The messy story of the influencer who raised £48,000 for victims of the Sri Lanka Easter bombings
When the money that Ishini Weerasinghe raised ‘disappeared’, the internet had questions.
03 Nov 2020
Ishini Weerasinghe, a 21-year-old Sri Lankan TikTok creator and Instagram influencer who lives in Edmonton, Canada, is always beautifully presented. Whether she’s glistening in blue velvet or celebrating her Sinhalese heritage in a sari, working against white ideals of beauty is an integral part of her social media presence and she’s recently begun to gain a large following due to a few viral videos.
But behind her dance and fashion content is a dark story which has been dubbed “IshiniGate”. The influencer, who has also been called out for her problematic content (including cases of colourism, anti-blackness and cultural appropriation), is at the centre of a quiet scandal.
In April 2019, Ishini created a GoFundMe following the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka, a series of terrorist attacks across Colombo, Batticaloa and Negombo resulting in over 250 deaths. Sri Lanka has a long history of civil war and state violence, but to many in the West, the Easter bombings were a shocking occurrence in what was seen as a safe tourism hot-spot. Because of this, the attacks garnered a lot of sympathy worldwide and relief funds were set up by individuals and organisations to help the civilians affected.
“When the tragic event took place I felt the urge to do something about it because it’s the home I love and cherish, my heart yearns for my family and friends effected (sic) back home,” Ishini wrote on the GoFundMe she created. “I am also a social media influencer on Instagram (@ishiniw) and decided to put it into good use by raising funds and bringing awareness among my following on my media.”
The statement suggests that, at the time, Ishini’s intentions were genuine and philanthropic. When I speak with Ishini over a video call, she says she had been in tears as she drove home after hearing the news. After around two hours she had set up the GoFundMe and it quickly shot up to nearly £50,000. What followed, however, is completely unclear.
At the time of writing, the money, in full, has not reached survivors. There has however been a string of evasive and contradictory updates. First Ishini announced on 30 September, exactly 502 days after the GoFundMe closed, that all the money would be returned to donors. Then on 24 October, she released another update, claiming that she had worked with GoFundMe to find a new charity to hand the money over to. The name and details of this charity are yet to be released.
According to Ishini, the name can only be made public once the funds have been transferred to them – as both herself and her team are concerned about “people looking to dissuade charities from using our funds”. She simultaneously asserts that she’s “sure that everyone will like this decision because we’ve been listening to the donors and people in regards to who I should’ve given the money to”.
“At the time she set up the GoFundMe, Ishini’s intentions were genuine and philanthropic”
So what happened in those 502 days? For the most part, we have no idea. While my conversation with Ishini makes it clear that the timeline of the fundraiser was staggered because of a breakdown in communication between Ishini and one of the organisations she attempted to work with, it still remains unclear why there was such a large gulf of time between Ishini’s groundwork in 2019 and the eventual decision to backtrack and transfer the remaining funds to a new charity in October 2020.
Between the 23 and the 24 April 2019, Ishini announced that the money would be dispersed by Sri Lankan State Minister Ranjan Ramanayake. However, due to the Sri Lankan government’s alleged history of internal corruption (which includes siphoning relief funds for Tamil civilians during the civil war), an unsurprising amount of criticism for this partnership followed.
By the end of the next month (29 May 2019), there was another update announcing a partnership with the FourSquare Gospel church, a large international non-profit organisation and denomination with its Sri Lanka branch based in Negombo. Then, the updates dried up. By autumn 2020, Twitter and Instagram users were furiously questioning why none of the money had been dispersed to the victims of the attack.
On 26 September, Ishini argued that £11,800 did go towards some families’ rehabilitation, following a visit she took to Sri Lanka in December 2019. This claim was evidenced by some unverifiable receipts released at the beginning of October (with one even dated 1 October 2020) and photos of herself with various Sri Lankan people. On our call, Ishini lists some of the help she claims to have given victims in Negombo – including “a hearing surgery” and “two homes being built”.
