By Enrique Dans, Professor at IE Business School, published on IE Focus

Social networks have the capacity to mobilize millions of people in defense of a cause, regardless of their location. The far-reaching impact of this is now starting to show.The expansion of social networks has had one extremely interesting effect: the proliferation of causes or claims capable of garnering the support of a large number of people, sometimes very quickly. When this occurs, the person promoting the cause in question cites the number of people involved as evidence of support, whereas sceptics and detractors try to downplay it by talking about of the scant value of support provided by merely using an index finger to click on a mouse. 

Who should we believe? Can we consider this type of group as tangible evidence of support, the virtual equivalent of a street demonstration with banners and slogans, or does the practically zero effort required to support the cause mean it is worth very little? The social importance of this issue is growing as the number of social network users increases: Spain has the highest number of social networks users in the world (according to the latest figures, we are talking about around ten million active users on Facebook and around eight million on Tuenti). As a result, many are starting to see social networks as a kind of “trend laboratory” or a gauge for measuring the “social mood”, a kind of permanent, real-time survey on the widest possible variety of subjects.The net has enabled radical viral dissemination. In just a few clicks, an idea is passed from one person to all his/her contacts, making the mobile telephone “pass it on” movement look very old hat. However, rarely does it translate into street action. Supporting a cause with a click is one thing, and travelling and investing time to provide physical presence is another. This brings us to a fundamental issue: the net removes the constraints of physical distance. A person anywhere in Spain or the world can support a cause that is to be staged, for example, at a specific location in the city of Madrid. The net removes the considerable effort that physical presence involves, not to mention, at least in the case of Spain, other factors such as safety (the risk of being arrested or attacked is obviously far more off-putting). Physical travel introduces a greater level of commitment into the process: a person can learn about, find information about, collect literature about, take part in and spread a number of arguments in favour of a specific cause online… But all this takes place “on the other side of the screen”. Devirtualising that process requires other factors that are not always convincing enough. 

Nevertheless, this lack of materialisation should not mean that such causes are any less important. In most cases, largely to bolster the image of the cause in terms of authenticity and legitimacy, anyone trying to get solid support for a cause requests that supporter provide reliable proof of identity: when asking for signatures, national identity document numbers are usually required and, in other cases, support comes in the context of a social network, where the person who declares their support does so with their name, surname(s) and, in many cases, photograph. No, people who use the net to proffer support for a cause are not suffering from delusions. They operate in an environment that is laden with information that can be checked and judged; They know what they are doing, they are acting consciously and normally after careful thought. The fact that the support is given easily does not necessarily imply that it is superficial. What´s more, why should we see the street as the only reliable way to measure support? We are not speaking about “going into battle” or anything for which physical presence is a determining factor: in fact physical presence is often not convenient or even threatening. It is almost antidemocratic or coercive. 

Owing to the fact that it reduces this type of friction, the net is fast becoming a vehicle for the expression of activism. Understanding and measuring it will require the development of the appropriate methodology and awareness, but downplaying it, dismissing it, or calling it “armchair activism” is just plain stupid. The net now plays a key role in the day-to-day of democracy: Many citizens and many causes are scrutinizing us from the other side of a computer screen.