A Series of Tubes: KONY 2012 (or, All Viral Campaigns Are Not Created Equal)

One of the coolest things about the Internet is its amazing power to rapidly disseminate information. Because of this power, activism movements are born in seconds and achieve results in days. For an example, look back to SOPA/PIPA or right at today’s headlines and the advertising troubles of Rush Limbaugh.

There’s an unfortunate downside to the rapid, viral dissemination of information on the Internet. Real, helpful information can spread like wildfire, but so can complete BS.

And on that note, let me introduce you KONY 2012 and Invisible Children.

The KONY 2012 film went viral on Facebook (and across the Internet) March 5. By March 8 it had gotten more than 32,000,000 views. As of March 10, that had more than doubled – on YouTube alone the film has more than 67,000,000 views.

That would be amazing if the movie weren’t a slickly produced and factually incorrect steaming pile of propaganda made by an organization with a shady financial history, who may have violated their 501c3 status, might be in bed with other Ugandan military forces with their own histories of human rights abuses, and are straight up lying about the actual, current situation on the ground in Uganda.

The Telegraph has a short article detailing some of the problems with the KONY 2012 campaign. From the article:

“What that video says is totally wrong, and it can cause us more problems than help us,” said Dr Beatrice Mpora, director of Kairos, a community health organisation in Gulu, a town that was once the centre of the rebels’ activities.

“There has not been a single soul from the LRA here since 2006. Now we have peace, people are back in their homes, they are planting their fields, they are starting their businesses. That is what people should help us with.”

Invisible Children are at best an idealistic but wildly off-base group of folks who are not particularly good at running a 501(c)3 and at worst, talented marketers scamming you for cash while keeping up appearances of helping the less fortunate.

There are a long list of “pros” when it comes to an ability to spread information as fast as lightning as far as the eye can see. One of the “cons” is that information comes at you so fast that it’s often difficult to slow down and think about what you’re reading and seeing in a critical manner. With the advent of social media, critically thinking about the information you receive becomes even more difficult. When Mom or Dad or your best friend shares an article on Facebook, you’re tempted to take it as gospel. After all, your Mom wouldn’t share lies and garbage, right?

Well, probably not on purpose, but when slickly packaged propaganda is avalanching down your newsfeed, shared by the people you trust most in the world, it becomes all too easy to simply take those people at their word and spread the propaganda further, yourself. And when information is coming this fast and furiously, and no one else is telling you any different, it becomes your responsibility to fact-check and debunk the garbage.

Some of the articles I’ve linked in this column are from a few years ago. One of them is from 2006. A bit of Google-Fu is all it took to find these resources and realize that Invisible Children are a whole lot fishier than their pretty video would have you believe. Hundreds of thousands of people didn’t take that time. They just hit the “share” button and went on their merry way, and as a result, Invisible Children are making bank. That’s an awful lot of money that probably isn’t going to do anyone any actual good.

The next time the hot new thing is burning up your newsfeed, remember Invisible Children and take the extra ten minutes to do some basic fact-checking. It might end up saving you some grief at the hands of marketers and scammers.

UPDATE: 3/13/2012, 11am

Invisible Children Funded By Antigay, Creationist Christian Right

990 IRS tax forms and yearly reports from Invisible Children, and 990s from its major donors, tell a story that’s jarringly at odds with the secular, airbrushed, feelgood image the nonprofit has cultivated.

B. E. Wilson (sometimes credited as Bruce Wilson, depending on who he’s writing for) is an expert on the intersection of politics and religion. He’s been going over Invisible Children’s tax forms and has found worrying connections to a few far-right fundamentalist organizations that advocate against gay rights and for a lot of other really nasty positions. If Invisible Children wasn’t on your “Toxic – Do Not Donate” list before, you may want to give a second thought to adding them to that list.

8 Responses

  1. Steven says:

    Mrs. Sischo, these people are one of the most notable nonprofit organizations I have come across in my education. They have the best intentions at heart, and I am absolutely disgusted that you would insinuate that they’re fleecing people. They are trying to help the less fortunate, coming to my high school and putting on similar presentations. I suspect your attempts to discredit them are more the result of a bias than any actual internet fact-checking. I am sorry that you see them this way; but the claim that the Invisible Children are scammers is utter nonsense. Thank you, and have a nice day.

