Facebook nudges you to donate your organs

Founder Zuckerberg adds "organ donor" to "life events" list in UK and US.

Mark Zuckerberg wants you to donate your organs.

Conversations over the dinner table with his medical student girlfriend convinced the Facebook founder that he could be doing more to help increase the supply of donated organs. Speaking to ABC News, Zuckerberg said:

Facebook is really about communicating and telling stories… We think that people can really help spread awareness of organ donation and that they want to participate in this to their friends. And that can be a big part of helping solve the crisis that’s out there.

The actual change on Facebook's part is small. Starting today, users in the UK and US can go to their timeline, click on "Life Event," select "Health and Wellness," and add the new option "choose Organ Donor":

Whether or not the initiative actually helps increase the number of organ donors remains to be seen. The ability to add it to one's timeline is fairly well hidden, and the act of signing up to be an organ donor isn't quite the sort of life event that Zuckerberg seems to hope. I joined the register the first time I got a Boots clubcard – not quite something I feel strongly about marking into the story of my life.

While it may make more sense to add as a binary category rather than a "life event" – so that it's alongside things like relationship status, religion and political views rather than births, marriages and deaths – the actual efficacy will depend on the rather capricious whim of the social network. If everyone who is an organ donor adds that fact to their profile, then those who aren't may start being aware of it in a way that may cause them to act.

There are a lot of "mays" and "ifs" in that, of course. It's equally possible that no one will update their organ donor status, and the initiative will go unseen. But if Zuckerberg succeeds, it will be one of the largest applications of "nudge theory" to date. The idea is that changes in the framing of a question – from highlighting the way peers answer to changing the default response – can massively change the proportionate outcomes. The most effective example of this is given by Sara Kliff at the Washington Post:

Organ donation rates are 25 to 30 percent higher in presumed consent countries, according to a 2005 paper in the Journal of Health Economics. When Belgium instituted a presumed consent law in 1985, the number of organ donors nearly doubled within two years.

Facebook is unlikely to get that sort of takeup. But if they manage even a tenth of the effect of presumed consent, that would result in around 400 extra donors a year in the UK and US, and around three-and-a-half thousand lives saved. Few can argue with that.

Zuck fights against the powers of darkness. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.