How Do We Keep Up With An Important Viral Idea?

Two major viral (and very different) social justice campaigns were circulating around the Internet recently, and they were making the rounds in record time.  The #KONY2012 video went viral with 100 million hits in less than week, and the monologue by grassroots activist and performer, Mike Daisey (The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs) based on the most downloaded This American Life episode of all time, focused the world’s attention on the Foxconn factory practices in China.

And then there was the backlash.  Invisible Children (the charity that made the Kony video) was attacked for simplifying the problem, for putting too much funding towards awareness, video-making, and employee salaries vs on-the-ground support in Uganda, and for perhaps misleading the public and putting unwanted attention on Uganda when Kony was no longer a big problem there.  There was also an apparent backlash in Uganda in response to the Kony video.  Click here to read Nicholas Kristoff’s article, “Vicious Warlord, Viral Video” (Kristoff’s wonderful article is a response to the backlash.)  Click here to read “Kony 2012 Campaign Shows Going Viral Has Consequences.” A week after the Kony 2012 video hit 100 million, Jason Russell, the face of Invisible Children, was arrested for public misbehavior and diagnosed with reactive-psychosis.

Almost within 24 hours of Jason Russell’s arrest, This American Life retracted their most popular episode because they had discovered that Mike Daisey had fabricated parts of his monologue.  Click here for Ira Glass’s detailed account of everything that was made up in “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory.” Click here to read “Mike Daisey Apologizes for Falsehoods in Monologue About Apple.”

And I started to see the backlash in my Facebook ‘feed:

And these are important perspectives, but even Foxconn was jumping for joy because Mike Daisey had become the villain in the media’s eyes, averting attention away from their factory:

But wait!  Wasn’t this social awareness a good thing?  And why were the subsequent scandals and backlash eclipsing all the good work accomplished by well-intentioned individuals to create that awareness?  Are all achievements erased now, overshadowed by scandal?  This seriously put me in a tailspin and challenged my faith in viral media for social justice.

After fishing myself out of my all-consuming social justice backlash hangover, I wanted to make a list of the good things to focus on from this experience, instead of focusing on the backlash, gossip, and scandals.  This is my list so far:

1. People do care about more than just LOLCats, and attention spans may be longer than we thought.  The fact that a social justice/awareness video would be watched by over 100 million people around the world (most of them under 20 years-old) in a single week is a huge deal and it’s definitely a defining moment in our history as a global village.  This is what we should be focusing on!  Joseph Kony is famous now, and awareness-raising was Invisible Children’s #1 goal with their video.  Kony became a Time Magazine cover story (see the above screenshot).  Mission accomplished.  We are aware of things we weren’t aware of before, i.e. the world’s #1 most wanted criminal, and, in the case of Mike Daisey and his theatrical follies, we now know about Foxconn’s factory conditions and the workers’ recent mass suicide attempts. (The Foxconn suicide threat is real, and it’s a fact that’s stranger and more tragic than fiction, one that Daisey couldn’t make up, and one that shouldn’t be overlooked because Daisey lied to This American Life.)  And now there is serious reform happening in the Foxconn factories, and we must credit Daisey for this, at least in part.

2. We are a global village.  We can spread the word to millions of our global neighbors in seconds.  Although there is no real formula to make a video go viral, the Kony2012 video phenomenon (the marketing of the video, the viral spread in record time, and the overall interest in a serious social justice theme) presents us with a new model for spreading awareness to a mass audience, and this is an important thing to focus on.  Maybe if we stop focusing on what’s wrong with the Kony 2012 video, we could redirect that energy and focus on what we can learn from what was right about the most viral video of all time (namely, how it spread so quickly).  Click here to read Seth Godin’s article, “Learning from Viral Events”. Click here for a wonderful article inFastCo.Exist called “The 10 Points on the Science of Spreading the Word“. Click here for “Why Your Non-Profit Won’t Make A Kony 2012“.

