The game has new rules. The next 27 minutes are an experiment, but in order for it to work you have to pay attention. — Jason Russell, Invisible Children — from Kony 2012
Three weeks and over 82,000,000 views after Jason Russell’s opening monologue appeared on YouTube, it would be hard to find more tragic hubris in a statement.
With unprecedented speed, the Kony 2012 phenomenon has already become a cautionary tale for those who would aim to use social media to promote revolutionary ideas to mass audiences.
For the unfamiliar, Kony 2012 consists of a 30 minute web video launched by the U.S. based organization Invisible Children — an awareness campaign using clever filmmaking to draw attention to the existence of African militia leader Joseph Kony. The Ugandan leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and the abduction of tens of thousands of children who have been used as child soldiers and sex slaves.
The objective of Kony 2012 — use the 425 million users of Facebook to make Joseph Kony a celebrity in the First World in the hopes that Western powers will offer resources to aid in his capture and prosecution.
A powerful idea, isn’t it.
And it almost worked.
But the elements that made Kony 2012 such a viral success, also sowed the seeds of its undoing. Geared towards mobilizing impressionable youth with the swagger of subverting the systems of older generations, it wasn’t long before it attracted the attention of the shrewd and cynical who whould put its claims to the test.
Let it be said that no one ever started a revolution with a lengthy, balanced account of the facts.
The video’s oversimplification of the situation in Uganda was the starting point of its collapse with Ugandans among the first to join the critique. Besides the video’s factual omissions, critics pounced on the emotionally manipulative film techniques employed.
Then, damaging photos surfaced of Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell and his cohorts posing with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades in an African military camp.
The transparency of the organization’s finances then came under question as did the sources of those funds — some of which were traced to fundamentalist Christian groups.
Then, the coup de grace, reports of Russell’s brush with police after he was taken into custody naked and delusional on the street in San Diego late last week, apparently distraught over the personal attacks and criticism he was facing.
A truly Shakespearean fall from grace for an organization that really wasn’t guilty of much more than playing fast and loose with the story they wanted to tell.
Since the beginning of time, mankind has struggled to develop ways to dispassionately discern fact from conjecture designed to provoke emotional responses in us. Sympathy, solidarity, outrage, fear, anger — it’s a dangerous game.
People’s actions are governed more by their hearts than their heads. It’s the first rule of propaganda. We’ve all seen and quickly flipped the channel on commercials of starving African children or even puppies or kittens in cages.
As a once idealistic young person now in transition to a scared, sheep-like middle-ager, I can recall the many blind spots I had in my awareness of media and marketing, my particular susceptibility to graphic design and street cool.
Are schools empowering kids with the self-awareness needed to discern for themselves when they and their disposable income are being played like a fiddle by an energy drink company? Nothing has changed since I was 17, only the logos have.
With their finely-crafted propaganda is Invisible Children guilty of exploiting those same blind spots in the spectrum of youthful naiveté that have helped Joseph Kony build an army of children in Central Africa?
The difference, of course, lies in one’s intentions to do good or to do evil with your ability to persuade people. For an organization to take that responsibility on themselves smacks of either heroism or arrogance. I’m not sure which one of those qualities is more frightening to a ‘lil ’ole sheep like me.
The lesson of this debacle should not go unnoticed by anyone who hit ‘Share’ on Kony 2012 — myself included.