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After Kony, could a viral video change the world?

The mainstream media were transfixed last week by a meme – an infectious idea. Hard-bitten news editors – the professionals who pride themselves on knowing what will happen before it happens – were discomfited to discover that their teenage kids knew something they didn’t know. That something was a YouTube video that had been spreading at an astonishing rate. Entitled Kony 2012, it is a 30-minute film made by a campaigning organisation called Invisible Children.

Its goal was to raise awareness of the activities of Joseph Kony, a Ugandan warlord who leads the Lord’s Resistance Army, in the hope of bringing him to justice. Kony and his LRA are distinguished by their violence and brutality, their weird ideology and – crucially for the purposes of the video – their practice of abducting children and turning them into child soldiers. This last practice has led to the bizarre phenomenon of “night commuting”, in which Ugandan children leave their villages at night in order to sleep in towns, where they are supposedly less vulnerable to kidnapping by Kony and his goons.

Invisible Children is a US-based campaigning group, founded in 2004 by film-makers, which has been working in Uganda – building radio networks, monitoring LRA movements and helping displaced children and families.

It has focused on raising awareness of the LRA and on influencing US government policy towards the region. It is believed that its campaigning was at least partly responsible for Barack Obama’s decision in 2010 to send 100 military advisers to the Ugandan military to assist in capturing Kony.

The YouTube video is a brilliant piece of film-making, in two ways. First, it has a compelling, simple narrative: Kony is a really bad guy and his capture will end suffering for the people of northern Uganda. If US viewers do their bit by influencing their politicians, the world’s superpower will take action and Kony will be captured.

Second, it conveys this message in a seductive way, with film-maker Jason Williams explaining to his five-year-old son that this Kony is a monster and that dad’s job is capturing him. What’s not to like?

Jason’s message was released last Monday. By Thursday it had amassed 26 million views. When I last looked at it on Saturday it was up to 63 million views (with 1,212,109 “likes” and only 59,702 “dislikes”). So, in the jargon of the day, it’s “gone viral”. In that sense, it represents the most successful manipulation of our new media ecosystem to date because “virality” is what every huckster, politician and advertiser now craves – but very few achieve.

Viral dissemination has been a feature of the internet almost from the beginning, but the deliberate exploitation of it dates from Independence Day in the US in 1996, when Hotmail was launched by Sabeer Bhatia and Jack Smith. It was the first “webmail” system (allowing people to send and receive email using an internet browser) and its makers had the brilliant idea of appending a footer to every message sent stating that it had been sent by Hotmail and inviting the recipient to “get a free Hotmail account” at www.hotmail.com.

Viral dissemination received a really powerful boost with the launch of YouTube in 2005. Thereafter, people were able to post striking, amusing or daft videos online and the service made it easy to “share” anything that viewers liked. This is what led to the LOLcat explosion and the astonishing viewing totals for charming videos like Charlie Bit My Finger, which has been watched more than 12 million times since it first appeared in 2007.

Viral dissemination was also responsible for making Bruno Ganz, the actor who played Adolf Hitler in Downfall, the 2004 film about the last days of Hitler, into the most famous German actor in the world – though in this case the makers of the film came to regard its online notoriety as a mixed blessing as parodies of one of its climactic scenes started to spread virally across the network.

According to YouTube, 60 hours of video material are uploaded to it every minute – an hour a second. In the midst of such abundance, how can anything get noticed? Attention is now the scarcest commodity in cyberspace – which explains why virality is so craved by those with things to sell or messages to transmit. In that sense, the most significant thing about the Kony video is that it represents the most successful exploitation of virality to date. But when you delve deeper, it turns out that its success owes something to network theory as well as to storytelling craft.

Many years ago, the Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter published a seminal article in the American Journal of Sociology on the special role of “weak ties” in networks – links among people who are not closely bonded – as being critical for spreading ideas and for helping people join together for action.

An examination of the spread of the Kony video suggests that one weak tie in particular may have been critical in launching it to its present eminence. Her name is Oprah Winfrey and she tweeted: “Have watched the film. Had them on show last year” on 6 March, after which the graph of YouTube views of the video switches to the trajectory of a bat out of hell. Winfrey, it turns out, has 9.7 million followers on Twitter.

The Kony video and the assumptions behind it have been subjected to searching criticism by scholars like Ethan Zuckerman, who have challenged its simplistic analysis of a complex country and its ideological biases – for example its implicit assumption that Africans are hopeless and that the only solutions to their problems can come from white foreigners. Some have suggested that the Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, is no angel either. And there has been a fierce online debate about the ethical dilemmas of viral transmission.

Kony is like a Rorschach test on to which we inscribe our own simplistically naive ethical calculus,” wrote one commentator. Others observe that “sharing” the video gives people the opportunity of salving their consciences without doing anything serious about the problem of northern Uganda. And so on.

The dissemination of the Kony meme does raise interesting questions for the future. It’s the most dramatic demonstration so far of how an idea can spread over the globe via a channel that is beyond the reach and control of established media outlets. YouTube can’t compete with conventional broadcasting at reaching billions of people instantaneously. But it operates outside the control of conventional gatekeepers and editorial sieves. And a third of the world’s population now uses the internet, so the video could, in time, reach an awful lot of people.

And what about truth, lies and propaganda? The Kony video was made by people whose intentions seem good, even if their ideology and analysis may be a touch simplistic. But what if a video with more sinister antecedents were to get this kind of viral boost? It suggests the old saying that “a lie can run round the world before the truth has got its boots on” is acquiring a chilling new resonance.

The really interesting question, though, is whether this kind of development will further ratchet up the pressure on democratic politicians. The last two decades have shown how 24/7 media coverage of foreign atrocities can lead western leaders to morally driven interventionism.

There comes a point when the shouting that “something must be done” can no longer be ignored. We saw this in Kosovo and Libya and we are now hearing it about Syria. If the Kony video does lead to increased US pressure on the Ugandan regime to catch the LRA leader then we’ll know that the era of network power has finally arrived. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

John Naughton’s book From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: What You Really Need to Know about the Internet has recently been published by Quercus Books


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