Ice Bucket Challenge Leads to Breakthrough Discovery; Disproves Claims of Slacktivism


As Nicholas Kristof writes in the New York Times, the “Ice Bucket Challenge,” a viral campaign last year that sought to raise money for ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease) by encouraging people to dump buckets of ice water over themselves, has actually shown demonstrable results, putting aside the claims of online “slacktivism.”

In six weeks last year, the Ice Bucket Challenge raised $ 115 million dollars. Now researchers at Johns Hopkins have said that the donations directly contributed to a breakthrough discovery of a protein replacement therapy that may help reverse the effects of the disease.

Science published the breakthrough study, which, according to Phillip Wong, a professor at Johns Hopkins University whose lab conducted the research, states that a protein called TDP-43 that may be responsible for cell death in the brains and spinal cords of ALS patients might be replaced by a custom-designed protein that would allow the cells to return to normal.

Although it doesn’t offer an outright cure, this discovery could greatly mitigate the symptoms of muscle weakness and deterioration that ALS patients face, as well as lend itself to similar conditions, such as certain types of dementia, that share symptoms.

The researchers say that this breakthrough was greatly accelerated by donations from Ice Bucket Challenge participants. According to Wong, “the funding certainly facilitated the results we obtained.” 

The Ice Bucket Challenge, therefore, may be one among many of social activism campaigns to escape accusations of slacktivism. The definition of slacktivism, of course, is when a social media campaign, such as the call to end the reign of the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, goes viral online, allowing people to show that “they care,” without actually doing anything.

Joseph Kony, as Kristof points out, is still in power. And the “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign, in search of 273 Nigerian school girls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria, has yet to bring direct results.

The question, then, is why the Ice Bucket Challenge fared differently. It may be that it contained a direct call to action with a purse attached. Do something, earn something. Plus, the ice bucket gag itself, though criticized by some as “problematic,” was perhaps so daring and absurd you couldn’t help notice. And, on top of that, stopping terrorism in Africa is a bit more abstract, for example, whereas donating to a science team at one of the best research programs in the country is a little less murky.

What strategies do you think work best for social activism campaigns if they want real dividends online? Did you contribute to the Ice Bucket Challenge, or did you lean back in your arm chair and have a little chuckle at the “slacktivists”?


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