Jason Russell, Kony 2012, and the Viral Boomerang

The “Kony 2012″ video and its responses hit the Internet like asteroid 2011 AG5. Even if you didn’t watch it, there was no way to passively avoid absorbing its super-heavy gist, which was exactly the intention: to make Joseph Kony so famous that his crimes against humanity became embedded in the parts of our consciousness comprised of skimming Facebook feeds. Invisible Children’s goal was admirable, but its methods were problematic and, like most things released with a lot of force unto the World Wide Web like a baseball through a windowpane, it was destined to be tossed back out by at least some of the people who had received its message, followed by an expletive.

First came speculation about Invisible Children’s finances and the organization’s transparency, followed by questions about the accuracy of many of the video’s facts, some of which were out of date. The Prime Minister of Uganda was moved to try to set the record straight to U.S. political leaders Ryan Seacrest and Taylor Swift via Twitter, and has already FedExed some tourism brochures to Vice President @RevRunWisdom and Secretary of Defense Aziz Ansari. This is one of the problems of the Internet’s grand-gesture feature: Unless you really know what you’re talking about — which is easy when what you’re talking about is your dinner or your feelings, but more challenging when you’re tackling foreign civil wars or political campaigns or global warming — you are presenting a bowl to an audience that can reduce it to a sieve in less than two days.

If there are two sides to every story told in a physical room, there are two thousand in the same digital arena. Invisible Children’s audience expanded to include actual northern Ugandans, who responded to the message in the video (even though many hadn’t actually watched it, because, you know, that Ugandan bandwidth) by pounding on their dislike buttons; its popularity also drew public interest toward a photo of the charity’s founders holding guns (because they were bored), which was perhaps shot with a troubling “White Man’s Burden” Hipstamatic lens. It seemed that as soon as we noticed how invested we had collectively become in this cause, we started poking around for holes. When we found them, the focus shifted from Joseph Kony to Jason Russell and the other members of Invisible Children, back into the uncomfortable place where wanting to help (a person, a country, a sinking island, a species of endangered lemur, a pod of whales with broken GPS devices) is thwarted by the difficulties of actually being able to.

If this is tough on anybody, it’s tough on the kind of passionate person whose religious or moral fervor gets them worked up on their causes like ODB in the Holy Ghost trance. Somewhere between the desire to change the world and the mechanics of changing the world there lives a group of cranky but intelligent (perhaps more intelligent, even, than you, impassioned do-gooder) fact-checkers and naysayers, linking arms and blocking your path to justice. It’s so easy when you know just what you’re talking about: egg salad, your dog, your beer. When you only sort of know, you’re going to get the facts handed to you on a really dismal piece of china, and you may very well become a casualty of the very movement you began. Whether or not these criticisms caused Russell’s apparent psychotic episode is up for debate (Russell’s wife attributes his behavior partially to the stress of dealing with the haters ). But like many aspects of the Kony campaign, to assume that bringing an evil dictator to justice would be as easy as disseminating a video seems awfully naive. There’s always somebody who hates your extremely effective film. Just the other day I met someone who doesn’t like The Big Lebowski.

Doing Something Big on the Internet is probably not more stressful than witnessing child soldiers in action or seeing people’s lips cut off. It’s a new tool, however, and we haven’t quite figured out how to manipulate it strategically: We are all armed, the tool is sharp, and we can throw it across continents, but we haven’t yet discovered any kind of armor to protect ourselves when it comes boomeranging back in our direction. The worst problem is that the weapon that hits us on its return path is the same one we threw out into the cosmos: Just look at Dooce, the most powerful mommy blogger (PM of Uganda, @ her immediately!), and the hate tinkling around in her bank account. That’s one way to reduce the sting, but then again, she wasn’t tackling Ugandan politics. Even tossing your egg salad sandwich and dog into the ring can turn into a sour character assassination if enough people are watching. Perhaps the lesson of Kony 2012 and its aftermath is just another sobering reminder of the fragility of idealism (armed with the power of the Internet) when it’s not reinforced by all of those steel rods that our grandpas would lament belong to the old school of journalism, the editors and devil’s advocates and re-examiners of detail. Without them, we run the risk of being propelled out the door by sheer adrenaline before we’ve had a chance to make sure our shirts are buttoned right and our socks match — and, maybe with good reason, those details bloom from distractions into idea-fracturers as quickly as one person can tell another to zoom in on that, because something’s not right there. Once you’ve gotten the attention of 80 million pairs of eyes, you’ve got to make sure your socks match. Otherwise, they’ll come after you.

Filed Under: Internet Problems

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Tess Lynch is a contributing writer to Grantland.

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