Image credit: mmerge.blogspot.com

Last week I was one of the 79,927,048 people to watch the Kony 2012 video on YouTube. It was a moving video, and I loved the sense of urgency that it created by asking viewers to do specific things by specific dates (though why they decided to make 4/20 their day of action is beyond me).

In the aftermath of Kony’s viral phenomenon, many alternative perspectives on the video have emerged. The common themes in these counterpoints revolve around the non-profit’s poor accountability rating by Charity Navigator, allegations of neo-colonialism, manipulation of the facts on the ground, and the overall efficacy of the suggested courses of action.

To put it another way, many commentators felt that the video was a highly effective piece of propaganda that led well-intentioned people to rally behind a charity and a cause that they knew pretty much nothing about.

Image credit: The Simpsons

Of course, you could argue that simply getting young Americans to care about anything is a step in the right direction. Prior to Kony 2012, I’d bet that the majority of Americans couldn’t tell you anything about Uganda or the Democratic Republic of Congo, so at least these places and some of the troubles they’ve had are on the map, right? The general theme of the video – that the people of the world can rise up en masse to bring war criminals to justice – could certainly be a powerful use of the Internet and social media.

The flip side, however, is that any medium that can mobilize people to do great good can also mobilize them to do evil. The mass genocides in Uganda’s neighbor – Rwanda – were spurred on by a Rwandan radio station, and the leaders of this media outlet were subsequently convicted of crimes against humanity by an International Criminal Tribunal.

And, in fact, the very persuasive techniques used in the Kony video – social proof (all of your friends are supporting the cause), obedience to authority (Oprah supports us!), escalation of commitment (just share this video), have been proven to be equally effective at making people abandon their moral compass and commit reprehensible acts that they themselves would have never predicted they would have committed.

Image credit: flickerflu

We are in the very early days of social media, and we’ve already seen countless examples of effective propaganda campaigns being waged on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. You may agree with the anti-SOPA blackout, the Susan Komen boycott, and of course Kony 2012, but it’s troubling to me that people can see one effective piece of media and help spread a viewpoint about which they have done no research or heard any alternative viewpoints. Let’s spread some good – but with our eyes wide open.

David Rodnitzky, CEO

27 Comments

  1. Karen Dorfman Boe March 20th, 2012

    Why do you assume that we don't understand what we are talking about when we agree with a certain point of view. I think we are a bit smarter than you are giving us credit for.

  2. David Rodnitzky March 20th, 2012

    Karen, if you are saying that the millions of people who came out in favor of Kony 2012 had a ton of historical information about the conflict in Uganda and Congo prior to supporting Invisible People, or that the millions of who were against SOPA had researched alternative viewpoints, I'm pretty skeptical.

  3. Karen Dorfman Boe March 20th, 2012

    David Rodnitzky When I first started seeing KONY 2012 I googled it to find out more info. How hard is that? I knew about the conflict, but didn't recognize the name. Maybe I am more informed than some, but not as much as others. For you to assume that people jump on a bandwagon when information is so easily gotten on any subject is presumptuous. Your whole post is based on your opinion without any facts or resources to back it up. I'm sure, though, that you are quite pleased to have all this disagreement to your words as it proves we are not the sheep you think we are because we haven't just blindly followed your lead.

  4. David Rodnitzky March 20th, 2012

    Karen Dorfman Boe I'm glad you didn't just follow my lead and I'm glad you did more research on Google about Kony. Not everyone is sheep, that was not my argument.

    As for research, I think the fact that an unknown charity's video about a relative unknown cause raised millions of dollars in a few days, and then was subsequently criticized by many of the actual players in the conflict for being racist/imperialist/misinformed/damaging is pretty good evidence that many people donated money (or their social media klout) before learning about 'the rest of the story.'

    Some interesting articles here: http://www.thedashingfellows.com/the-kony-response-kneejerk-reactions-and-activist-campaigns/6738 and here: http://underthebanyan.wordpress.com/2012/03/07/a-cautionary-tale-kony-2012-the-backlash/

  5. Dana Parker March 21st, 2012

    David Rodnitzky You have quite a penchant for making others' arguments for them. That is not what Karen said AT ALL. She didn't say anything even remotely like that. She asked you a question – a good one. Why DO you assume those who took part in the outcries against SOPA and Komen (especially Komen) didn't understand what they were doing?

