Turning A Viral Moment Into An Advocacy Movement
The killing of Cecil the lion by a trophy hunter in 2015 prompted one of the most widespread reactions in the history of wildlife conservation. His death attracted global attention on social media, and donations to the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), which had been studying him, skyrocketed. But unlike many other viral moments, this one sparked lasting conservation activism: Donations continued to pour in long after Cecil’s death. In addition, donors reported feeling strong negative emotions about the event and many said it had an effect on their personal identity.
Few stories of trophy hunting become headlines. Cecil’s story wasn’t all that unique, but the viral moment it prompted was. Most donors were U.S. adults who, in addition to living half a world away, didn’t have a history of commitment to wildlife conservation issues. Cecil’s death didn’t affect their lives in any practical or material way. So what was it about this moment that had a lasting impact on them?
Recent studies in anthropology and psychology may provide an explanation. Research shows that a lot of prosocial behaviors come not from shared biology (that is, from the group we are genetically related to) but rather from a particularly lasting form of social cohesion we call “identity fusion.” Examples of groups with strong identity fusion are cultural groups and religious groups, but the phenomenon can also manifest itself in smaller groups, such as abuse victims or animal advocates. The fusion that occurs is that between the personal and social “self,” whereby boundaries between the two are blurred when a person experiences a strong sense of oneness with a particular group.
A research group at the University of Oxford wanted to look at the identity fusion that seemed to have developed among donors to WildCRU following Cecil’s death. Guided by recent research on progroup behavior, they conducted a longitudinal study on individuals who had donated to the organization. WildCRU sent donors two surveys via email updates—one in the winter of 2015, the year Cecil was killed, and a second one the following summer.
Researchers analyzed responses from donors who took part in both surveys. A brief analysis of participants showed that 83% were female and 80% college graduates. U.S. adults made up 89% of donors, probably due in large part to coverage of the story aired on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, in which the host condemned the killing, fighting back tears during an especially emotional monologue. The researchers came away from the survey analysis with four main findings:
- Participants who expressed feeling strongly dysphoric in response to Cecil’s death experienced strong fusion to both Cecil and WildCRU.
- Levels of fusion among these donors increased over time (and almost half of participants donated to WildCRU more than once).
- Fusion increased most among participants who reported that they (1) reflected intensely on Cecil’s death and (2) perceived his death as an experience that affected their personal identity and the identities of others with the same experience.
- Supporters of WildCRU continued to be engaged in other conservation efforts as well.
These findings imply that both continual personal reflection and the communication and perception of other group members help create identity fusion, which seems to be very effective in sparking lasting conservation efforts remotely. More empirical research is needed, and conservation and animal advocates can use knowledge of these processes to increase fusion among current supporters and to gain new ones. This can aid in creating stronger campaigns to help animals both at home and remotely.