21/09/2018 06:00 BST | Updated 09/10/2018 14:05 BST

'We Raised £56,000 In A Week': Is Social Media Helping Fuel A Kindness Revolution?

Two-thirds of young people see social media platforms as essential for achieving social change.

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In 2015, Josie Naughton and her friends became increasingly upset with what was happening to refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria. So they created a donation link - to prompt some grassroots fundraising - and posted it to their Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages.

They thought they could perhaps raise around £1,000 from friends and family. But within a week they’d reached a staggering £56,000.

“There’s an immense power in social media to do good - the very core of that is people power,” says Naughton, who has now co-founded the charity, Help Refugees, as a result of that initial success.

Fast forward three years and, while social media might be getting a bad rap and dominating headlines for all the wrong reasons, there’s no denying the impact it can have on communities pushing for social change. As Naughton puts it: “There’s two sides to every coin.”

Getty / HuffPost UK

Research released today by independent think tank Demos, commissioned by Facebook, found nearly two-thirds of young people in the UK (64%) see social media platforms as essential for achieving social change.

The survey of 2,000 people aged 16-50 years old found 35% of respondents aged 16-25 years old had given money to charity, 24% had raised money for a cause and 20% had volunteered with a local organisation after hearing about it through social media or messaging in the past year.

In three years, Help Refugees has raised over £12million to help others. Naughton estimates that 75% of donations came through social media channels and she notes the charity wouldn’t have been able to grow a volunteer base of 25,000 people without it either.

In 2017, online giving represented only a relatively small portion of total fundraising income of UK non-profit organisations (7.6%). However that said, there is growth - the revenues of UK non-profit organisations from online fundraising grew 12.1% on average between 2016 and 2017. To put that into perspective, revenues from traditional fundraising grew just 4.3%.

Crowdfunding campaigns are a growing market, too. Around £81million was raised for good causes in 2015, according to the Demos report. While there is a downside to crowdfunding, in that verifying causes can be difficult, there’s no denying they change lives. And in most cases, social media has enabled this.

“I think the notion of crowdfunding has only happened because of social media,” says Naughton. “It’s really empowering that people can take things into their own hands.”

From the viral 2014 ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ which is estimated to have raised $100million (£75.5million) over 30 days, to Ariana Grande’s ‘One Love Manchester’ concert, broadcast live in June 2017, which raised $450,000 (£340,000) on Facebook alone; people are hungry to take action.

I think the notion of crowdfunding has only happened because of social media..."

Most recently, Facebook launched a tool called ‘Birthday Fundraisers’ where people forego gifts and instead ask friends to donate to a charity of their choice. In its first year, it raised $300million (£225million) globally. (Facebook couldn’t provide a break down of how much of this was raised in the UK.)

But what is fuelling such a culture of kindness online? Demos believes it’s down to the ease in which you can find non-profits you’re passionate about and then donate or sign up to volunteer your time - it’s instantly empowering. And we all know giving feels good.  

It’s not just the younger generations who are leading the charge either. The survey found 40% of 35-50 year olds who gave to charity in the past year credited social media for helping them do it.

Antigone Davis, Global Head of Safety at Facebook, told HuffPost UK there’s a lot of, often negative, conversation about how much time people are spending on apps and social media, but “time might not be best way to gauge the issue”.

She used Amika George as an example, a teenager who started Free Period, a campaign group to end period poverty, and utilised social media to build a network of followers passionate about the issue. If she were on social media for three hours organising a period poverty event - is that necessarily a bad thing?

The Demos report did note that social media has its downsides: it can be used to spread hate and intolerance, and interviews with activists and campaigners flagged a potential “activism gap”. This is where some groups and campaigns flourish, while others struggle to find an audience and face digital exclusion. 

But on the whole, its 70-page report deemed social media “an irrepressible force for positive change” - and that’s got to be something worth shouting about.