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Does Social Media Promote Civic Activism? A Field Experiment with a Civic Campaign

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 April 2020

Florian Foos*
London School of Economics & Political Science, London, UK
Lyubomir Kostadinov
University of Sofia, Sofia, Bulgaria
Nikolay Marinov
University of Houston, Houston, TX, USA
Frank Schimmelfennig
ETH Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland
*Corresponding author. E-mail:


Social media may help civil society organize and mobilize for different campaigns. However, the extent to which social media campaigns simply recruit like-minded individuals as compared to exerting a causal impact on joiners’ attitudes is difficult to disentangle. We test both the organizational and transformative potential of a civil society campaign in a randomized field experiment deployed via Facebook or an email newsletter in collaboration with a Bulgarian environmental campaign. As expected, we find that Bulgarian Facebook users who are active in pro-environmental groups, and those who decide to follow the campaign, are more highly educated than those who decide to stay at the sidelines. Moreover, beliefs in the effectiveness of civic society, character traits and prior activism systematically predict whether a Bulgarian Facebook user decides to join the cause on Facebook, or subscribe to the email newsletter. In contrast, we find little evidence that the campaign affected opinions, knowledge, or self-reported behavior. We conclude that social media campaigns that are commonplace among civil society organizations are effective at selecting activist-types, but changing the views and behaviors of the broader social media population may be more difficult than assumed.

Original Article
Copyright © The European Political Science Association 2020

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We thank Don Green, Alex Coppock, Dingeman Wiertz, Anna De La O, Peter Aronow, Andreas Landmann, Björn Vollan and Moritz Marbach for helpful comments and advice. We would also like to express our gratitude to three anonymous reviewers and to the Associate Editor, Rocio Titiunik, for improving this paper during the review process. This project would not have been possible without the cooperation of the NGO-community in Bulgaria. We are grateful to Alpha Research for their professional and dedicated polling services. We also thank Kaloyan Petrov (Designolog) and our research assistant, Nina Dyakova. Finally, we are grateful to the Cooper Fund, ETH Zürich, for financial support of the project.


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