How many crowdfunding pages did you get invited to this month? Was it someone running a marathon, or growing facial hair for cancer awareness? This form of fundraising is now the norm, with Facebook even inventing a function that allows people to ask for charitable contributions for their birthday. However, most of these stay relatively small, only just making or sometimes even falling short of their target amount - after all, there are only so many of your parents’ friends willing to sponsor your walk to John O’Groats.
And then there are the campaigns that just explode. If you’ve been online in the last month or so (or watched the news or opened a newspaper) you won’t have been able to avoid heart-breaking images of singed koalas and illustrations of an Australia on fire. When they first began, the fires didn’t get much press internationally - certainly not as much as the California wildfires do on a yearly basis, threatening as they do the homes of people like Miley Cyrus and the Kardashian/Jenner clan in their Calabasas mansions.
I happened to be in New South Wales when they began in November 2019 and already the smoke was affecting Sydney. My friend with a new baby was warned to stay inside and my pregnant cousin relocated our meeting from the beach to a restaurant so she wouldn’t be exposed to the fumes. As I flew back to London at the beginning of December, I could see the devastation from the plane, plumes of near-black smoke rising from the country’s red heartland.
When I got home, I immediately checked the BBC website; my friends in Sydney were posting increasingly worrying stories on Instagram and anger towards the tight lipped, climate change denying PM Scott Morrison was growing on Facebook. But this was only a small story a couple of scrolls down the homepage. Then Celeste Barber got involved.
Who is Celeste Barber, you may ask? The Aussie comedian has made a bona fide career out of spoofing models and influencers on Instagram, often posting images and videos of inhuman perfection next to her much more realistic, down to earth versions. Barber’s rise to fame has been meteoric. She currently has 6.2 million Instagram followers, has released a book and toured the world as a comic. She now counts people like Kris Jenner as friends and routinely interacts with some of the world’s A list, both online and off. And, when the Australian bushfires showed no signs of stopping, she used this influence as an internet juggernaut to raise £15 million.
Barber began by starting a crowdfunding page on Facebook, which she publicised on her Instagram stories, posting her gratitude for the donations and requests for people to give even more if they could. There was so much support that she had to update the target every few hours to accommodate it and the page was shared by other celebrities, including Natalie Portman and Lizzo.
There’s no question that this level of fundraising was made possible by social media. The fact that all these celebrities across the world were able to coordinate in a matter of days, offer people a secure way to donate and continue to update people on the progress being made is all down to networks like Facebook and Instagram.
Australia isn’t the only example; when Lombok, an island in Indonesia, was struck by an earthquake in 2019, social media became key in getting aid to the remote villages affected. “I used social media to tell family and friends on Facebook that we were safe. We then shared posts to try to raise funds for the relief effort," says Mike Board, a former Royal Marine who runs a diving school in the neighbouring islands of Gili. “Many people who stayed behind asked their friends and Instagram followers for donations paid directly to personal bank accounts or GoFundMe accounts.” Board also describes it as “one of the most direct forms of aid [he] has ever witnessed”.
Of course, celebrity involvement like Barber’s is incredibly important for the relative success of a campaign, but it is only really made possible by the immediacy of social media. Facebook’s Safety Check (which allows you to mark yourself safe during a crisis) and their Crisis Response Hub are both extensions of this, showing the company’s awareness of its own omnipresence and the power that that wields. In a time when social media’s effects on our mental health, our relationships with each other and the way we see the world (hello, echo chamber!) are often shown to be negative or destructive, this is one significant and incontestable way that it is truly helping the world.