#Icebucketchallenge: Another Example of “Slacktivism”?

Log in to your Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram and no doubt you will find your news feed full of videos of people dumping buckice-bucketets of ice water over their heads. What is the point of this ice bucket challenge? Why? After digging a little deeper I found that the ice bucket challenge is a viral movement that is daring people to spread amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) awareness. Facebook reports to TIME magazine that 1.2 million unique videos related to the ice bucket challenge have been posted and a total of 15 million people have discussed the ice bucket challenge on Facebook via video postings and status updates between June 1 and August 13 of 2014. In another article by TIME magazine, the ALS Association national office has collected $5.5 million in donations since July 29, compared to the $32,000 in the same time period in 2013. Almost 150,000 new donors have contributed. It appears that the ice bucket challenge is accomplishing its’ mission of spreading awareness and raising funds for ALS patients, but I am afraid that the intent is being lost amongst the millions of videos of people showing off their beach bodies while having a good laugh. The ice bucket challenge is yet another example of Slacktivism. 

ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. About 30,000 Americans now have this disease. The progressive degeneration of the nerve cells leads to loss of muscle movement and in later stages of the disease patients may become fully paralyzed while the mind remains sharp. Life expectancy is usually two to five years after time of diagnosis. There is currently no cure for this disease. The ice bucket challenge became viral after Peter Frates, a former captain of the Boston College baseball team posted his own ice bucket challenge video. Frates is 29 years old, and he was diagnosed with ALS in 2012.  After Frates’ video was posted several celebrities followed suit in support of ALS.

The ice bucket challenge is fairly straightforward. The challenge requires participants to pour a bucket of ice water over his or her head, and dare others to record themselves doing the same. If you are challenged and do not perform the task within 24 hours, you must donate $100 to ALS research. I cannot help but ask, what does dousing oneself with ice-cold water have to do with ALS? The ice bucket challenge is problematic in many ways. One problem is that “it’s basically narcissism masked as altruism.” Everyone you’ve seen dump water on themselves is doing so in order to avoid donation but still appear concerned about curing ALS. Yes, everyone is free to donate but this new social media trend centers around the aversion to donating money. The ice bucket challenge even appears to be implying that “being cold, wet, and uncomfortable is preferable to fighting ALS.” Ice bucket challenge advocates would claim the challenge is just meant to raise awareness, meaning those who participate are still doing a good deed. However, I and many others have noticed that the challenge’s donation information is limited—if included at all—and it’s entirely up to the person on camera. In an opinion piece on TIME magazine, Jacob Davidson writes “No wonder it took me weeks to learn the Ice Bucket Challenge was linked to ALS. Most of its participants, including Kennedy and Today’s Matt Lauer didn’t mention the disease at all.” Another issue with the ice bucket challenge is that nothing is branded. The hashtag used is sometimes #ALSIceBucketChallenge, but is commonly named #IceBucketChallenge because it uses less characters. Hashtag activism is just a method to give the appearance of doing something versus actually accomplishing something. The challenge is more about having a few laughs, engaging in a social trend, and “feeling better” rather than “doing better” to actually support ALS.

 With no obvious thematic connection—like such as shaving your head or growing a mustache in November to raise awareness for cancer research—and its useless hashtag activism attempts, the ice bucket challenge is yet another example of slacktivism Slacktivism is a term used to “describe actions with no real practical effect that give someone a feeling of having contributed,” says Jocelyn Brewer, a psychologist who specializes in the intersection of social media, society and behavior. Slacktivism is usually associated with online sharing and posting of graphics or slogans to accompany certain causes. One example of Slacktivism was the #KONY2012 movement. Joseph Kony was declared the leader of a terrorist group and had been kidnapping children long before the Invisible Children Foundation made a mini-documentary to raise awareness in 2012. The video went viral with over 11 million shares and 100 million views. The point of the campaign was to end Kony’s reign of terror but Joseph Kony is still at large. #Kony2012 was a flop. Why did such fervent concern for stopping a terrorist suddenly dissipate? There was also the #Haiti and #Haitirelief phenomenon on Twitter from four years ago in 2010 after Haiti was hit by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake. This particular hashtag activism was able to help raise $8 million in relief funds. Unfortunately support for this cause significantly decreased and over 150,000 Haitians are still living in plywood shelters in relief camps and many are living without water, electricity, or light. #Haiti lost its luster and subsequently lost its financial support.   Why did such a tragedy suddenly lose it support?

Slacktivism gives people a false sense of accomplishment. Causes are receiving momentary support that flickers away like fading fashion trends, accomplishing very little to aid the cause. Liking a Facebook page here and sharing a YouTube video there makes people feel like they have accomplished something. People feel that they have done their part and can go back to tweeting about their own lives. The ice bucket challenge is the most recent example of Slacktivism. Instead of donating money or volunteering their time, people buy bags of ice, grab a camera and bucket and think of which friends they’re going to tag. Thirty minutes later they have a Facebook worthy video, and they have done their part. Although it is true that the ice bucket challenge has generated a lot of a new support for the ALS cause and the ALS Association has four times as many donations this time period than last year, think about all the money that could have been collected if people actually donated money instead of completing the challenge. Even if it was just $10 a person, that would be another $12 million that could support ALS patients.

Research actually shows that Facebook activism does not actually translate into donations for causes. Kevin Lewis, professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego, analyzed the recruitment and donation activity of one of Facebook’s most popular activism pages. At its height, the “Save Darfur” page had more than 1 million members. The researchers analyzed member activity from the time the page was founded in May 2007 through January 2010. Members gave $90,776 during the two-and-a-half year period 99.7 percent of fans never donated a single penny! Although this study is the first of its kind, researchers were able to conclude that those who join a Facebook advocacy group may not feel obliged to donate, the fact that they “like” the page is ample enough support. This would explain why support for causes such as Haiti and stopping Kony died out suddenly; people feel that they have done their part, validated by other social media encouragement such as Facebook Likes or sharing posts on Twitter. This presents a dangerous, depressing reality where legitimate charities are being brought to the spotlight, but only because they are “cool” or “trendy” instead of their noble pursuits. Once the trend fades, the “support” does as well.

It is clear that Slacktivism can be successful in raising awareness, but in cases such as the ice bucket challenge more can be done if people stopped being narcissistic and made an actual tangible effort to support ALS research. Will Oremus, a writer for Slate outlines rules for the “No Ice Bucket” challenge.  In Oremus’ version of the challenge he foregoes the ice, the bucket, and the camera and instead states ,“Just donate the damn money, whether to the ALS Association or to some other charity of your choice. And if it’s an organization you really believe in, feel free to politely encourage your friends and family to do the same.” This alternative may not be as “trendy”, not as “cool”, and perhaps won’t give the social media attention media some people crave, but the cause will be supported. Actually supported with actual funds to aid organizations in their efforts to help others.


One Comment to “#Icebucketchallenge: Another Example of “Slacktivism”?”

  1. Thanks for sharing this great post and bringing up some great case studies like Save Darfur although I have to say for me, that only serves to illustrate the success of the ALS Challenge. Yes, I think the fact that intent is being lost amongst the millions of videos of people showing off their beach bodies while having a good laugh is disappointing – even downright narcissistic. However, I don’t think this is anything new. Social media has been encouraging people to share the irreverent and funny details of their lives for years and the best campaigns capitalise on this. I think Claudia Cahalane and Aimee Meade put it best when they say that “the secret to brilliant fundraising is to integrate into people’s lives and make it natural to give or act, even if that act is a moment of silliness.” Would love to hear your thoughts on the #wakeupcall campaign which is being heralded as the next ALS 🙂


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