Slacktivists or activists?

ice bucket

Why the ice bucket challenge does not deserve criticism

Imants Latkovskis

Livestrong bracelets, no make-up selfies and Kony 2012 – the current wave of online activism seems to have something in common. If you have a cynic in your online circle of friends you will know all too well the accusations of ‘slacktivism’ or ‘clicktivism’ – negligible gestures of charity that are said to raise awareness but rarely ever do more than pass the buck, all in an attempt to paint the individual in the most benevolent and warmest of colours.

While Joseph Kony is still running rampant in and the Livestrong foundation has been criticised for stopping its funding for cancer research, the effectiveness of such online campaigns remains questionable. What’s more, they might even do more harm than good as they encourage people to substitute real charitable activity with minimal online self-congratulatory tripe.

The ice bucket challenge, however, is impervious to this cynicism. Despite the flack it has received online, I believe it is a roaring success and a positive sign that charitable activism can flourish in the world of social media.

In case you’ve spent the summer without an internet connection, the ice bucket challenge is a viral social media campaign that involves dumping a bucket of ice water over yourself, donating to a charity and then nominating a number of friends to do the same. The challenge’s exact origins are unclear, but it first became popular in the US as a means to popularise ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a type of neurodegenerative disease that has been underfunded, underreported and one to which there is currently no cure. The initial shock of being exposed to ice water is said to mimic the struggle that sufferers face every day.

The campaign quickly made its way across the Atlantic and then spun out of control, and it has become an instant hit with social media users worldwide. With dozens of variations and different charities cashing in on the windfall, the ice bucket challenge has become as big a part of the internet as Doge, the Harlem Shake or Kim Jong-Un looking at things.

Most importantly though, it has had a massive tangible impact. The American ALS Association raised $98.2m in the first month, compared to the $2.7m raised in the same period last year. The UK Motor Neurone Disease Association has been raising over £2m a week. Macmillan cancer support have also benefited from the campaign, and, after the initial criticism of participants wasting drinking water, Water Aid has also seen a spike in donations.

In short, the ice bucket challenge has raised a spectacular amount of money that is currently helping with research and day-to-day support of thousands of people, as well as putting a debilitating disease (or several) in the spotlight of social media. Examining these two facts alone, we’d be hard pressed to make a case against the campaign.

Yet some people manage to do just that.

Criticisms of the ice bucket challenge are many and varied. Some have had ethical qualms about the ALS Association’s use of embryonic stem cells, others have questioned the association’s reliance on animal testing. Many people have pointed out the flagrant hypocrisy of wasting millions of litres of clean drinking water in the name of charity. While the first two are genuine ethical worries, they are much larger and deeper than the ice bucket challenge itself, and therefore do not constitute an affront to the challenge. That is to say, erase the ice buckets from the history and these debates will still rage on; the ice bucket challenge merely illuminates an existing problem.

The third, I believe is negligible. Developed countries waste a tremendous amount of drinking water, and so do you personally, every time you stay in the shower for longer than is necessary. While lack of access to clean drinking water is a problem of the utmost importance, the amount of water wasted in this campaign is merely symbolic, and it overshadows the good that the campaign does. Water is also notoriously hard to transport in large quantities, so the water spilled during the ice bucket challenges is unlikely to have made a difference elsewhere. As mentioned above though, the challenge has raised awareness about the lack of drinking water in the developing world.

But by far the most prevalent criticism of the challenge has been its narcissistic aspect – instead of focusing on an honest, sincere donation, the challenge focuses instead on the individual. Critics have said it is done merely to show off, with a Daily Telegraph editorial labelling it “a middle-class wet T-shirt contest for armchair clicktivists”, some of which do not even donate or know what ALS is. Critics point out the challenge erodes the traditional notion of charity, makes people less likely to do charitable acts as they feel like they have already done their bit, and even gives way to a cognitive bias called ‘moral licensing’ – allowing yourself to get away with immoral acts on account of you just having done something good, so as to deserve it.

While moral licensing is an unavoidable glitch in our brains (think of the cake you had to celebrate losing weight or the cigarette after a 10 day nicotine-free streak), the rest of the criticism is a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes the ice bucket challenge so successful.

By tapping into the vast resource that is the social media user’s incessant need for attention and gratification, an obscure charity has generated a huge amount of money that is now being used to improve the lives of people living with a debilitating disease. Making the ice bucket challenge focus on you and your wet t-shirt or bikini is not taking away from the charity – it is what’s giving to the charity!

A couple of years ago, people jumped to the defence of Kony 2012 by arguing that while sharing a video might not in itself effect real change, the act of raising awareness produces change further down the line. While the relationship between this kind of ‘token support’ (e.g. sharing a video) and ‘meaningful support’ (e.g. donating money or volunteering) has been disputed by research, as well as the fact that Joseph Kony is demonstrably as free as ever, the ice bucket challenge can be seen to be successful because it combines both elements. The public nature of the challenge means that awareness is raised (token support), but the rules also demand a donation (meaningful support). While it is likely that a number of the videos resulted in no donations whatsoever, a quick look at the numbers will tell you that most of them did.

ALS and cancer are, of course, among thousands of other causes your money can be supporting. Niel Bowerman, co-founder of The Centre for Effective Altruism, a social movement aimed at finding the best ways to make the world a better place, argues that because most people have a total donation budget, financially supporting one cause leaves less to another, a phenomenon called ‘funding cannibalism’.

For instance, a £100 donation can do a lot or very little depending on the cost-effectiveness of a charity, and therefore supporting a less cost-effective charity such as ALS can be seen as harmful overall. However, there is a useful distinction to be drawn between losses and forsaken gains. There will always be causes that we aren’t able to influence, and what’s more, any money spent on ourselves is a forsaken gain to an array of charities. Contemplating this bleak image can leave us apathetic and unlikely to donate at all as the task of comparing utility is notoriously hard.

It would be a better world if people didn’t need a social cue in the form of a bucket of ice to do well-researched charitable acts, but people aren’t perfect. However, the ice bucket challenge serves as proof that this imperfection can be used to our advantage.


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