Internet activism needs a cold splash of water

Why the ice bucket challenge isn’t all sunshine and rainbows

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple of months, you’ve probably seen the Ice Bucket Challenge. The basics are simple: you dump a bucket of ice cold water on your head (simulating the paralysis of ALS), and challenge others to do so. They then have 24 hours to do the same, or, they donate to the ALS Association. It seems like the perfect win-win: either you raise awareness for the cause, or donate to it. What could possibly go wrong?

A lot, apparently. The ALS ice bucket challenge has its fair share of critics – and, well, they aren’t all wrong.  Let’s start with the obvious: armchair activism.

Also known as “slacktivism”, it’s the idea of being an “activist” without actually doing anything. The internet has only made slacktivism worse: people pat themselves on the back for using a hashtag, but in the grand scheme of the problem, they haven’t helped at all.

At least in this case, there are people donating. And yes, this challenge is making more people aware of ALS. The problem is the people on my news feed dumping water over their head without a single mention of ALS or the ALS Association – or, even worse, trying to “fight ASL”, which I don’t think the American Sign Language really appreciates, but thank you.

Besides, the idea of people “promoting awareness” is a vague and dangerous one. Look at breast cancer awareness campaigns, for example. Who isn’t aware of breast cancer? What exactly is the point in promoting it? What are you helping by wearing a little pink ribbon on your shirt? Likewise, what are you really doing by dumping a bucket of water over your head?

Of course, the slacktivism isn’t the only problem: many have been critical of the challenge for only donating to a single charity, for promoting the waste of water (especially in a drought-riddled California), and at least one person has died following the challenge, according to The New Zealand Herald. Doctor Stephen Wealthall, speaking to the Herald, explained that “[the challenge] invoked the airway protective reflex which closed the larynx, slowing the heart rate and causing a person to stop breathing”. If someone already has problems with certain arteries, the dunk and subsequent shortness of breath could trigger cardiac arrest, Wheathall explained.

However, the chance of any adverse effects are quite small. Meanwhile, the benefits for the ALS Association have been quite large: ALS Canada has raised over $11 million CAD, and the American ALS Association has officially raised over $100 million USD.

But while ALS is definitely a horrible disease, it only affects a small portion of the population: only approximately 2 people per 100,000 will get ALS. This is far behind cardiovascular disease, the number one cause of death internationally, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Does this mean ALS is undeserving? No. ALS is probably one of the worst diseases on Earth. Does this make the ice bucket challenge a bad thing? Of course not – any money towards charity is a good thing.

But let’s not pretend everyone dunking water over their head is a saint. If everyone donated because they wanted to stop ALS, they would have, ice water or not. We’re raising money because it’s fashionable.

Now if only we didn’t need validation for it, we might actually get somewhere.

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