Days later, on 30 September, she also had to officially apologise for implicating FourSquare in the scandal and notify all donors that the church was not involved in the dispersing of the funds. In the same update, it was announced that around one-quarter of the money was offered to the Alpha Trust, a social arm of Foursquare, who claimed that they received it but then – when unable to use it – returned the money to Ishini who held the sum in a Canadian bank account.
When I ask Ishini how this happened, her answer was fairly vague, calling it a “complete and utter mistake”. “[I didn’t read] a paper about this social arm church that GoFundMe sent me,” she explains. To the public, it seemed unlikely that when the Alpha Trust was given such a large amount of money (£11,000) to help their own community, they were unable to come up with any ways to spend it. When I point this out to Ishini, she shares a similar frustration, claiming that they “didn’t do the work that they were supposed to do. They promised me updates, but they didn’t do that, they said they would find victims and they didn’t.”
“Most of the investigative work that uncovered the holes in Ishini’s GoFundMe updates were done by Twitter users”
IshiniGate shows the power of social media. Most of the investigative work that uncovered the holes in Ishini’s GoFundMe updates were done by Twitter users sharing information under the IshiniGate hashtag. Comms consultant Crystal Koelmeyer and news personality Dasuni Athauda were amongst those applying significant pressure on GoFundMe and Ishini to be transparent about the dispersion of the funds.
However, it is clear that Ishini still feels that the criticism she faced online was disproportionate. “Certain individuals were even calling the wrong FourSquare in Wattala instead of Nugegoda. [They] added a lot of fuel into the situation when they shouldn’t have, distorting the actual facts,” she says. While the public pushed for more transparency and evidence from Ishini, it seems that it also paralysed progress. Ishini mentions she is currently holding back further receipts for fear of triggering a second wave of ridicule and criticism.
As this story gained more attraction, mockery and online abuse followed. This escalated to the point where Ishini had to address false claims that were being made about her using GoFundMe to pay for her breast reconstruction surgery, her car and her house. In her response, Ishini outlined that these claims were impossible – as she underwent surgery and purchased her car in 2018, prior to the attacks happening in Sri Lanka.
Online bullying is abhorrent and Ishini posted that after being “bullied, harassed and called a clout chaser”, she began to struggle with her mental health. Unevidenced accusations that Ishini intentionally and maliciously siphoned the money in order to fund a materialistic “influencer lifestyle” relies on tired and damaging tropes about young women. But another frustration in this scandal is that this narrative took away from legitimate criticism being made about her handling of the fund.
The outrage towards Ishini is understandable. When you compare the achievements of her GoFundMe to the £150,000 Red Cross fundraiser, which established the Easter Sunday Attack Recovery and Response Programme, helped over 100 families financially, retrained Sri Lankan families in starting businesses and gave them bursaries for their projects, Ishini’s inaction seems particularly wrong. Almost £50k was diverted away from other immediate relief funds – effectively withdrawing aid that could’ve been given to many more victims of the attack (of which there were over 500 injured).
Ishini’s influencer career is now inextricably linked to the tragedy of the Easter bombings. Her Instagram handle is on her GoFundMe page and those trying to keep up with the scandal must engage with her various socials. Throughout September and October, updates regarding the fundraiser were always posted on Instagram, and most recently Ishini posted a blithe and upbeat TikTok of her dancing and lip-syncing with a caption that reads “‘Didn’t forget’ Check out my instagram SLEB highlight for an update”. This light-hearted video, which could be interpreted as self-promotion, was extremely jarring. We’re talking about relief funds potentially being held back from victims of a terrorist attack because of her own negligence.
“The online crowdfund age is marred individuals mishandling donations due to malice or negligence”
It is a harsh truth that the online crowdfund age is marred by hundreds of cases where individuals mishandle donations due to their own malice, negligence and/or disorganisation. There’s also a rich history of influencers engaging in fundraising irresponsibly and exploitatively, profiteering off of social justice issues in order to build and bolster their platforms. Following a typhoon in the Philippines in 2013, Kim Kardashian set up a charity auction of her own clothes to raise funds but was quickly called out for only donating 10% of the profits. Shaun King, a writer and civil-rights activist with a large Twitter following used the death of actor Chadwick Boseman to promote his new book.
