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Scholars and activists have debated the effectiveness of profile-image campaigns since at least 2009, when Twitter users turned their profiles green, joined Facebook groups, and changed their location setting to Tehran in support of Iranian protesters.

Experts downplayed the importance of such actions; fellow at the time, called it “slacktivism,” a “harmless activism” that “wasn't very productive.” Among other critiques, Morozov voiced two important questions in a larger debate over the value of collective action online.

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Much less attention has been given to their ongoing work to better understand collective action and social change online.

In March, the company published a paper that got little outside attention at the time, research that reveals some of the questions Facebook might be asking now.

In “The Diffusion of Support in an Online Social Movement,” Bogdan State, a Stanford Ph. candidate, and Lada Adamic, a data scientist at Facebook, analyzed the factors that predicted support for marriage equality on Facebook back in March 2013.

They looked at what factors contributed to a person changing their profile photo to the red equals sign, but the implication of their research is much larger: At stake is our understanding of whether groups of citizens can organize online—and how that collective activity affects larger social movements.

Indeed, it's hard to look at the compilation of coming-out videos posted by You Tube on Friday and dismiss online activity as inconsequential.

The “slacktivism” of changing a profile image matters in part because of the personal risks it may entail, and in part because it may contribute to changes in the social acceptance of LGBTQ people.

First, he argued that social-media solidarity has an unknown effect toward political change, perhaps even siphoning energy away from more effective action.

Secondly, Morozov downplayed the cost and risk of that participation.

And when Facebook’s researchers studied how support for marriage equality spread on their social network, they cited Mc Adam’s research and Freedom Summer as an important inspiration.

Although Mc Adam later studied network structure, The Freedom Summer data couldn’t answer the question of whether seeing others take action prompts a person to get involved.

The second possibility they considered was that people need to see others make the change before they follow suit, that “multiple exposures are most effective in determining the adoption of...

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