Unless you lack access to the internet, you’ve certainly seen the viral onslaught of Ice Bucket Challenge videos in the past few weeks. The idea is to dump a bucket of ice water over your head and “nominate” others to do the same, as a way of promoting awareness about ALS (a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s disease). If you don’t accept the challenge, you have to donate $100 to an ALS association of your choice. It’s like a game of Would-You-Rather involving the entire internet where, appallingly, most Americans would rather dump ice water on their head than donate to charity.
There are a lot of things wrong with the Ice Bucket Challenge, but most the annoying is that it's basically narcissism masked as altruism. By the time the summer heat cools off and ice water no longer feels refreshing, people will have completely forgotten about ALS. It’s trendy to pretend that we care, but eventually, those trends fade away.
This is the crux of millennial “hashtag activism,” where instead of actually doing something, you can just pretend like you’re doing something by posting things all over your Facebook. Like the Ice Bucket Challenge, good causes end up being a collective of social media naval gazing. We reflected on our favorite social-movements-gone-viral and found out what happened to them after the fell off our Twitter feeds. Because, yes, social problems continue even after you stop hashtagging them.
Before hashtags even existed, there were still ways to obnoxiously flaunt a social cause that you had no real connection to. Remember Livestrong bracelets? Those rubbery yellow bracelets were the brainchild of Lance Armstrong, who sold them through the Livestrong Foundation to raise money and spread awareness about cancer. Everyone from Lindsay Lohan to Johny Kerry sported one on their wrist; wearing them signified that you were both sensitive and stylish.
At least the dollar you spent on the stupid-but-trendy bracelet went toward funding cancer research via the Livestrong Foundation. Or at least, so you thought. In actuality, the Livestrong Foundation started phasing out its cancer research in 2005, and stopped accepting research proposals altogether just a few years later. Over 80 million of the bracelets have been sold. Where the hell did all of that money go?
The world was more than a little shook-up when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake rocked Haiti, burying at least 200,000 people and destroying much of the country’s infrastructure. #Haiti became the second-largest trending topic on Twitter that week, and was the subject of at least 15 percent of tweeted links in the week afterward. Remarkably, many of those links directed people to donation sites. Even the Red Cross mobilized on Twitter, encouraging people to send donations and spread the word about #HaitiRelief.
Social media may have actually done Haiti a solid, helping to raise $8 million in relief funds. But, like all things on the internet, they lose their luster and their urgency, and we forget about them. It’s been four years since the Haiti earthquake and although those initial donations made a huge impact in rebuilding the rumble of Port-au-Prince, there are still at least 150,000 Haitians living in the plywood shelters in relief camps. Earlier this year, NPR reported that many of these people are living without water, electricity, or light. Why isn’t anyone tweeting about that? Because #Haiti is so four years ago.
To be clear, Joseph Kony had been kidnapping children in Uganda long before his name was popularized in 2012. In fact, he was declared the leader of a terrorist group in 2001 and indicted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court in 2005, which made 2012 a rather arbitrary year for the internet to collectively decide he was evil. For that, we can thank Jason Russell, the co-founder of Invisible Children. Russell created the mini-documentary Kony 2012, which exposed the atrocities of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. Nevermind that Kony was pushed out of Uganda long before 2012—that shit went viral. It was shared over 11 million times, and clocked over 100 million views. Everyone from Bill Gates to Kim Kardashian endorsed the campaign.
The point of the film was to “Stop Kony.” Nobody knew exactly what that vague directive meant, so instead of actually doing anything, people bought “action kits” that cost $30 and came with Kony 2012 posters and bracelets. The revenue from these kits was well into the millions, but Invisible Children never disclosed where that money went. The Lord’s Resistance Army still exists today, despite concerted efforts from the African Union to hunt them down; Joseph Kony is still at large. The efforts to capture him were, by the way, underway long before Kony 2012 was made. The film didn’t stop Kony, but it definitely did make him famous.
The Red Equal Sign
With the Supreme Court’s debate on the Defense of Marriage Act looming last year, the Human Rights Campaign invented a way to show everyone that you were in support of gay marriage: the red equal sign.
Do you know how many people changed their Facebook profile pictures? Almost three million users. Public figures like Lance Bass, Beyoncé, and at least 13 members of Congress reportedly changed their Facebook pictures, too (who knew that politicians used Facebook?). Do you know how many of those people had an influence on gay marriage policy? The politicians did, I guess, but not the rest of you. As Brian Moylan put it, “you're just sitting there at your desk thinking that something you did on social media is freeing the oppressed.” Yes, DOMA was upended. No, it wasn’t because of your Facebook photo.
Photo via the FLOTUS Twitter
Back in April, the media exploded with news of 276 Nigerian girls who were captured from their school in Chibok by the militant group Boko Haram. The group has a long and violent history: they killed over 900 Nigerians between 2009 and 2012, and have carried out a number of bombings and kidnappings since 2011. This is to say that Boko Haram has been terrorizing Nigeria for quite some time. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in several regions in May 2013, in response to the activities of Boko Haram.
But it wasn’t until the kidnapping in April that the group became part of our collective consciousness, in part because of the excellent marketing of the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. (Whose girls? Our girls.) Even Michelle Obama posted a sad-looking selfie with the hashtag. But the campaign pretty much faded out a few months later, in part because the news cycle started dying down and because we’d moved onto more interesting things, like the Game of Thrones season four finale. Apparently, Nigeria lost interest in the case, too: the Nigerian government officially put an end to their investigation of Boko Haram, with at least 200 of the schoolgirls still missing.
It was difficult to process exactly what happened when Elliot Rodger went on his killing spree in Isla Vista, California, in May. In the aftermath of the horrific events, we learned that his rage was motivated by some form of misogyny and a desire to “punish” the women who had rejected him. In response, women mobilized on Twitter with the hashtag #YesAllWomen, to trade stories of the sexism and misogyny that they experienced on a daily basis.
In many ways, #YesAllWomen overcame the flimsiness of most social media campaigns. It involved real women, real experiences, and real solidarity for a cause that they—the ones on Twitter—were actually affected by. This was the closest thing we’ve seen to a legitimate Twitter movement. But then, Kimye got married and the Twitterverse collectively shifted to talking about that (because yes, all women love celebrity weddings, right?).
So here we are, back at ever-contagious Ice Bucket Challenge. The videos mimic the format of neknominations (those awful dare-you-to-chug-a-beer videos) but claims that they're for a cause. Except that cause is only loosely related, if at all. Most of the videos don’t even mention ALS, let alone do anything to support ALS research. Take Martha Stewart’s video, which described the Ice Bucket Challenge as a “viral internet sensation that calls for a person to dump a bucket of icy water on his/her head, then extend the challenge to someone else.” That is, in effect, what this has become: an opportunity to show off your bikini body while doing something hilarious. Wait, what’s ALS?
In case you didn’t take the time to Google ALS while you were waiting for all that ice to freeze, amyotrophic laterl sclerosis is a neurodegenerative disease that effects motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord. Over time, these neurons degenerate and die, which severely limits muscle movement. Because there is no cure for ALS, this eventually leads to full muscle paralysis, respiratory failure, and death. Only about 20 percent of people with ALS survive five years or more. If you want to make some fraction of a difference, consider donating to the ALS Association or volunteering your time with an ALS organization.
And I mean, you can dump a bucket of ice water on your head if you really want—but don’t try to tell me that you’re doing it for charity.
Follow Arielle Pardes on Twitter.