The past few days in the social media world have been fascinating.
A non-profit group called Invisible Children launched a well-produced, 30-minute youtube video that made an emotional appeal to stop Joseph Kony, the Ugandan war criminal responsible for enslaving over 60,000 children as military combatants over the past several decades.
I watched the video after it relentlessly kept showing up on my twitter feed, and after a celebrity I follow implored everyone to watch it and, in an unabashed yet effective bribe, vowed to follow everyone who re-tweeted it. With 48 million hits on youtube and vimeo in two days, you’ve probably seen it too.
I clicked play. Since everyone was talking about Kony, I wanted to know who he was and why I should care. The slick video made the case against Kony, a case not hard to make, and it did so a gripping manner, crescendo-ing in a dramatic call to action to “make Kony famous.” It implored viewers, especially several targeted celebrity “culture-makers and policy-makers,” to make their voices heard so that the U.S. government will support the Ugandan government in its efforts to capture Kony. If I remember correctly, because I’m not going to watch it again, it encouraged the purchase of an action kit that includes two bracelets (one for you and a friend), stickers, posters, and a T-shirt. It named a date in April as “Cover the Night” – a specific night to plaster every corner of the world with “Kony 2012” posters. And of course, it asked viewers to donate a few dollars a month to the organization.
Critics of Invisible Children have charged that the video oversimplifies the complexities of the strife in Uganda and that clicking a re-tweet button is not the answer. The Ugandan government is responsible for plenty of atrocities themselves and is a questionable ally in the fight to stop Kony. The finances of Invisible Children have also been called into question, as only 30% of each donation goes directly to the actual work on the ground.
Proponents of the movement say that the more exposure the cause gets, the better, regardless of what criticism may come. That it’s all about raising awareness. Making Joseph Kony a household name. If that was the goal, then social media certainly accomplished it in a stunningly short matter of days. Earlier this week, nobody knew who this guy was, and now millions have lent their support to finding him and stopping him, evidence for the fact that people want to join a meaningful cause. Everybody wants to be inspired. Everybody wants something to live for. And everybody wants to do what everybody else is doing.
That is what has me scratching my chin in contemplation. The disturbing amazingness of viral media.
I have asked this question here before, but now I ask it again: where is all of this going? Of course, without question, this Kony villain is a low-life who deserves to have the world against him. No one should debate that point, and if somehow viral media plays a part in putting him away, then good. So in one sense, I respectfully admire viral-ness, with its lighting-fast efficiency and power. But in another sense, for some reason that I cannot quite articulate, it’s somehow unsettling and weird to me. I am not completely confident in the ability of the world as a whole to wield that power responsibly. I don’t know that I can always trust the bandwagon effect. If it’s used for a noble purpose here (raising up throngs of emotionally charged young people who are ready to march into the night armed with posters and duct tape), then might it also be used for less-than-noble purposes? Down the road, someone could produce an equally impressive, emotionally stirring video that is completely untrue, and it could go viral in a matter of minutes or days, and millions of people could get on board and believe. Just like that.
I am not a conspiracy theorist. I only know, because of what I’ve seen this week, that it is no longer beyond the realm of impossibility. And that should give us pause.
Some of my friends regretted jumping on the bandwagon when the criticism began to surface. Some did not, and they stand by their tweets and re-tweets and facebook posts, confident that they have played a part in contributing to a greater good. I am standing back and watching this phenomenon play out.
I will be observing future events like this carefully and with great interest.