3. With awareness comes power.  We can research the things we see that move us, and we can choose what we want to believe in and how we want to support the cause.  We can be inspired by something, acknowledge its good intentions, and still feel compelled to research the issue.  For instance, if we don’t want to support Invisible Children after we figure out where their donations are going, then we can find other charities that provide more ground support for Ugandans.  But we can still credit Invisible Children for creating awareness in some new and extremely important way, and for diverting our attention away from Nyan Cat and making us care.

4. Backlash can sometimes be a good thing.  Sometimes emotional storytelling can be manipulative (but can’t we learn to forgive a few errors in fact checking if the story draws attention to a more important, larger issue?).  A little drama makes the medicine go down (and around), but theatrical doesn’t necessarily mean right, and viral doesn’t always equal factual.  In fact, complex issues are often simplified or dramatized so that they can reach a larger audience in a smaller amount of time.  We can’t believe everything we see, especially now, in the age of digital communication — every moving monologue and every viral video that spreads to every corner of the world — but we can feel inspired to investigate the things that move us.  Perhaps we can learn about ourselves from the Mike Daisey and Invisible Children scandals, take responsibility for our feelings and begin to acknowledge that being a little more diligent has its rewards?  We can embrace the global village, the new model for spreading social awareness, new ideas, and other issues around the planet and thank the people who feel compelled to tell these stories and make these videos.  And then we can trust ourselves to take the next step and do the appropriate research when following our newly found passions.

5. We have to learn to adjust to viral speed.  In a world where a video with serious implications about something we don’t fully understand can reach 100 million people in less than a week, we need to learn how to deal with something that moves so fast without much due diligence, learning, and debate.  How do we live in a viral-video populated world and still manage to process every viral video that hits us before the news, before the facts?  We need to research, especially when the younger demographics without fully formed prefrontal cortexes can act impulsively when inspired to do so.  But we can’t entirely dismiss an important story because the video is manipulative and fast and people delivering it to us are only human and they slightly dramatize the material or make mistakes.  We can learn to pace ourselves and focus our energy, channel our passions in productive ways.  We can stop focusing on minor mistakes in presentation and start focusing on the larger issues of awareness, can’t we?

Just because a video spreads to 100 million pairs of eyes in a week, it doesn’t mean we have to make snap judgments about its worth in an equally short amount of time.  It just opens up an ongoing conversation. Thanks to the Kony awareness campaign, we have become more aware of Joseph Kony on a global level, and this allows for other perspectives to emerge.  And now everyone is listening.  Mike Daisey focused our attention on the dismal factory conditions in China.  Just because he didn’t speak to a 13 year-old factory worker personally, we shouldn’t dismiss the issue entirely. And look at all the good it’s done so far!  Click here to read “Apple Supplier in China Pledges Big Changes in Working Conditions” from today’s New York Times.

We live in an interactive environment, a global village. We’re all responsible for spreading viruses, ideas, videos, and we all have a voice and the capability to reach a mass audience.  Click here to read FastCo.Exist‘s “Joseph Kony’s Ugandan Victims Find A Voice on Twitter, With the Help of Al Jazeera.

From the article:

The groundswell of focus on Uganda and Joseph Kony continues today with the launch of Uganda Speaks, an ambitious project from Al Jazeera that will allow ordinary Ugandans to post text messages–via local SMS numbers–to let the world know what their country is really like (instead of just the #kony2012 version).


Hundreds of users, most of them Ugandans with Internet access, have already posted tweets with the#ugandaspeaks hashtag. Most of these criticize the worldwide response to the Kony 2012 video, which many of the Ugandans (and worldwide observers) claim grossly simplifies a complicated war. Al Jazeera’s Riyaad Minty toldCo.Exist that “we launched Uganda Speaks to get responses from people across Uganda via text message, email, Twitter, and Facebook. The idea is to have ordinary Ugandans talk about the [Kony 2012] video in their own voice, as this has largely been missing from the conversation.

The video hit us fast, and with no time to digest the story or do our own research, maybe we should take a step back, acclimate to the new digital model for spreading ideas about social justice in a global village environment, and start the conversation now.  What are your thoughts?

Click here to watch a video of Mike Daisey talking about the Kony 2012 with a panel, from the Slate blog.

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