Staff Editorial

Activism finds an extra platform in social media

The People's Climate march in NYC

Those behind the ALS Ice Bucket challenge were at Chicago’s Soldier Field Sunday.

They were young and old. Some talked; some just stared. They were there with family members. In other cases, family members were there to commemorate them. It was Chicago’s 13th annual ALS  Walk for Life, and thousands of people packed the area surrounding the field for the event, which raised more than $1 million for the first time in its history.

When buckets of ice water started flooding the web in the name of an until-then obscure disease called ALS, many called the passive –– if chilling –– challenge a new form of “slacktivism”, or activities that pose a minimum cost to participants while making the person feel they contributed to a cause.

Photo courtesy of the 11th annual ALS walk at Soldier field.
The 11th annual ALS walk at Soldier field.
Photo courtesy of

Starting in late July, the ALS bucket challenge splashed social media for weeks. By mid-August, more than 2.4 million unique videos of people –– ranging from college students to personalities such as Bill Gates and politicians such as George W. Bush and Bill Clinton  –– pouring buckets and cups filled with ice-cold water on themselves had been published online.

Some were creative, some classic; many of them were funny. They were in the name of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, widely known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease –– a rare, horrible neurological disease that affects about four in 100,000 people every year in the U.S.

The challenge went like this: You either pour an ice bucket on yourself or donate to the ALS Association (ALSA), which oversees most research done on the degenerating illness. From July 29 to the beginning of September, ALSA received more than $100 million in donations, compared to the close to $3 million the organization got during the same period last year.

It was an online movement. Beyond the occasional runny nose or mild cold, and several unfortunate accidents that stemmed from bad logistics, there were no apparent risks in contributing to the ALS movement.

ALSA did not guarantee finding a cure for the disease, but people participated and donated anyway.

Saturday, another movement took to the streets of New York and was echoed in 150 countries around the world. In Manhattan, approximately 400,000 people flooded the streets just off Central Park to demand action on global warming. Again, personalities such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Al Gore, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, New York City’s mayor Bill de Blasio and others led the march.

People’s Climate, as the movement was called, had been brewing for weeks and resulted in the largest climate change march in history. It was timed to coincide with the United Nation’s summit on climate change happening this month. Marchers wanted to pressure leaders into making climate change a top political concern.

Photo courtesy of peoples part of the march in NYC
Part of the march in NYC.
Photo courtesy of

It was a grassroots movement. There was effort involved and some, if little, sacrifices to be made. Marchers had to take the time to go to the march, they risked being stepped on by the swarming crowd and more. These activists were out in the streets demanding change. The march did not guarantee that any agreements on climate change would be enforced or even agreed on.

Both the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and the People’s Climate march are activist movements. They both seek change, even if they can’t guarantee it.

People marched in New York with hope that change will ensue, as those affected with ALS and their families watched the Ice Bucket challenge videos with hope. Taking the streets and soaking in buckets of ice water is not very different.

It is very easy to get caught up in the specifics, to say that one thing qualifies as activism because it involves risking something while another doesn’t because it’s easy to do. But activism comes in many shapes and sizes. There are no formulas or rules defining what constitutes activism and what doesn’t.

There is indeed a certain degree of ease and comfort in being an “online” activist. It doesn’t demand much; there’s no material cost. But what many of the critics (and there were plenty) of the Ice Bucket Challenge failed to realize –– to the dismay of many at the ALS Walk Sunday –– is that for the first time in decades ALS was getting recognition and attention. Ignorance on the disease was broken one ice bucket at a time.

Yes, there are many who still don’t know what ALS actually is. Many who can’t pronounce the full name of the disease or explain it to someone else, but they know that it exists and that it’s terrible.

The People’s Climate march was traditional activism. People were out on the streets, congregated for a cause, chanting their plea and expressing their concern and frustration at leaders and institutions. The march had no noticeable critiques, even though it’s far from unprecedented.

The ALS bucket challenge succeeded in creating awareness for a disease that is slowly killing the people who have it. The People’s Climate march succeeded in demanding a cure for a disease that is killing our planet. They both accomplished something.

It is still too early to say if either of them will achieve their ultimate goals –– no cure has been found for ALS and agreements on climate change still remain elusive. But both campaigns succeeded in something: getting enough continued support from millions and millions of people and getting their message out there.

This is not to say these two movements took place without a certain degree of silliness and magnified idealism, but they show that for better or worse, in success and in failure, online activism and classic activism are not too distant from one another.

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