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Truth in the social mediasphere – lessons from #Kony2012

Published on 04 March 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

It’s at least likely that you’re one of the over 100 million people who have seen the Kony2012 video. Perhaps you’ve tweeted, blogged, Facebooked (sic – it really is a verb), Tumblrd or passed it on in other ways. The video was a phenomenon and, like many, my opinions on it and its’ makers – the founders of the US charity Invisible Children – were formed in a few days. As someone who works in social media I was perhaps atypical in that I watched the video several times, followed up some of the many articles, tweets, links that passed through my flow. And I belong to an active community of skilled e-campaigners (managed by the excellent Fairsay) so I read a lot of informed criticism as well as some of the polemic and hyperbole which floats in the media flood, like large, indigestible lumps of gristle in Europe’s beefhorsewhoknowswhatelse burgers.

There is a superb, balanced, informative article in this weeks UK Sunday Observer by Carole Cadwalladr. The author interviewed Jason Russell, the man who became the centre of the media storm and there is good background material. And I am ashamed to admit that, like most people I believe, once I had read enough rebuttals, seen the excruciating dance film from Jason’s earlier life, and heard news-echoes of his breakdown – all shockingly captured in YouTube – I put it down as an interesting case-study for organisations learning how to use online media for communication and forgot how much of an event it was, in terms simply of scale and impact.

Lessons for e-diplomacy

  1. Going viral – how to and do you want to: cute-cat or baby videos and celebrity exposes go viral regularly. Campaigns which try to go viral, rarely succeed. I take three lessons from Kony:

a. Good content helps: it’s worth being reminded that it was a very slick piece of film-making: grainy, wobbly hand-held works for cute, shocking or sleaze  but not if you aim for a consistent, sustainable campaign.

b. Build a network of influencers: the video and accompanying campaign built on almost 10 years of five years of face-to-face engagement. So there was a network of supporters primed to promote the message when the video released

c. Be prepared for success: the story of the tiny Invisible Children staff struggling with their huge success is poignant and recognisable to anyone who has worked in small organisations with big ambitions. Far more affecting is the story of Jason’s severe mental breakdown, following the torrent of negative, abusive responses. I’m reminded of the sense of shock felt by Bahraini diplomats at their initial inability to respond effectively to the very professional social media campaign organised by demonstrators and their supporters. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that conflict, MFA staff recognised that for a period they lost control of the media narrative

2.     The article describes graphically the nature of news in the first decades of the 21st Century. There is an excellent summary of the difficult reality we work in, posing particularly acute problems for diplomats, who tend to come from a slower moving, convention based context:

“The democratisation of information is both liberating and beautiful and also totally horrifying because it can be built on lies and there’s nothing you can do to stop them.

Cadwalladr quotes Jason Russell: ‘This is a generation raised on an Instagram and a tweet. That’s your news. That’s your actual news.’

There is a frightening lesson at the heart of the story of what happened in Kony2012. It wasn’t that there was a plurality of stories out there. There was a multiverse of stories out there. There were so many stories, so many rumours, so many repeated untruths, so many unchecked facts and retweeted opinions, and half-baked half-lies, that the story, let alone the truth, never had a chance.

In the brave new world of viral media, and socially mediated information, authoritative news sources are just another voice fighting to be heard. And half the time, even their stories were simply web-based trawls. It’s like dredge fishing. You scoop all the crap up in one big net, including the bottom feeders and the plankton.




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