If you’ve started seeing red lately, you’re not the only one. The latest attempt at a viral charity stunt is the #TwizzlerChallenge—no lesser red gummy-like products will be accepted—in which two people chow down on a Twizzler from opposite ends, meeting in the middle with a kiss. It’s a fundraiser for the autism non-profit New York Collaborates for Autism, which provides direct services to autistic people and their families. As the nation buckles down for yet another charity meme flooding their social media, it’s valid to start asking questions about whether such memes are a good idea.
In the case of the #TwizzlerChallenge, everyone’s doing it. It’s swept like wildfire after Uzo Aduba and Willie Geist shared a Twizzler at this year’s Night of Too Many Stars event to raise money for autism services. Even Twizzler execs have gotten in on the fun:
If the initiative is anywhere near as successful as the Ice Bucket Challenge, New York Collaborates for Autism could be looking at a bucket of cash—definitely enough to buy out the movie theater’s stock of Twizzlers and then some. Participants in the definitely colder and wetter challenge raised over $100 million for Lou Gehrig’s disease research last year, in a combination of big donations from high-profile celebrities right down to small individual contributions.
J.J. Abrams and Chewbacca did the Twizzler Challenge:
Lena Dunham did it:
And they’re just the tip of a star-studded list of participants. The appeal is obvious. As with the Ice Bucket Challenge, people get to see celebrities acting ridiculous on the Internet, and if the movement picks up momentum, high-profile politicians and more are likely to follow suit. Perhaps even Barack and Michelle will agree to participate; the president didn’t bow to public pressure on the Ice Bucket Challenge, but sharing a sweet with his wife might be palatable to the Commander in Chief.
If the campaign is successful, capitalizing on a hashtag is going to become a ubiquitous charity tactic, whether charities or fans originate these challenges. The potential of raising millions of dollars while also increasing awareness of a cause and getting an organization’s name firmly in the public eye is seductive, but it comes with some serious risks.
The most obvious is burnout, as people tire of being inundated with challenges, commentary on the challenges, and seeing the same video pop up everywhere they go. The Internet is fickle. It can be occupied by dresses and llamas for a day—but then it wants to move on, and maintaining a sustained campaign can be a challenge. Social media trends tend to flash quickly, and when people get bored, they can turn on them. As Karyn Polewaczyk put it at Jezebel:
Remember last summer, when the Ice Bucket Challenge was in full swing and then it died down and a part of you felt guilty for feeling like, Phew, thank God that’s over, because the charitable part means you shouldn’t feel annoyed (right)? Take a deep breath, sit down, and meet its successor, the Twizzler Challenge.
However, there’s also a more serious risk: that the money raised by such challenges may not be going to good causes. In the case of the #TwizzlerChallenge, at least for the time being, it is. New York Collaborates for Autism focuses on direct services, a priority for many autistic self-advocates, their families, and disability rights activists—contrasted with Autism Speaks, an organization many autistic people are opposed to thanks to its eliminationist rhetoric suggesting that autism is a problem that needs to be cured, rather than a natural expression of human diversity.
However, that doesn’t mean funds for the #TwizzlerChallenge won’t wind up elsewhere. Other autism organizations will no doubt be interested in a piece of the very lucrative pie, and while the campaign is currently linked firmly to New York Collaborates for Autism, that may not always be the case. While groups like the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network might become beneficiaries of funding as well, so could controversial organizations like Autism Speaks, as well as charities that operate inefficiently and use their funds inappropriately.
The Internet is fickle. It can be occupied by dresses and llamas for a day—but then it wants to move on.
Unscrupulous charities are always a concern, especially with popular causes. Some are merely dummy organizations to hide the actions of individuals who want to profit from public concern, as seen with some post-Sandy and post-9/11 charities. The bigger a cause gets, the higher the risk that people will swoop in to take advantage of it, and the #TwizzlerChallenge could represent an irresistible target.
Doing the research to determine if a charity is legitimate doesn’t require extensive work, but it does assume a certain level of literacy with the charity world. Before donating, people can look at charity review sites, which distill basic information about charities into ratings, but not all charities are rated. Annual reports and required financial disclosures can be a better source of information, but they can be difficult to read for those who aren’t familiar with the jargon, and Googling sometimes reveals less than helpful results.
For those with specific ethical concerns, getting recommendations from others isn’t always a sure bet either. Some organizations may receive high ratings, but could operate in ways someone is personally opposed to; for example, a charity could fund animal research. That makes seeking out good recipients of charitable giving even more challenging.
The idea of using a funny viral meme to raise money for a cause seems innocent and smart. Charities often struggle to raise awareness and maintain consistent funding, even those that deal with relatively common conditions like autism. Drumming up interest across a long hot summer—the Ice Bucket Challenge—or a slowly blooming spring in this case generates media attention, gets people thinking about the cause, and opens wallets.
The bigger a cause gets, the higher the risk that people will swoop in to take advantage of it.
At the same time, such memes can quickly get out of control. Groups benefiting from donations can’t personally oversee every video and donation and ultimately can’t decide where individuals choose to donate funds. They also can’t ask for endorsements on every single video, making such memes easy to game and manipulate. All it takes is one user issuing a challenge in the name of another charity to create a domino effect of funds winding up with unscrupulous charities or individuals—even if that user is well-meaning.
Getting participants to take their Twizzlers with a grain of salt is likely a losing battle. But forcing people to rethink the presentation of viral charity memes is critical before millions of dollars siphon into the pockets of organizations that don’t deserve it.
S.E. Smith is a writer, editor, and agitator with numerous publication credits, including the Guardian, AlterNet, and Salon, along with several anthologies. Smith also serves as the Social Justice Editor for xoJane and will be co-chairing Wiscon 40—the preeminent feminist science-fiction conference—in 2016.
Screenbgrab via YouTube/The Today Show