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The perfect internet storm

Published on 07 March 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

And I alone am escaped to tell thee. JOB

A recent article[1] described an instance of internet virality and its consequences for the people involved: “And then, on 5 March, Jason RUSSELL, working for the NGO Invisible Children, released Kony2012, a 30-minute film that explained why the world needed to catch and bring to justice Joseph Kony, a central African warlord, who, over the previous 26 years, had abducted 30,000 children and turned them into soldiers and sex slaves. Russell directed and starred in the film, and within hours it was on its way to becoming what was then the most viral video of all time. It took a day to hit a million views; six days to reach 100 million.” For Jason RUSSELL and people around him, this turned out to be a perfect internet storm. He survived – but barely. I suspect that other people who have used the internet as well as Facebook, Twitter etc. have encountered such perfect storms. Dead people do not tell tales. This may be one of the few cases where the victim survived – possibly because the storm was as violent as Sandy.



I’ve argued that one should study events (https://wp.me/p81We-zD) and here is a perfect internet storm ready for analysis. Here is a short and incomplete description of the phases and stages – I’ve dropped the sequencing. Virality first of all leads to a logistic emergency. Demands came from all sides – for information, verification, amplification; the media proposed speaking engagements, appearances, and interviews. The organization grew helter-skelter in order to catch up with demand. Management became overtaxed. I do not know whether there are agencies specialized in logistical crisis management – but apparently websites are “stress-tested”. There should be such a service. An integrity emergency soon looms. As public interest grows, so does human interest in the people behind the story. Personal integrity is part of this. Journalists and others will scrutinize the past for clues and “personality traits.” A difficulty emerges: we all have high standards of integrity, but integrity is never absolute. Let’s forget about the errors we commit. Sloppy habits at the bank mutate into “dubious finance record”. Integrity is never total and unbending: just “good enough” for the situation people live in. A viral setting changes all this: personal integrity is never good enough. Intellectual integrity comes next: intentions and motivations are probed for hidden agendas. Conjectures are created from scraps of evidence. Lack of guile is exploited in adversary fashion. The race among the self-appointed censors is on for precursors. The outcome is often stigmatization. The sphere of privacy vanishes, when one is recognized in the street. Authenticity of the narrative became the focus of frenzied attention. Each frame of the film is analyzed in adversary fashion for signs of manipulation, error, or clues for malfeasance. “Those who live by the slick viral videos can die by them too” is the telling title of a press review, which continued: “It reminded me of a manipulative technology advert watch the first four seconds of this again. It’s pompous twaddle with no relevance to fucking anything.” While utter integrity is demanded, the same criteria do not hold for the critics, who “mistakenly” spread unsubstantiated rumors. A fight for control of the narrative came next. The video advocates action – rather than simply reporting. It addresses both the “root solution” – eliminating the war lord Joseph Kony – and the “mitigation” – helping children affected by the war. The “fourth estate” – the people and in particular youth – are called to move the political world. This complex of aims triggered a principle as well as a personality debate. The subject soon penetrated the international political area. The UN, the African Union, the US Congress got involved. The initiators lost control of the narrative, and at times of the movement as it grew and metastasized. The perfect storm nearly destroyed Jason RUSSELL. Medical doctors treated for severe mental stress. He survived. One cannot prepare for the perfect storm. Staying away is the only prevention.


The site of the Invisible Children offers a “progress report” issued 12 months later. The world has changed. Laws have been passed. Motions have been approved. The issue of “warlord-ship” in Africa has become an international concern. War lords like Joseph Kony will have a harder time doing terrorizing the populace unbeknownst to the world. I can put it another way: while war lords could count on operating “under the radar screen of indifference” this no longer is the case. It is a new way of bringing about political and social change. Gone are the divisive and negative emotions of opposing ideologies or class struggle, or the cold-blooded calculation of “vital” or partisan interests. Unifying, nay fraternal, and positive emotions aiming for commonality of purpose prevail and shape a hopeful discourse. Performance artists – people skilled in conjuring collective emotions of love and togetherness – have been the first to exploit it. Maybe the emerging politics of common purpose needs leaders with a different voice.

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