  6. Sheva Golkow March 20th, 2012

    Interesting that you slide the Komen boycott in at the end of your article, as if it were the same situation. This was no "propaganda campaign" and I think it's shocking you would liken it to one. People were genuinely outraged about Komen's decision to defund Planned Parenthood – they felt blindsided and, for Komen supporters, betrayed. No one was jumping on any bandwagon or clicking "share" to be trendy; we were reacting to a news story that affected us directly and deeply. A great deal of information about Komen was passed along in the days that followed their announcement, every bit of it factual and researched. Above all this was no celebrity-driven fad – breast cancer survivors and their families and friends, as well as the families of those who did not survive, were the instigators. We may have been using this newfangled social media to spread the word but it was truly good old fashioned grassroots organizing at its finest, just updated for the 21st century. Don't assume people don't read or research before joining in or agreeing with something, although it does appear that you could have researched the Komen boycott a wee bit better before writing this.

  7. David Rodnitzky March 20th, 2012

    Sheva, as I recall it, the narrative that was disseminated across the web was basically "The Komen foundation has stopped funding Planned Parenthood because they are giving in to pressure from conservative groups." There was no alternative viewpoint given any airtime. It was later suggested that the rationale was that they didn't want to give funds to any group 'under investigation', though that viewpoint was also shot down quickly as well.

    But my point isn't too take sides on any particular issue. I'm pretty sure that I support Planned Parenthood in this dispute if you really want to know, but I used this example to suggest that when there are causes we support we call mass mobilization "grass roots activism" but when there are causes we are again, we call mass mobilization "propaganda." Either way, when people voice outrage online and the facts presented to them are almost entirely one-sided, that trouble's me.

  8. Dana Parker March 20th, 2012

    David Rodnitzky There was no alternative viewpoint given any airtime because the original narrative was the truth. Or near enough – Komen IS a conservative organization. A lot of the uproar was from people just discovering the truth about them, not being easily manipulated by pinkwashing as they were previously.

  9. Sheva Golkow March 20th, 2012

    David, your recollections are faulty. The Komen narrative was more complex than that precisely because people were independently researching the issue. As people learned more – that Komen's board of directors and chiefly their policy director take an extremely anti-choice strance; that Komen had a history of counter-productive or wasteful activities such as actively lobbying against breast cancer treatment for low income women and suing other charitable organizations for using the word "Cure" in their name; that the policy Komen cited as the reason they could no longer fund PP was a very recent one crafted specifically as a way to discontinue PP funding and was based on a bogus "investigation" – they became more outraged and more determined to pass along what they learned. Every article I saw on facebook provided multiple sources; every article I read was carefully researched. You write
    "But there were also thousands, if not millions, of people who took whatever the pro-PPF organizers said as gospel and immediately rallied to the cause, without doing any independent research of their own."

    Millions? Do you have even a single shred of evidence to support that? Why are you so convinced that no one researched this? What are you basing this on beyond your "feeling" that it just must be so, because it's the only explanation you can come up with?

  10. David Rodnitzky March 20th, 2012

    Sheva Golkow I admit that the Komen-PP situation is the one I know the least about, so I apologize for grouping it with other cause celebres – Kony and SOPA – which I have done a fair amount of research on.

    My reaction to the Komen situation was just my reaction as an individual reading Facebook posts, tweets, and news stories.

  11. Dana Parker March 21st, 2012

    David Rodnitzky Wait, you mean you just threw Komen in there as an example of a "propaganda campaign" when you didn't know what it was about? You were just reacting to social media reports?

    Aren't you the one who said: "It’s troubling to me that people can see one effective piece of media and help spread a viewpoint about which they have done no research or heard any alternative viewpoints."

    Maybe you should take your own advice?

  12. Sheva Golkow March 21st, 2012

    David – I see others have pointed out the single biggest difference between Komen and the other issues – the people responding already knew who Komen and PP were and had a good idea of what they did and how they felt about them. It was that very fact – that so many people believed in and trusted Komen – that made their reaction all the more visceral. You write about the presented facts being one-sided when that's not the case here. The facts are pretty much the same; it's how you view the work of Planned Parenthood that shapes how you feel about those facts. Those who are opposed to PP and are determined to see it destroyed rejoiced at Komen's initial decision; some (the Catholic Bishops) took credit for pressuring them. Those who support PP – well, you see where this is going. I apologize if you feel I'm beating a dead horse, but given how anything on the internet lives on and you've already acknowledged that you "just threw Komen in there", you might want to consider removing the reference. It doesn't change your point or the bulk of your argument.

  13. David Rodnitzky March 21st, 2012

    Sheva Golkow I suppose that would be pretty easy to do, actually. But then all of these comments would seem quite strange.

  14. Paul Hartson March 21st, 2012

    David Rodnitzky your statement "and the facts presented to them are almost entirely one-sided," is illogical and sad. A fact is indisputable information, meaning that there is no such thing as one-sided or other point of view in terms of facts! Taking sides or points of view are hearsay and or opinion but they are not facts. You sir, come across as a feeble whiner trying his hand at propaganda but failing miserably.