  2. I’m afraid I’ll have to disagree with you.

    There is a considerable amount of data online, available from reputable resources such as major news publications and the Better Business Bureau, who have raised some serious concerns with how Invisible Children do business. At the bare minimum, they’re being disingenuous about their goals and how they mean to achieve them.

    The majority of the money they raise goes right back into creating their “documentaries,” which are emotionally manipulative, and at least in this case, intellectually dishonest. If “emotionally manipulative” and “intellectually dishonest” aren’t great definitions of propaganda, then I don’t know what would be.

    I’d never heard of Invisible Children prior to their KONY 2012 campaign, so I don’t really have a horse in this race. If I seem “biased” it’s because all the information I’ve found in the last few days indicates to me that Invisible Children are not to be taken at their word, and there are better charities to spend your money with.

  3. Steven says:

    Well, this is awkward, but here goes. It seems the man behind this campaign; Jason Russell, has been arrested for masturbating in public. I will not involve myself with this organization anymore, albeit for a different reason than you posited. By the way, are you going to do a follow-up with that news?

    • I heard about that, but no, I probably won’t follow up with that. “Series of Tubes” is more concerned with Internet culture and explaining that to people who aren’t Internet-savvy. I only picked up on the Kony 2012 thing here because it happened to make a good example for a topic I wanted to cover – IE, not taking social media phenomenons as gospel just because they come from friends.

  4. Tim Downin says:

    ‎Marci Sischo – I have lost a lot of respect for you over this. As someone who supposedly strives for high class, journalistic integrity – this is the farthest is could possibly be. If I were still working with the Commuter, I would be thoroughly embarrassed to associate myself with this piece of journalistic trash that is only worthy of publication in the Inquirer or Fox news.

    You present a myriad of ad hominem attacks, accusations that you have NOT independently verified nor present any facts in your article to validate their authenticity. Instead, you deride other average people for not fact checking for themselves, something you haven’t really done yourself, and instead offer YOUR OWN article as a hyperlink as if there are facts in your article to substantiate your claims – THERE AREN’T.

    I’m extremely disappointed Marci, I thought better of you.

  5. Tim Downin says:

    I don’t know a single instructor that would consider Wikipedia an acceptable source for a paper, let alone a serious news story; that coupled with an editorial that presents NO factual information that is in dispute shows an awful lot to be ashamed of.

    • This is an opinion piece in an opinion section of the site, so oddly enough, it’s got opinions in it. These are opinions I formed based on the sources I linked to, which include several reputable news organizations and a Wiki article based on several more reputable news/scholarly organizations. You can check that by scrolling to the bottom of the Wiki article and looking to see what sources they used. Which I did.

      So far, all you’re doing is telling me I’m wrong. You haven’t provided a single link to a single source. You haven’t refuted a single statement with anything even vaguely resembling any sort of proof or reasonable argument. You’re doing the Internet version of sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting “LA LA LA YOU’RE WRONG AND I CAN’T HEAR YOU!”

      If you’ve got a source that says I’m wrong, by all means, provide it. Debate me. Prove to me that I’m holding a bad opinion. I’m happy to correct an article or change an opinion. Look, I’ll even help you get started – here’s Kony 2012 Part II, the video Invisible Children made which supposedly addresses the criticisms I and others have made and apparently gives a more in depth treatment to the situation in Uganda. (I say “supposedly” and “apparently” because I haven’t had time to watch it yet, so I don’t know if it’s worth anything or not.)

      Let me help you some more. Here’s what I think:

      1) People shouldn’t give their money to Invisible Children because Invisible Children is primarily concerned with “raising awareness.” That means a person’s dollars are mostly going towards making more movies, not actually helping Ugandans in Uganda.

      2) Invisible Children seems to favor military intervention to deal with Joseph Kony, a move which could potentially destabilize the region and cause more harm than good.

      3) I’m concerned by the fact that either Invisible Children is so badly run they can’t get their crap straight with the Better Business Bureau or they’re doing something shady with their financials.

      4) I don’t like the movie they made because it’s strictly an emotional appeal, grossly over-simplifies the situation in Uganda, and provides next to nothing by way of facts or workable solutions.

      5) Even folks in Uganda think this is crap. If the people actually affected by the situation think the movie is garbage, that seems like some pretty damning evidence against the movie.

      Now you’re job is tell me why you disagree with me, and provide some reputable sources backing up your opinions. That’s how you debate and change people’s minds. If you want to just keep hollering that I’m wrong, then by all means, go right ahead, but I won’t be responding further to that sort of thing.

What do you think?