Remember summer 2014? Unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri; Taylor Swift released the video for Shake it Off; and Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine. And all around the world, people were dumping buckets of ice over one another’s heads in the name of charity.
The ice bucket challenge, as it was known, was a campaign to raise money for ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a fatal neurological disease that attacks the nerve cells responsible for controlling muscles. The thinking was that filming yourself being soaked in icy water, then posting the footage on social media, would be enough to encourage people to donate to the ALS Association.
Celebrities including Anna Wintour, Justin Timberlake and Rita Ora took part in the challenge, and almost 2.4 million tagged videos were uploaded to Facebook. By the end of August 2014, the ALS Association announced that they had received over $100 million in donations in one month alone – an incredible achievement for a previously relatively unknown charity.
But not everyone was enamoured with the campaign. Research by ComRes found that while 17% of Brits dunked themselves in water for the purposes of a video, only one in ten claimed to have donated money as a result of taking part – and not everyone actually donated to the ALS Association.
Several commentators, meanwhile, criticised the ice bucket challenge as being everything that’s wrong with modern ‘slacktivism’: making a big song and dance on social media about how charitable you are, without doing anything genuinely constructive. Time described the campaign as “problematic in almost every way”, while The Telegraph dismissed it a “self-congratulatory celebrity fad”.
But if you took part or donated money as a result of the ice bucket challenge, you can feel assured in the knowledge that you did, in fact, make a difference.
One of the research projects funded by ice bucket challenge donations was Project MinE, a data-driven initiative supported by the ALS Association, the Guardian reports. On Monday, the project’s researchers announced that they have identified a new gene associated with the disease, which experts say could lead to new treatments being created.
“It’s very exciting because it shows everyone who contributed to the ice bucket challenge that their donation had an impact on the research,” said Brian Frederick, executive vice-president of communications and development at the ALS Association. “The work that Project MinE is doing is really important, and the discovery of this new gene will help us better understand ALS.”
The research, which was published in the journal Nature Genetics on Monday, involved more than 80 researchers in 11 countries sequencing the genomes of 15,000 people with ALS.
Frederick explained that the discovery is important “because it helps us understand what’s triggering this and can help us better find a treatment”.
So next time someone tells you that internet activism doesn’t make a long-term difference, remind them of the ice bucket challenge. When viral campaigns actually lead to donations, the results have the potential to be life-transforming.
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