Very rarely does something go viral that people say will go viral.
But the Kony 2012 video has.
The voracity with which the internet has consumed and shat out this situation should impress even the most hardened web commentator. It really seems that the usual cycle -- something is created, it goes viral, people lash out against it, and people lash out against the people that lash out against those people -- happened in less than 24 hours. The day after the Kony video, it already felt like old news.
So what happens? People post the video on Facebook and Twitter, some donate money (unfortunately in this situation to a seemingly corrupt organization), and then they move on with their lives.
That’s...good? I guess? It’s hard to think that more people being aware of the atrocities happening in and around Uganda is anything but a positive move.
The scary proposition is that while the Kony video has highlighted the capacity to bring important social stories to the forefront, it also illustrates something much less encouraging: our capacity to consume and digest these events without any understanding of why these things are happening.
This isn’t the first time a foreign issue has rapidly permeated the national conscience and drawn a monetary response. When a massive earthquake struck Haiti, causing widespread destruction and death, the response was incredible. The American Red Cross was able to raise $800,000 via text message in less than 24 hours.
The Kony response has been just as impressive, if not more so. Whereas Haiti was breaking news, Kony has been perpetrating his horrors for years. US President Barack Obama sent in troops to attempt to stop him and restore order to the area. The move was even criticized by Rush Limbaugh, to some controversy.
And the capacity for Americans and people around the globe to be moved by this video and donate money is a positive result of the rise of the internet and social media. Money does help, when used appropriately.
But money isn’t everything, particularly when dealing with war criminals like Kony that act with impunity. There may be some level of money that will allow Invisible Children to stop the atrocities, but it probably can’t be raised through $5 text messages and PayPal donations.
Never has it been so easy to inform so many people so quickly and turn that attention into capital, but this cycle of one-click outrage allows people to satiate their conscience without asking themselves if there's really something they can change that will make the world a better place. Instead they can just text five bucks to 1 800 save the children and move on with their lives.
What’s missing is not the social outrage, but the social intelligence to ask for real change. Vietnam War protesters during the 1970s did not march the streets to raise money for children injured in war. They marched to end the war.
Like a doctor that only treats symptoms, social activism for the average person now consists of micro donations, links, and likes on Facebook. The crime is no longer being a party to the system, but just being uninformed or cheap. In an age where Twitter limits your appeal to 140 characters, there’s not much room for discussion of the international systems that have allowed Kony to operate for decades.
Stopping him individually, while it is extremely important to do, does not change the realities on the ground. Kony is not Africa’s first war criminal, and he certainly will not be its last without addressing the bigger issues that have allowed for atrocities in Somalia and Darfur.
And while this time the Kony video did strike a chord, how many more times are people going to watch videos about atrocities across the globe and donate? Somewhere, someone is working to replicate that video on another subject in the hopes of drawing attention to another worthy topic. At some point, people are going to begin tuning out this type of call to action.
Nothing will change until these calls to action stimulate discussion and education about the circumstances that have created and fostered Kony, and spur people to hold leaders in business, politics, and the media to higher standards.
It has already been demonstrated that the internet and social media are game-changing tools to organize people behind urgent issues. Now, it’s up to the people who create these things and those that watch and disseminate them to think about how they can not just help the situation, but change it.
Note: This topic was conceived during a discussion with @JarretSchu. Follow his soccer musings on twitter.