When the “Ice Bucket Challenge,” a viral challenge to collect funds for research on ALS, took over social media last year, many people joined in—but just as many mocked and criticized the phenomenon as mere “slacktivism.” Pouring ice cold water over your head, they argued, could not really help find a cure for ALS, a terrible neurodegenerative disease.
Turns out, it may have.
According to a paper published this August in Science, scientists have found a faulty protein in ALS patients’ neurons that could be blamed for the disease—and think they could be able to fix it, opening the way for a therapy that could slow down the progression of the illness.
The discovery, said Jonathan Ling, one of the paper’s authors, owes much to the funds collected through the Ice Bucket Challenge, which helped raise a reported $220 million in donations. As he wrote on Reddit:
I remember reading a lot of stories about people complaining that the ice bucket challenge was a waste and that scientists weren’t using the money to do research, etc.
I assure you that this is absolutely false. All of your donations have been amazingly helpful and we have been working tirelessly to find a cure.
Ling’s research established that the protein, called TDP-43, helps read the genetic material contained in RNA, and does not work properly in 97% of all ALS cases. As he said in his Reddit AMA, “Scientists didn’t really know its function—now we do. We also show that it’s something that can be fixed!”
Criticize all you want, but slacktivism seems to have help. ALS’s bucket challenge is not the only example.
Think about the United States’ ongoing conversation about police brutality and racial inequality, sparked by protests in Ferguson in August 2014. While it might not have solved the issue, social media campaigns like #blacklivesmatter guided that discussion, and in some cases led to real change: one digital petition successfully removed the Confederate Flag from South Carolina’s capitol.
One strength of a viral sensation is its incredible speed. According to migration-focused publication Migrant Report, it took less than 24 hours for a recent tragic photo of a dead Syrian child to move the scale in terms of donations to aid organizations. The Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), for example, saw an unprecedented spike in fundraising: they raised €250,000 (about $275,000) in a single day. Their usual total daily donations rarely exceed €10,000 ($11,000).
In many cases, what seems to work is integrating slacktivism with online platforms that translate enthusiasm into real life, for example by allowing donations or petitions to lawmakers.
And as Nicholas Kristof notes in his op-ed for The New York Times, “armchair activism” effectively exposes many people to new causes. While it may not be sufficient on its own, and sometimes leads to no results, slacktivism can gain a critical mass faster than anything else. Plus, Kristof points out, “in any case, armchair activism is preferable to armchair passivity.”