critical spin on new media and activism
Values and Social Media: Top Tips for Digital Activists

Values and Social Media: Top Tips for Digital Activists

Girl in field

In my last blog post, I spoke about the restrictive effect that Facebook’s algorithm is having on Facebook activism. But this is only the tip of a very large iceberg. There are forces at play that are far bigger than algorithms and social media. Despite being right there in front of our eyes we don’t see them. These forces affect all of us from the way we think to the way we act. They manifest in each of us as a continuous struggle between opposing types of values. Communication is the frontline of this values battle and plays a major role in whether your campaign will be lost or won. I argue that it is crucial that activists take a values approach to their communications and consider how they may need to mitigate the influence of unhelpful characteristics inherent within social media platforms.

Contemporary activism is firmly rooted in the use of digital tools. Activists use social media for outreach and communication with their audiences. Activist campaigns must motivate and persuade action in others – and this depends on values. As Maio notes, values ‘…emerge as one of the most important motivators (perhaps the most important motivator) of action on social and environmental issues.’ Values, then, are very much the concern of activists and their communication activities online.

SECTION 1: Values, Social Media and Activism

According to Rockeach, ‘Values and life goals are the aspects of people’s identities that reflect what they deem to be desirable, important, and worth of striving for in their lives.’ Research collated by Common Cause ( illustrates that regardless of culture or place, human values can be broken down into two main categories, intrinsic values and extrinsic values.

“Intrinsic values refer to those things which are more inherently rewarding to pursue – a sense of community, affiliation to friends and family, and self-development, for example. Extrinsic values, on the other hand, are values that are contingent upon the perceptions of others – they relate to envy of ‘higher’ social strata, admiration for material wealth, or power” (from this report),

Campaigns for social and environmental change tend to resonate more readily with those who give importance to intrinsic (‘bigger-than-self’) values and less readily with those whose values are more extrinsically orientated.

Changing values and the influence of the social media environment

Research shows how our values are influenced by environmental factors. As Common Cause explains, environments that give a particular importance to extrinsic values will consequently undermine pro-social and pro-environmental behaviours. Furthermore, like a ‘see-saw’, there is a play-off between intrinsic and extrinsic values over time and in response to different environmental variables. Where extrinsic values become more dominant, intrinsic values are suppressed, and vice, versa. Social media are rich sites for extrinsic values (those based on the perceptions of others), such as those relating to image and status.

It might seem surprising that activists have had success in mobilising support for their causes in these extrinsically-biased environments. However, whilst the environment of social media sites is skewed towards extrinsic values, the users, on an individual level, will be mixture of those who predominantly lean towards extrinsic values and those who are more intrinsically inclined.


Side Note: Echo Chambers and Activists

values graffiti image of two heads shouting

Social media companies collect data on user behaviour. Algorithms use this data to pigeon-hole users into sub-communities with others who share the same characteristics as them. This communities are often referred to as ‘echo chambers’. And so, whilst social media networks are vast, users tend to be confined to a digital space where they are fed (and eagerly consume) content that conforms with their values. In this protected space, (online) identity and values are reinforced, which in turn, tunes the algorithm even more precisely to the individual’s taste.

For activists pursuing short-term goals, such as mobilising volunteers following a crisis, the echo chamber effect is not a problem. They can easily reach members of their online sub-community of ‘likemindeds’, who are the ones more likely to respond anyway. However, for activists pursuing long-term social change who must do more than simply preach to the converted, this characteristic of social media can prove more challenging. Activists pursuing long-term social or environmental change must be in the business of ‘converting’ unhelpful extrinsic values into helpful/campaign-reinforcing intrinsic values. This level of influence requires adopting an active values approach to campaign communications.

Activists must find a way to work within the parameters and confines of the social media platforms they choose to use.


SECTION 2: Tips for activist communicators campaigning for social or environmental change

Feeling and emotion trump fact and rational decision making

We’ve heard much about #fakenews the role social media can play in distributing it. Values research has much to offer here. For activists wanting to remain credible, it is important that their communications are factually accurate. However, if ‘fake-news’ has taught us anything, it’s that feeling and emotion trump fact and override rational decision making. This is why so many people in the UK’s EU referendum ended up voting against their self-interests when they voted to leave (see also here). It is also why Trump’s presidential campaign was so successful despite its disregard for factual accuracy.

But wouldn’t activists’ messages be even stronger if they used facts to support their arguments? That depends. Tom Crompton of Common Cause illustrates how psychology and cognitive science teaches us that the values we hold work to protect our current sense of identity. Communicating facts that challenge this identity can be perceived as antagonistic or threatening and may turn people away from your cause. This goes against what many activists might imagine.

We have seen how initial efforts to communicate the dangers of climate change relied on fact-heavy content. Kahan, who has researched this, notes how confronting people with facts that clash with the type of values they place most importance on is “likely to harden their resistance and increase their willingness to support alternative arguments [to your message], no matter how lacking in evidence’. Our suggestion – let audience segmentation direct who you send hard factual content to.

Three key questions for activists developing values-based communications strategies

I encourage all activists for social and environmental change to check out this toolkit developed by Crompton and Weinstein of Common Cause. Whilst not specific to a particular type of media, the toolkit provides step-by-step guidance for activists on how they can inject a values approach into their existing communications strategies. These core principles can be applied to social media networks. For instance, asking the following three questions, as suggested in the toolkit, is a great place to start:

  1. Is the communication consistent in appealing to intrinsic values?
  2. Is the communication consistent in avoiding appeals to extrinsic values?
  3. Does the communication use intrinsic values creatively? For example, does it use intrinsic values seemingly unrelated to the cause upon which the charity is focused?

Give it a shot over a trial period, see what happens and let us know. Social media analytics should be able to give you some insights!



Alexander, J., Crompton T., Shrubsole, G. (2011), ‘Think of Me as Evil? Opening the Ethical Debates in Advertising’, Public Interest Research Centre and WWF-UK, Available: Accessed: 18 Feb 2018

Crompton, T. (2010), ‘Common Cause: The Case for Working with our Cultural Values’, WWF-UK, Available: Accessed: 18 Feb 2018.

Crompton, T. and Weinstein, N. (2015), ‘Common Cause Communication: A toolkit for Charities’, Common Cause Foundation, p. 23. Available: Accessed: 18 Feb 2018.

Kahan, D. M. (2010), ‘Fixing the communications failure’, Nature, 463, 296-297, in Crompton, T. (2010), ‘Common Cause: The Case for Working with our Cultural Values’, WWF-UK, p. 19. Available: Accessed: 18 Feb 2018.

Maio, G. (2011) ‘Don’t mind the gap between values and action’, Common Cause Briefing [Online]. Available: Accessed: 18 Feb 2018.

Rokeach, M. (1973) The Nature of Human Values. New York: The Free Press, in Crompton, T. and Weinstein, N. (2015), ‘Common Cause Communication: A toolkit for Charities’, Common Cause Foundation, p. 23. Available: Accessed: 18 Feb 2018.




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