Sensational Altruism: Does Philanthropy Sell?

Human beings are social animals. They thrive off social interaction; we need some form of interaction with our peers at most times of the day to make us feel a little less alone. We share our joys, sorrows, highs and lows with each other, making sure that no one has a burden (mental, physical or emotional) that is too hard to bear. Sharing our troubles allows us to empathise with our peers, feeling their pain as our own; we feel the urge to do anything within our abilities to help them out. The personal cost is not an issue; no matter how much we have to give up, we try our best to make the lives of others better as well. This is where our inherent altruism sparks from; we donate money and things to organisations who undertake the responsibility to make sure they reach those in need, and we raise awareness of the issues that plague our society today, trying to incite positive change.

The root cause of altruistic behaviour is a hotly-debated issue, and one I am not seeking to address in this article. However, I want to talk about how people leverage these issues, and our altruistic impulse to act on them, for their own personal gain. It isn’t uncommon that entities, under the guise of being a charitable organisation claiming to help those in need, solely utilise the attention and support they garner to build their own image and legitimacy. Disregarding the cause they purportedly set out to support and propagate, they disappear once they have reached their target number of people and extracted what they need, be it their money, charitable donations or merely their attention. This has become exceedingly common in the social media age that we live in today. People are constantly on their phones, scrolling through their feeds, on the lookout for the next big trend that they can be the first movers on. Endorsing a social media page which claims to donate a certain number of meals once they reach a set number of followers/likes allows them to grasp the new trends, while giving them an altruistic satisfaction too. You’ve caught onto the next trend early, while ‘helping’ people in need; what’s not to like? If only it were that simple.

In the recent past, a considerable number of such pages have been exposed as misleading people. Although they propose significant action, they do not provide a concrete plan for the same. When asked about the status of their purported project, they shy away from questioning, asking users to promote their page further. They have no intention to help those in need; they never did. They’re in it for their own benefit. Once they reach their goal, they can remodel the page into their own personal account, and boost their social status by leveraging the number of ‘followers’ they have on social media. How a person can leverage the real suffering of a group of people to gain popularity eludes me, and I could dedicate another article discussing it. However, here I wanted to look at preferences to endorse such pages and programmes over supporting verified charity organisations with a clear plan of action. The latter are much more likely to get the job done, and they will always keep you in the loop; why do we choose to endorse the former then?

Discussing it with my course mate (shout out to Haaris Malik), an idea popped into my head. There should be a reason for the above behaviour in humans; could it be due to the ease of contribution to social media campaigns and the impossibility of being held responsible for its consequences? If we look at social media campaigns, it is very easy to get involved in promoting a particular page; more often than not, it comes at no cost to users, while allowing them to make the world a better place (or so they believe). However, if one is asked to make a donation to a fund organised by a prominent charitable organisation (such as Amnesty International), they are unlikely to respond to the degree observed in social media. What motivates this change in behaviour? Certainly it cannot be a misattribution of altruism to human beings, since there are still many people who donate to funds which are organised by these verified charitable organisations. Could the added cost be a factor, then? The requirement to make tangible monetary payments (which would definitely be used for their intended purpose) ia a potential barrier which does not exist in the case of social media movements, therefore making the latter’s promotion so much easier. A social media user can upload a post to his/her story at the tap of a screen; making a donation to a charity involves a greater degree of effort. Behavioural sciences study how the degree of effort required for an action determines an individual’s willingness to undertake it; I believe this phenomenon can be observed here as well. The perceived costs of social media altruism are lower, with the same expected benefits; therefore, a rational individual is likely to choose it over tangible donations. Although this is at loggerheads with the idea that human beings would indulge in altruism irrespective of the costs involved, it is an interesting idea; one that warrants more study. I may be wrong or right; nonetheless, this is something worth thinking about.

Human suffering should never be used to milk personal gains, yet we see such campaigns on the rise. If we think about why this is the case, we may be able to prevent people from misusing the power of social media for selfish reasons. Until we find any concrete answers, I ask you to think about this. Further, please ascertain the authenticity of what you share before you decide to share it. In this era of fake news, post-truths and alternative facts, it is our responsibility to make sure we speak the truth; the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. We cannot give unscrupulous entities the opportunity to benefit from the suffering of our fellow humans. It is the least we could do to respect them, if nothing else.

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