Over the last few years we’ve seen more and more companies conclude that there’s a profit in social causes, and you’ll often see large brands like Pepsi or M&S co-opting movements responding to great tragedies or ongoing injustice. The quasi-righteousness of media personalities and influencers is a thread drawn from the same cloth. The more the line is blurred between the influencer as an individual and their brand, the more they stand to financially gain from optical activism, just like large corporations do.
Similarly, the choice to create new GoFundMe pages rather than divert followers to fundraisers already in existence is not innocent. It specifically centres and places the individual on a pedestal of virtue. As argued by Rachel Monroe in The Atlantic, “GoFundMe campaigns that go viral tend to follow a template: […] A relatively well-off person stumbles upon a downtrodden but deserving ‘other’ and shares his or her story” and they go on to cite what Teju Cole terms the “White Saviour Industrial Complex” weaving into the GoFundMe model. Teju believes that this complex enables “the banality of evil to transmute into the banality of sentimentality. The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm”.
“As a second-generation Sri Lankan Canadian not directly affected by the attacks, Ishini was far more privileged than those she sought to help”
The ironic idea that severe humanitarian issues can be pithily solved with a bit of “enthusiasm” and a viral GoFundMe is exactly what sits behind examples like IshiniGate. Teju’s tongue in cheek comments are a response to a very real and dangerous naivety that appears in a lot of GoFundMe activism. Crucially, much like the “White Saviour” trope, the “activist” always gains more than the victims they seek to help.
Of course, Ishini is not a white woman, but, as a second-generation Sri Lankan Canadian who was not directly affected by the attacks, she was far more privileged than those she sought to help. Her actions still played into the economies of “wokeness” that, behind a disguise of “giving” and “charity”, contain subtle systems of exploitation of trauma and tragedy. Activism is for the benefit of the many, relief funds are vital and distribution is complex; neither should be viewed as a marketing opportunity.
So, what’s next? The take-away shouldn’t be to not trust influencers with fundraising, because there are many occasions when online platforms truly have been used for good. Funding remains crucial to implementing aid and helping social justice movements across the world. But activism and campaign organisation is at its best when it is both transparent and strategic. In this specific case, the main mistakes made by Ishini and GoFundMe were that there was not a clear goal about how the money would be spent and a blatant lack of book-keeping. Ishini openly admits that she “didn’t have the experience or the knowledge going into this; going in you have the best intentions but it can go very wrong. If I could do it again, I’d love to use my platform but I wouldn’t start a campaign myself.”
She pauses, before saying that she is “truly apologetic”. “It is also something that I have to face and I want to correct this. At the end of the day, it’s not about me, it’s about finding an end to this problem, a solution. No matter the negativity or whatever, the truth will prevail at the end of the day, as it has, and I know the best thing I can do now is to be transparent.” Once the final charity has been announced it is her intention to release more receipts and evidence. It’s a step in the right direction, just at the wrong time.
It’s hard to maintain empathy for privileged or powerful individuals whose mistakes consequently affect those who have far less than them. The more social media and activism intersect the more we must look at these relationships with clarity and know they’re always not purely altruistic. IshiniGate will no doubt be old news within a few weeks but the real loss remains with all those in Sri Lanka who, as it stands, still have not received the help they were entitled to.
The ripple effects of these attacks are still ongoing, as the coronavirus pandemic will have stunted Sri Lanka’s recovering tourism industry. Seeing as social welfare is not perfect in Sri Lanka, there would have been many who didn’t receive enough help after the attacks. IshiniGate should be a lesson that fundraising, no matter who it’s organised by, should be professional and strategic and also carried out with compassion and integrity.