It probably happens to you all the time. You're scrolling through your social media feeds when a friend mentions a charity or cause. With just one click, you share the information or hit "donate" and you've done your good deed for the day.

You've just taken part in what social media experts call "clicktivism" or "slacktivism." It's often considered activism lite. Instead of marching, canvassing or putting in serious elbow grease for a cause, your effort may just involve the click of a mouse.

"Slacktivism is the idea that people are supporting social impact organizations and topics through social media and online means at the highest level," says John D. Trybus, managing director and adjunct professor of Georgetown University's Center for Social Impact Communication. "It can take so many different formats from sharing information about a cause on their Facebook page to sending out a tweet as it relates to an advocacy campaign. It's using any form of social media to share information about causes or social media issues."

The critics versus the research

Clicktivism often earns a bad rap from critics. They say that after the share or donate button is pushed, the cause is forgotten and that's where the activism ends. That's true in some situations, but that's not always the case, says Trybus.

"For some people it can be the only step that they take, which is where a lot of the criticism comes from, that they're only engaging thru social media channels," he says.

"That's painting it a little too simply. For some people, it's one of many steps. If you think of this as a spectrum, on one extreme, you're simply hinting a 'like' button on a charity you support. Somewhere in the middle is some kind of donation you do online. On the other extreme is you take offline action and go to an event that the social organization focuses on."

According to the Dynamics of Cause Engagement study (pdf), conducted jointly by Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communication and Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, people who take part in online activism often take their support offline, too. The study found that Americans who most frequently support causes through social media participate in more than twice as many supportive activities (both online and offline) when compared to their peers who don't support causes online.

“The presumption was that these individuals were replacing more ‘meaningful’ actions with simple clicks and shares. But what we found is that they’re actually supplementing — not replacing — actions like donating, volunteering and planning events,” said Denise Keyes, senior associate dean and executive director of the Georgetown center.

The researchers found that clicktivists were twice as likely to volunteer their time and take part in an event or walk than non-social media types. They were also more than four times as likely to encourage others to contact political representatives and five times as likely to recruit people to sign petitions for a cause or social issue. They were just as likely as anyone else to donate to a cause.

The power of social media

sad puppy Sharing photos of adoptable pets is one way social media is key for rescue groups. (Photo: Monika Chodak/Shutterstock)

One reason social media has so much power is that our online networks are typically made up of friends, family and people we respect, say Trybus.

"They are the people you trust already. If your best friend or brother or sister says, 'I support the American Cancer Society and here's why,' they're being a social citizen," he says, "and because you trust them, it's likely you'll do the same. It's an extension of that relationship and trust."

Social media is the new currency of influence, Trybus says.

"Influence is starting through social media. Whereas in-person communication is so crucially important, the next best thing is the power of social media. Social media is the crucial channel where a lot of those discussions are happening and a lot of that activity is being fueled."

In the animal welfare community, for example, social media has become critical for spreading the word about pets in need of homes, groups in need of funds and proposed laws, like breed-specific legislation.

"We think social media has been huge for rescues and shelters. As residents of rural communities in North Carolina, we have seen first-hand the power of social media and how it has helped decrease the number of animals that are killed in shelters. Without social media, those dogs and cats would never be seen, shared and adopted," says Lisa Limpach, co-founder of DogKnows, a dog-themed apparel site that gives 20 percent of profits to a different rescue group each month.

Limpach's partner, Melissa Connolly, says that the people who shop their site aren't armchair activists in it for the easy click.

"We believe that people are motivated to shop because they are already doing some other form of volunteering in the pet rescue space," Connolly says. "Or they have rescue dogs and cats that they love and want to continue to support rescues in some way."

Even one click helps

But what if the critics are right and all someone does is click a button to share a post or do a one-time donation. Isn't that beneficial, too?

"I think we would say yes, but it's a bit more difficult to know exactly what impact it has," says Kim Thelwell, political director of The Borgen Project, a nonprofit that addresses poverty and extreme hunger in developing countries through advocacy and lobbying Congress.

"It's building awareness. For our cause, there are are so many people who have so many misconceptions about global poverty. It's still a touchpoint, so it's still beneficial to us."

The social media connection has more of an impact if it comes from someone they know who is linked to the group.

"It's effective if they visit our website and they see the 'donate now' button and they do so because they know someone associated with the organization. The likelihood of them clicking is more if they know someone working for The Borgen Project."

Mary Jo DiLonardo writes about everything from health to parenting — and anything that helps explain why her dog does what he does.