In 2012, “Gangnam Style” parodies stormed the internet. In 2013, thousands posted videos of themselves convulsing to the “Harlem Shake.” But in 2014, the #IceBucketChallenge has become the summer internet sensation. A Google search yields more than 14 million videos from regular people to public figures like Bill Gates and former President George W. Bush dumping buckets of ice water on their heads to raise awareness and money for the ALS Association, a nonprofit organization promoting research for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and support for its victims. About 5,600 people are diagnosed each year with ALS, the progressive neurodegenerative condition also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Each video features someone dowsing himself in frigid water then challenging other people to do the same within 24 hours—or donate money to the ALS Association. Statistically speaking, the social media campaign appears to be working. As of Aug. 19, the organization gained more than 450,000 new donors and received $22.9 million in donations, 12 times the amount it took in during the same time period last year.
“We need to be strategic in our decision-making as to how the funds will be spent so that when people look back on this event in 10 and 20 years, the Ice Bucket Challenge will be seen as a real game-changer for ALS,” said Barbara Newhouse, president and CEO of the ALS Association.
But despite the campaign’s ubiquitous presence on social media, not everyone is a fan. Some criticism focuses on the campaign’s execution, but members of the pro-life community are worried about how the money will be spent.
The American Life League (ALL) designated the ALS Association as “unworthy of support” due to its connection with embryonic stem cell research. In a July 2 email to ALL, Carrie Munk, chief communications and marketing officer for the ALS Association, said the organization primarily funds adult stem cell research but also funds one embryonic stem cell study through contributions from a specific donor. Munk said donors may stipulate that their donations not go toward the research project. But the current study may not be the last the organization funds. “Under very strict guidelines, the association may fund embryonic stem cell research in the future,” she said.
Live Action President Lila Rose described the ALS Association as “tainted” due to its connection with embryonic stem cell research. “It’s such a shame that the ALS Association, while striving to save some people, chooses to support research that thrives from experimenting on and killing tiny, innocent human beings,” she said. Father Michael Duffy at his Patheos blog recommends challenge participants donate to the John Paul II Medical Research Institute instead.
Originally, the Ice Bucket Challenge didn’t connect to the ALS Association at all. Instead, participants donated to the charity of their choice. The challenge attached to the ALS Association after pro golfer Chris Kennedy challenged his cousin Jeanette Senerchia of Pelham, N.Y., whose husband has ALS. Her challenge spread to Pat Quinn of Yonkers, N.Y., who also has ALS. Members of his social network began posting the challenge, which eventually reached Pete Frates, a former Boston College baseball player diagnosed with ALS in 2012. Frates, whose wife is expecting a baby in September, posted a video of himself bobbing his head to “Ice Ice Baby” by rapper Vanilla Ice. (According to Frates, ice water and ALS don’t mix.) The ALS challenge quickly spread from Frates’ Boston connections to the rest of the United States.
“This is certainly a very unique, very broad phenomenon that I have not seen in this magnitude before,” said Markus Pfeiffer, a strategic communications professor at Regent University. Pfieffer suggested Christians participating in the challenge could return to the its original intent by supporting Samaritan’s Purse or doctors battling Ebola.
But the pro-life community isn’t the only source of criticism against the campaign. Some claim the campaign promotes “slacktivism”—activism without meaningful action—and feeds millennial narcissism through glorified selfies.
“There are a lot of things wrong with the Ice Bucket Challenge, but most annoying is that it’s basically narcissism masked as altruism,” wrote Arielle Pardes, a writer for Vice and a millennial herself. She cited other hashtag campaigns that quickly lost popularity, including #Haiti, #Kony2012, and, more recently, #BringBackOurGirls. “If you want to make some fraction of a difference, consider donating to the ALS Association or volunteering your time with an ALS organization,” Pardes suggested.
Regardless of the criticism associated with the Ice Bucket Challenge, the campaign has raised some much-needed funds for the ALS Association, revealing the potentially positive impact of social media, Pfeiffer said, adding, “If that little bit of self-exposure can lead to more discovery about ALS, I would not look at that negatively.”
But not all analysts think the extra exposure has been universally beneficial.
The campaign has “done a mixed job raising awareness,” said Rick Cohen, communications director for the National Council of Nonprofits. Many people who accept the challenge know nothing more about ALS after dousing themselves with ice water than before. Others post videos without mentioning ALS. “Too many people are doing it with the fun element in mind and not connecting to the issue at all,” he said.
Cohen did praise the ALS Association for doing a good job connecting people to its cause by highlighting human stories, noting that increased awareness can encourage communities to support those suffering from ALS. But it’s too soon to know if the #IceBucketChallenge will benefit the fight against ALS long-term. Like anything that “goes viral” on the internet, the Ice Bucket Challenge faces potential oblivion. Its success depends on the ability of the ALS Association to educate participants and turn new donors into returning donors, Cohen said. And despite the short-term benefits, not all nonprofits would want to be in the association’s shoes.
“Many [nonprofit groups] would prefer a more substantive victory in the long term,” Cohen said.