Obama Passed on the Ice Bucket Challenge: Here’s Why

Ethel Kennedy, the widow of Robert F. Kennedy, nominated President Barack Obama on Facebook to do the #StrikeOutALS “Ice Bucket Challenge.” In a video posted on the Facebook page of her son, Maxwell Kennedy, before pouring an orange beach bucket of ice water over her head, she said, “Welcome to Cape Cod, President Obama. I nominate you.”

Obama passed. But he did make a $100 donation to an undisclosed charity that fights amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. “The president appreciates Mrs. Kennedy thinking of him for the challenge — though his contribution to this effort will be monetary,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz told the Boston Globe.

The Ice Bucket Challenge is a public awareness campaign for ALS, a neurodegenerative disease better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease that affects 12,000 Americans, tailored for the social media age. It spread quickly across Facebook and Twitter in the final weeks of July, beginning with just over 100 tweets tagged #icebucketchallenge, before ballooning. In the past thirty days, more than 118,000 tweets have mentioned the challenge, and the hashtag is now popping up 32,000 times a day on Twitter, according to the social analytics company Topsy.

And these numbers give a small peak at how many people are participating in the challenge. Videos, included with tweets and shared through Facebook, spread the challenge; once it’s issued, the participate has a choice: donate $100 to a charity devoted to find a cure for ALS or dump a bucket of ice water on his or her head, film it, then nominate more friends to complete the challenge within 24 hours.

The challenge began with professional golfers as a means to support pet charities. And the pouring of ice water of their heads was more a stunt and less a concerted effort to promote charities. But when golfer Chris Kennedy completed the ice bucket challenge and nominated his cousin, whose husband had ALS for eleven years, the ice bucket challenge became the tool of spreading awareness for the neurodegenerative disease. And Kennedy’s cousin shared a Facebook connection with 29-year-old Massachusetts resident and former Boston College baseball player Pete Frates, who was diagnosed with the disease several years ago and has lost his ability to talk, cannot move his arms or legs, and must use a feeding tube. Frates has been very active raising awareness for ASL, and his support of the ice bucket challenge helped it go viral first in Boston, and then across the United States.

Politicians like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have accepted the challenge; Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, Apple CEO Tim Cook, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates have filmed themselves pouring ice-cold water over their heads; and Justin Timberlake, Jimmy Fallon, Aaron Rodgers, and Elizabeth Banks have lent their celebrity to promoting the campaign as well.

However, an important question has been raised: How much help can thousands of people pouring ice cold water over their heads be? And the argument has been made that the filmed ice bucket challenge is more an act of self-aggrandizement and less a serious effort to help find a cure for ALS. After all, the videos contain little information on the disease, why research needs to be conduction, and how donations will be used. And as Jezebel’s Kara Brown noted, the popularity of the challenge has been boosted by the fact that social media exhibitionists are able to “feel good about themselves and all the good goodness they’re doing.” Yet, social media exhibitionism cannot produce sustainable charitable giving; once the buzz surrounding ALS has subsided, the status quo will return, especially if the challenge really does not increase actual awareness.

Of course, awareness and exhibitionist desires are hard to quantify. Comparatively, the influx of money can be tracked. For ALS research, the popularity of the ice bucket challenge has meant a massive increase in donations. Between July 29 and August 14, ALS Association collected $7.6 million in donations, up from the $1.4 million received in the same time period last year. “The ALS Association is thankful for the incredible generosity and spirit of the thousands of people who have accepted the Ice Bucket Challenge,” said association President and CEO Barbara Newhouse. The association also reported 145,918 new donors.

But still, the fact remains that donations are coming in smaller denominations, and the ALS Association is not confident that many of the new donors will become permanent contributors. And as the #BringBackOurGirls media campaign has shown, even extremely popular hashtags have limited results.

By that logic, President Barack Obama’s decision to pledge $100 to the ALS cause may do more to further the goal of curing the disease than pouring ice cold water on his head.

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