Whether they’re lifelong philanthropists or newcomers, the following public figures have all captured the media spotlight at one point or another, drawing attention to humanitarian causes in unique and exceptional ways. Here are the top five most viral humanitarians.
1. Casey Neistat
Despite being one of the newest faces in advocacy, filmmaker Casey Neistat has a well-established fan base of YouTube followers. He also has an eclectic filmography including work for HBO, The New York Times, Nike and Mercedes. Casey’s most recent hit was a December 2013 viral video titled “What Would You Do with $25,000?”
Twentieth Century Fox offered Neistat $25,000 to produce a promotional video for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but instead he used the funds for a typhoon relief mission in the Philippines. In the short six minute video, he documented his trip every single step of the way—from his arrival, to buying provisions, to renting a bus to transport goods to typhoon victims. The relief effort and the video were a huge success, garnering close to three million views.
2. Romeo Dallaire
Romeo Dallaire is a retired Lieutenant-General of the Canadian Army and current Senator from Quebec who was at the frontline of the Rwandan Genocide in the early 1990s. As the Force Commander for the UNAMIR peacekeeping operation in Rwanda, Dallaire saw the nation descend into genocide between the Tutsi and Hutu ethnic groups. Accompanied by a minimal peacekeeping group with few resources (as well as direct orders to stay put and not to engage) Dallaire’s reports of the escalating violence were lost amidst the bureaucracy of United Nations leaders and U.S. government officials.
His 2003 memoir, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, brought the issue to light for the whole world and was later accompanied by both a documentary in 2004 and a feature drama in 2007 of the same name. Since then, Dallaire has developed the Will to Intervene (W2I) Project for the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University.
The project provides governments, journalists and NGOs with policy recommendations for dealing with future potential crises. Dallaire has kept up appearances through annual university tours across Canada. He was played by Nick Nolte in Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda, which deals with the genocide from the perspective of local hotel owner Paul Rusesabagina.
3. Bill Nye
Most of us know William Sanford Nye as “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” the adorably goofy yet informative character from Disney and PBS’s television show. The show, which aired for five seasons from 1993-1998, is still viewed today in grade school classrooms throughout the country. Essentially, Bill Nye is like the Mr. Rogers of science, and perhaps the only celebrity to hold both a list of Emmy Awards and Honorary PhDs.
Bill Nye’s 2005 project The Eyes of New targeted an older audience and went beyond the actuarial sciences to tackle issues such as population growth, nuclear energy, race, and climate change. His wide range of media appearances include stints on “Dancing with the Stars,” “Larry King Live,” “N3mbers,” and a highly anticipated debate with Ken Ham—not to mention last year’s very viral death hoax, and this year’s presidential selfie.
Recently, he brought his brand of “edutainment” to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with a short video dispelling popular poverty myths as part of the #StopTheMyth movement. Nye’s mix of fact-based research and humor has made him one of the most talked about scientists of today and a true viral humanitarian.
4. Jason Russell
Jason Russell’s Kony 2012 campaign is what happens when a video goes too viral too fast—as well as how easily a personal incident can bring scrutiny upon a humanitarian effort. Invisible Children is an organization founded by Jason Russell in 2004 to raise awareness about Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, a group that has since become synonymous with child soldiers and war crimes.
The Kony 2012 short film, dedicated to bringing Joseph Kony to the International Criminal Court, was met with widespread, unprecedented support from social media networks and young people across the globe.
First posted on March 5, 2012, the video currently holds almost a 100 million views. But amidst all the criticism, financial scrutiny, stone-throwing, and lampooning, what few people realize is that Russell’s efforts were overwhelmingly successful at bringing Joseph Kony to the forefront of media attention.
Senators Chris Coons (D-Del.), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) all participated in a bipartisan resolution to place a bounty on Kony just weeks after the video’s release. A year later, the U.S. put up an additional $5 million bounty as part of the War Crimes Rewards Program, just as the AU and Uganda called off their own search efforts. Moreover, the film brought a surge of interest into U.S. foreign policy toward Africa and the workings of the International Criminal Court.
5. Bill and Melinda Gates
Bill and Melinda Gates are very savvy with the internet—which shouldn’t be surprising considering Gates’ Microsoft helped make online culture into what it is today. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, founded in 1997, is an expansive organization that focuses on global health, agricultural development, family planning, vaccines and disease.
Recently, the philanthrocapitalist duo released their annual letter addressing “3 Myths That Block Progress for the Poor”. A summarized version of the letter was published by BuzzFeed last month as “9 Reasons The World is Better Than Ever”. From their #StopTheMyth hash-tagging project to their clever GIF demonstrations, the two show impressive diligence in informing the millennial internet culture.
What’s important to note is how the above figures draw attention to causes in very new and unconventional ways. The philanthropists of yesterday used the power of Hollywood and the prestige of the music industry to advocate their causes. Today, they fight for the support of internet communities and social media users rather than viewers and listeners. Whether it’s Jason Russell’s aggressive viral sharing, Gates’ Reddit AMA’s, or Neistat’s hands-on charity work, they’ve reached new crowds with new media, making significant change along the way.
– Dmitriy Synkov