Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Stop Kony and the Power and Danger of Viral Activism

The Stop Kony campaign is a watershed moment for social media. Even as the credibility of the campaign has crumbled and the movement itself has fizzled, Stop Kony has established a legacy greater than its intended cause – it revealed the full potential of social media’s political power in America.

The Stop Kony movement is distinguished for two reasons. First, is the speed in which it galvanized the greater part of American youth on one side of an idea. Second, is the fact that the idea is tied to social or political change. The combination of these two factors represents the arrival of viral activism in the USA and a turning point for democracy in this country – not necessarily for the better.    

A lot of the debate concerning Stop Kony is focused on the merits of the cause, but that misses the point.  The much bigger story is the very fact that Americans used social media to move in lockstep to advance a political or social agenda. Their power was astounding – within days their cause was on the front page of the New York Times and they presumably helped raise millions of dollars. 

That the movement itself may actually do more harm than good encapsulates the danger of viral activism – the unfortunate risk that comes when 75 million people are mobilized by a 30 minute video on a topic they know nothing about. 

This sort of recklessness strikes at the heart of the issue. The swift pace and mass reach of Stop Kony is an example of how social media can become more powerful than mainstream media. For so many viewers of Stop Kony, objectivity, fact and reason, the traits of the American free press, bowed to the raw emotion of “the cause”, illustrating the mob-like mentality of viral activism.

The stunning thing about Stop Kony is that it managed to captivate the entire country on nothing more than a YouTube video, a purportedly righteous cause and a tweet from Oprah. This was not lighting in a bottle but rather a case study for every grassroots and political organization that wants its agenda heard. Stop Kony was engineered to go viral and it succeeded. Imagine if this sort of manipulation was executed by the Republican or Democrat party a few days before the election? After Stop Kony, Ugandan politics may remain unchanged, but American politics may never be the same. 


  1. The web is littered with the "un-liked" remains of hundreds social justice videos from every activist who ever signed up for a twitter or facebook account.

    As a digital marketer- is virality something you can actually plan for? Why did THIS video take like wildfire? You make it sound easy, but what is the actual case study? What have we learned?

    And, if it's as easy as you say, then yes... we should all be scared.

  2. I think we've learned that demagoguery can go viral. Meaning, marketing campaigns that are designed to elicit an emotional reaction (even if it's at the expense of truthfulness) can be quite infectious. It's an age-old phenomenon, really. Stop Kony just marked its arrival in digital media.

    To be clear, this is a lesson for political marketers more than brand marketers. After the stunning success of Kony, I'd expect a viral video attack ad during this year's election.