Viral video, gone bad: Kony 2012 and the perils of social media



There have been enough social media disasters of late to make one thing clear: manipulating sentiment through social networks is next to impossible.

The McDonald’s #McDStories campaign in January was supposed to allow the public to share fond memories of eating at McDonald’s. Instead, responses quickly became abusive and negative.

Qantas famously made the same mistake with their ill-fated #QantasLuxury campaign in November of last year.

At first glance, the Kony 2012 film seemed an undeniable social media success. Purporting to raise awareness about the use of children in the Lord’s Resistance Army guerilla group, the film agitated for the hunting-down and arrest of the group’s leader, Joseph Kony.

The film and its director, Jason Russell, were blatant in their intention to use social media to propel the campaign. Analysis of Twitter and YouTube traffic showed how Invisible Children, the charity behind the Kony 2012 video, used its existing social networks to initiate and drive the viral growth of attention to the video.

The obsession of media and marketing with “virality” is something Arianna Huffington – co-founder of the Huffington Post – has commented on. While not mentioning the Kony video explicitly, Huffington suggested that when something attains “viral” status, this can signify a positive or negative outcome. But more often than not, it signifies both.

This is exactly what happened in the case of the Kony 2012 video.

For every celebrity that endorsed the film there seemed to be someone publishing criticism. These criticisms have been unpacked elsewhere.

Criticism of the campaign would have been alright but the campaign did as much to turn the spotlight on Invisible Children as it did on the problem of the children in Uganda. The charity and director were forced to defend not only the film but their operations and past record.

Most damning of all were the criticisms of Invisible Children being made by Ugandans and by former “invisible children” themselves.

Kony 2012 bracelets and T-shirts became the signifiers of a US Christian organisation that didn’t even have the support of the people they were allegedly trying to help. Ugandan Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi even created his own video to refute allegations made in the Kony 2012 video.

In the video Mbabazi invited the celebrities who promoted the Kony 2012 video – including Rihanna, Bill Gates and Kim Kardashian – to come to Uganda and see the situation for themselves.

All of this would have been bad enough … but it got worse.

Late last week Kony 2012 director Jason Russell was arrested in San Diego after police received reports of a man running through the streets and traffic naked, vandalising cars and “masturbating”.

Invisible Children CEO Ben Keesey issued a statement claiming Russell had been admitted to hospital suffering from exhaustion, dehydration and malnutrition. Unfortunately, a video has been released seemingly showing Russell in the midst of a psychotic episode of some sort.

Although there have been statements of compassion about Russell’s condition, members of the twittersphere have not been as kind. A new hashtag, #Horny2012, was created with tweets ridiculing him, Invisible Children and the film.

The tragedy of all this is what started out as a probably well-intentioned plan has ended with:

  • the central message of the film getting lost
  • a charity losing its credibility, and
  • a man suffering a breakdown and having a personal incident “go viral”.

Worse still, Russell made his five-year-old son, Gavin Danger, the centrepiece of the film. Ironically, in a pale reflection of the Invisible Children themselves, Danger was made to take part in something he would have had no say in; something he will now have to deal with for the rest of his life.

This whole debacle serves to remind us we are still barely coming to terms with the nature of what it means to be massively connected on a global scale.

As we saw in attempts to spread the Kony 2012 film, grossly oversimplifying the way social networks function is always going to lead to unpredictable results; results that are often damaging.