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Unlocking the social media charity phenomenon

ByTasha Kleeman

Sep 16, 2014
image courtesy of nbc news

Over the last couple of months, millions have poured buckets of ice water over themselves in the name of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), raising awareness and funds for the motor neurone disease. In doing so, they have raised around £100 million for the charity, which, prior to the ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’, was poorly understood and, in many cases, unheard of.

The Ice Bucket Challenge and its predecessor, the ‘No Makeup Selfie’, seem to be part of a new wave of charity fundraising. Their efficiency in raising money and awareness for charities is unquestionable. However, their method and values have been subject to much controversy, and leave many divided over whether viral campaigns like the ALS challenge are narcissistic, self-serving campaigns that demean and jeopardise true charity, or are a genuine force for good.

On the surface, the campaigns seem perfectly benign. After all, how can anything that raises so much money for charity be a bad thing?

However, upon closer inspection, there are several complexities that render the morals of such campaigns far from black and white. One clear issue with the campaigns is the pressure placed on nominees to donate. Surely, a donation to charity ought to be a voluntary act of will. Such pressure results in both unwilling donations, and a bullying culture, which is not at all what charity is about.

Whilst it is true that the nomination element of the challenges is essential to securing donations, in an ideal world, people would donate without needing to be nominated. Perhaps, therefore, such campaigns simply reinforce passive giving.

Another element of the Ice Bucket Challenge that infuriates its critics is the public nature of the donations. Surely, genuinely good charity is anonymous, not plastered all over Facebook news feeds in a ‘look at how charitable I am’ fashion. Of course, conversely, the public aspect is essential to the campaign’s aim of raising awareness.

However, this too is in contention. Many critics wonder exactly how pouring an ice bucket over one’s head raises awareness for a motor-neurone disorder, or how posting a No Makeup Selfie raises awareness for cancer. Presumably, however, the answer lies in the fact that before the campaign, most of those posting ice-bucket challenges and those criticising it, had never heard of ALS.

The No Makeup Selfie campaign was particularly controversial. Social media sceptics took to comment sections in full force to debate the value of the campaign. Many saw a danger in suggesting that a photo of a woman without makeup is a significant thing, thus perpetuating unhealthy societal norms surrounding female beauty ideals. Others saw it as an exhibitionist call for attention. This suspicion was underlined when many Facebook users failed to include the donation information in their wall posts.

However, whatever discrepancy one has with the campaign, the good that came from it cannot be ignored. Speaking to The Student, Russell Delew, Director of Major Giving and Appeals at Cancer Research UK, stated: “The ‘No Makeup Selfie’ campaign, although not initiated by Cancer Research UK, had an amazing impact. Most significantly, it resulted in three million new supporters who are of a completely different demographic to our usual supporters. The campaign also raised a staggering £8 million within one week.”

It also seems significant that the campaign wasn’t started by Cancer Research UK, and is a wonderful example of the power of the people, and also of social media, which can be a powerful tool for action and for good.

Raising money for charity is undeniably a good thing. However, what seems to be disputable is whether the ramifications such campaigns have for society and our perception of charity outweigh their objectively good results. For example, perhaps the social media campaigns reinforce the idea of charity as a passive action which you do only if nominated, and will perhaps result in less giving in the long term.

Unfortunately, we are not all benevolent, charitable people. Sometimes, we need to be pushed, or ‘nominated’, to give. Of course, this is a massive shame, and something that desperately needs to change. However, taking this into consideration, the fact that millions of people around the globe have donated to charity as a result of social media campaigns is surely something to be celebrated.

By Tasha Kleeman

Tasha Kleeman is a second-year English Literature student at the University of Edinburgh. She is co-Features Editor for The Student, and blogs for The Huffington Post.

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