How Kony 2012's Big Event Fizzled Out

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Kony2012.com

Last Saturday morning, the world was supposed to wake up to city centers plastered with bright red posters telling us to STOP AT NOTHING. Towns were supposed to be covered with the messages of peace and common cause that made themselves known through youth who came out to "Cover the Night." The end game of the Kony 2012 video -- the most successful viral video campaign of all time -- was supposed to be a physical world awash with the graffiti of digital empathy.

The consensus, though? The thing was a flop. Hardly anyone came out.

But why Cover the Night was a flop is, actually, interesting. The hyped event's meager turnout could have a number of causes: our fleeting digital attention spans, or viral content's fireworks-to-fizzle trajectories, or the challenges of translating online activism to real-world change, or Invisible Children's failure to capitalize on the attention it had once it still had it, or Invisible Children's own pivot when it came to the stated goal of the event, or the widespread backlash that brought phrases like "the white savior industrial complex" newly, and powerfully, into the mass consciousness.

There are, in short, PhD dissertations to be written about the Kony campaign and the way it exploded and, at least for the moment, faded. In the meantime, though, there's one more thing worth highlighting: the branding the campaign took on, almost -- almost -- in spite of itself. Invisible Children's campaign became not just about Kony, and not even just about Invisible Children, but about the guy ultimately informing us of Kony's evildoing: Jason Russell, the Invisible Children co-founder. Partly, of course, things got personal because the video made them personal: "Kony 2012" starred not only Kony himself, and not only Jacob, one of the Ugandan children affected by the warlord's tactics, but also -- famously, infamously -- Jason Russell and his son. The video forced viewers to see Kony's story as an extension of Jason Russell's story, and of Jason Russell's organization's story, and of Jason Russell's kid's story. That was supposed to be what made the thing "relatable." That was its power and its pitfall.

But it also meant that the campaign's fortunes were connected to the person -- which is to say, the persona -- of Russell himself. When he fell, publicly and embarrassingly, the campaign fell, too. 

Take the Twitter discussion of "Kony 2012." The spike in early March, below, reflects the organically viral trajectory of the Kony campaign. The conversation faded on its own, then surged back to a smaller spike with, around March 16, the news of Russell's breakdown.

And then: flatline. And while the attention was fizzling anyway, the post-Russell trajectory brought the conversation from "dying" to "dead." Suddenly, a Facebook Like of Kony 2012 or a Twitter mention of Invisible Children wasn't just a vote against Kony's atrocities ... it was also a de facto endorsement of that crazy guy who lost it on that street in San Diego. Russell's breakdown and subsequent arrest complicated an already complicated story line by injecting his personal troubles into the public conception of the campaign itself.

Here's the thing, though. Kony 2012 had, in reality, really very little to do with Russell. The rightness or wrongness of the campaign's message is right or wrong regardless of the guy who's amplifying it. As integral as Russell was to the creation of the video -- and to the story it told -- he was separate, actually, from the video's message. And from the moral weight, such as it was, that that message conveyed. 

In the age of social media, though, that separation is easy to forget. When our information is increasingly mediated through the filters of our friends, we are taught to treat information itself as a function of the person who has delivered it to us. This is how we make sense of the Internet; it's how we know what to trust and what to dismiss, what to click and what to ignore. Our friends are our filters. And that's a good thing: It helps us to know and to navigate the chaos that is, almost literally, the free flow of information. 

But the flip side of the web's ever-expanding social layer is that layer's tendency to layer all knowledge, indiscriminately. It socializes us to assume that all information is social -- that all information can be judged according to he or she who passed it along. It authorizes information, in the sense that it assumes that information has an author -- and that the author has a direct effect on the value and actionability of the information that's conveyed. And it insists that it's fair to dismiss Kony 2012 not because of the message, but the messenger.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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