. Though varying in their methods , demographics and geographical locations, most of these social experiments have some things in common. Looking through a handful, I was able to categorise some into groups of, pranks and protest. The ones I saw as pranks were basically aimed at doing practical jokes on people and catching them on camera. The other category, which I will make the focus of this post and possibly future research is more of a serious kind and consists of experiments made as some form of subtle protest or activism against some element or another in specific societies where the experiments are conducted.

A social experiment testing the public´s likelihood of helping a homeless single father

My interest has been captured by social experiment that deal with issues of discrimination. Examples of these show cases where the public is exposed to a made up situation and its reaction is filmed for broadcast, for example one rich looking person and one poor looking person confront passerbys and ask for money or a favour and the experiment captures the public´s separate reaction to these two people and compares them. These themes of discrimination may be racial, socio-economical, religions, gender, sexual orientation, handicaps and so on. This kind of social experiment category has a dominant feature of trying to showand possibly create awareness about issues ranging from moral, social, judicial or other.  A key question is whether they aspire to promote social or behavioural change among observers through exposing positive and/or negative reactions? What is not clear is to what effect these experiments are. Due to the nature of social media, which is their main platform of broadcast, messages have the potential to be reach very far in a short space and time. Nowadays it is not uncommon for a video or a campaign to go viral and reach millions of viewers within a very short time. This is one of the benefits of social media platforms. With thisin mind, one can wonder what effect these experiments have on the audience.

Is it just a form of  “slacktivism” or “clicktivism”, which Lane & Cin (2017:1) define as, “low-cost online forms of social engagement that decrease subsequent offline participation […] arguing that online social action satisfies youths’ moral and psychological needs for engagement, thereby excusing them from participating in traditional offline forms of engagement (e.g., donating and volunteering)” or do they inspire audiences to go out and emulate what is “ideal”?

Questions may also be asked about the credibility of these experiments: Debates have been raised concerning how some of these “experiments” are pre-scripted, staged and manipulated to generate profit and cash up on exploiting stereotypesWhat is the producer´s motive, is it to cash up by getting as many clicks, likes , views and shares as possible? How is the target sample chosen? How many reactions were recorded and how were the ones selected for broadcast chosen? Where do ethics stand in these You tube social experiments? Many questions can be asked and only extensive research can root out the answers.

For this blog post, I , however, set these questions aside and focus instead on outlining the issues portrayed in the experiments and how they relate to the broader themes of ICT4D and Development Communication. 

My conclusion has been that social experiments on social media use that platform to reach a wider audience. Those that test public reaction to issues of discrimination, prejudice and segregation can be classified as multimedia products that bear “development” inspired content. For this reason I would view them as tools of ICT4D. Furthermore, by virtue of them being both entertaining and educational, I can classify then as also forms of edutainment, defined by Singhal and Rodgers (1999) in Manyozo (2012:84), as:

a process of deliberately designing, producing and implementing media messages in ways that entertain and educate […] to increase knowledge gain among targeted demographic groups, sow favourable attitudes and change overt behaviour in relation to a development issue.


On this note, I will conclude this discussion, with hope of exposing further on the topic in future. Be sure to look through the Storify slideshow I have attached in this post so that you have an opportunity to view and explore examples of the social experiments that I have categorised as “development” inspired and tools of ICT4D.




  1. Guo, C., Saxton, G.D. 2014: Tweeting Social Change: How Social Media Are Changing Nonprofit Advocacy, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 43: 57-79.
    *Lane, D.S. & Dal Cin, S. 2017: Sharing beyond Slacktivism: the effect of socially observable prosocial media sharing on subsequent offline helping behavior, Information, Communication & Society, forthcoming.
  2. Manyozo, Linje (2012) Media, Communication and Development:Three Approaches.
    New Delhi: Sage
  3. Thomas D. Cook and Donald T. campbell (1979):Quasi-experimentation: Design and Analysis Issues for Field Settings. Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 978-0-39-530790-8

Web resources

The problem with social experiment videos


Featured Image courtesy of Social pilot 


  1. Paul May

    Hi Santino, interesting topic! I often see these videos and feel they are quite convincing, but I also get a dirty feeling – they feel a bit manipulative and exploitative of the subjects. I saw one about a guy reading extracts from the Kur’an to people in the streets. They were outraged by how barbaric it was and were triggered into mildly islamophobic rants. The guy then takes the cover off and reveals it’s actually the Bible! I thought this was clever, as any Islamophobes out there wanting to reinforce their world views would be likely to click on this video and watch it (because of the title etc.). It’s also affective because the surprise element – challenging your worldview – makes you want to share it. But is it fair to trick these people? and how many people on the streets had very different reactions and weren’t featured in the film? It’s pseudoscience really!

  2. Santino

    Thanks for your feedback Paul. You raised an important question about the ethical side of these experiments. It is a dilemma indeed. Is it fair to test and subject people to these experiments, especially without giving them a chance to accept or refuse. It feels wrong, as if it is violating them in some way. At the same time, would asking people to choose whether to participate or not might compromise the authenticity of the results.

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