  15. Bex Allen March 20th, 2012

    Celebrities who RT things probably don't have time to research the word they are spreading. We do, and do it often, since the internet makes so many differing viewpoints easily available. Why is no one talking about Kony this week? Oh, because the lot of us did our research and came away feeling sorta icky about Invisible Children.

  16. David Rodnitzky March 20th, 2012

    Exactly my point Bex!

  17. Dana Parker March 20th, 2012

    David Rodnitzky You didn't make it very well, then.

  18. Dana Parker March 20th, 2012

    You know what is an effective way to NOT win people over? Tell them they're stupid. Good job!

  19. David Rodnitzky March 20th, 2012

    I wouldn't say "stupid" but I would say "easy manipulated." Personally, I wish someone had told the German citizens in the 1930s that they were "stupid" for believing the propaganda about the superiority of the Aryan race, don't you?

  20. Dana Parker March 20th, 2012

    David Rodnitzky , it would be just as effective as telling people they are stupid today. That is, not at all.

  21. David Rodnitzky March 20th, 2012

    Dana Parker http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_they_came%E2%80%A6

  22. Dana Parker March 20th, 2012

    David Rodnitzky Right, I'm so unaware that I've never heard that quote before. You are batting 1000 on assuming people are stupid today, dude. I would say reacting to SOPA and Komen are the opposite of not speaking up for myself. I am perfectly aware that they are coming for me. :roll

  23. David Rodnitzky March 20th, 2012

    Dana Parker Well basically you are saying that anyone who accuses masses of people of unthinkingly supporting something that they read on the Internet must be an elitist and will not be effective at getting people to think twice before pressing the "share" button. Thus, accordingly to your argument, we should never criticize mass movements because it will won't work.

    I think there is ample evidence that most people who were outraged about Joseph Kony knew *none* of the backstory. The same is true for the millions of anti-SOPA netizens. If you hear just one side of the story and then rush into the street to express your outrage then yes, you are sheep in my mind. Marc Anthony's funeral speech anyone?

  24. Dana Parker March 20th, 2012

    David Rodnitzky Please don't put words into my mouth. I am quite capable of articulating my own arguments. Again: not stupid.

  25. Dana Parker March 20th, 2012

    And may I just add: I don't assume most other people are stupid either. Try it sometime.

  26. Margaret Blough March 20th, 2012

    Karen is right. In addition, You are guilty of what you accuse others of, making judgments without research. There are no resemblances whatsoever (other than both names beginning with K) between the Kony and the Komen situations. In the Komen situation, many people were familiar with the actors and the pressure Komen had been under to cut ties with PPF. They also had the information or were able to get it quickly in order to identify Komen's initial rationale as bogus. The uproar produced the anti-Komen websites (more accurately, pro-PPF), not the other way around. The shifting rationales Komen gave for its actions along with concerns that already existed about how Komen operated that got spread to a wider audience increased the concerns. The various anti-Komen websites did a fantastic job of providing supporting documentation that people could review and consider on their own. In addition, Komen did a first-rate job of shooting itself in the foot as to its conflicting explanations of what it did and why. To liken us to sheep is insulting and condescending.

  27. David Rodnitzky March 20th, 2012

    I'm sure the organizers of the pro-PPF movement were very informed and did a great job of promoting their viewpoint via the Internet. But there were also thousands, if not millions, of people who took whatever the pro-PPF organizers said as gospel and immediately rallied to the cause, without doing any independent research of their own.

    From a pro-PPF perspective, this is a great thing, but imagine if some conservative group released a misleading video or report that suggested something horrible about PPF, and that video enraged every day Americans who spread it across the Internet and called their Congresspeople demanding that all PPFs across the nation get closed down immediately. How would you feel then?

    The instigators of populist movements online are well-informed, its the people that support the movement with little to no prior independent research of their own that trouble me. And that applies equally to movements that we support or detest.

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David Rodnitzky
David Rodnitzky is founder and CEO of 3Q Digital (formerly PPC Associates), a position he has held since the Company's inception in 2008. Prior to 3Q Digital, he held senior marketing roles at several Internet companies, including Rentals.com (2000-2001), FindLaw (2001-2004), Adteractive (2004-2006), and Mercantila (2007-2008). David currently serves on advisory boards for several companies, including Marin Software, MediaBoost, Mediacause, and a stealth travel start-up. David is a regular speaker at major digital marketing conferences and has contributed to numerous influential publications, including Venture Capital Journal, CNN Radio, Newsweek, Advertising Age, and NPR's Marketplace. David has a B.A. with honors from the University of Chicago and a J.D. with honors from the University of Iowa. In his spare time, David enjoys salmon fishing, hiking, spending time with his family, and watching the Iowa Hawkeyes, not necessarily in that order.