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.

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