"SHARE"—If You Dare

On March 5, 2012, if you logged into Facebook, a video entitled “KONY 2012” was sure to pop up as every third or fourth post. 

Perhaps at first, you ignored it. However, after seeing it posted over and over again for hours, maybe you clicked on it, and watched at least some of the 29 minute, 59 second video. Even if you only watched the first few minutes, you learned that there is a warlord named Joseph Kony wreaking havoc in Uganda with a rebel militia group, that he is kidnapping children from their homes to make them unwilling soldiers, that the situation is getting worse, and that something must be done. It is a call to arms, for the people of America to do their part to combat a foreign terror. Like many of the other people on your Newsfeed, you probably felt horrified, outraged, catalyzed. And maybe, just like them, you shared it.

KONY 2012 is remembered today as one of the first Internet trends to spread like wildfire across feeds from Twitter to Facebook, Tumblr to YouTube. As most of its proponents and critics will remember, the fall of KONY 2012 and Invisible Children came as quickly as its rise to fame. The organization was simply unprepared for the rapid onslaught of support (at the time of the video’s release, Invisible Children had one intern to fill 500,000 orders of their $30 “call to action” kit). Within two weeks, the organization’s founder and the narrator of KONY 2012, Jason Russell, was famous himself, though unfortunately due to a nude mental breakdown on the streets of San Diego.

Like with Britney’s change of hairstyle or Kanye’s defense of Beyonce, KONY 2012 showed the world how quickly fame devolves into infamy. Invisible Children closed in December 2014, just under 2 years after the video was released, and Joseph Kony remains at large today. Ultimately, the disaster that was KONY 2012 remains more “famous” than the warlord it sought to blast into the spotlight.

When a campaign is as unprepared for mass sensation as was the KONY 2012 publicity stunt, could it be that virality actually hurts the cause it hopes to relieve? This question came under serious debate in late 2014 due to the retraction of a Rolling Stone article entitled “A Rape on Campus.” The piece, which focused on the rape of a student pseudonymously dubbed “Jackie” at the University of Virginia, went viral on social media when it was published in November. The article, written and researched by Sabrina Erdely, used Jackie’s heart-wrenching story to comment on the injustices of unreported and unpunished rape on colleges across America.

Like the KONY 2012 video, the graphic details of the article made readers feel horrified, depressed, and then incensed: why was no one talking about this major problem as fervently as this article? Could journalistic publicity, more delicately handled and less flashy than KONY 2012’s video, help Jackie and girls in similar situations? As with KONY 2012, social media users shared the piece in hoards, urging others to read it and work to help end rape culture on college campuses.

Unfortunately, also similarly to KONY 2012, the downfall of the article’s viral success came quickly, and swiftly. Soon after its publication, outlets such as The Washington Post began to point to blatant discrepancies in Jackie’s story, unraveling a chain of spurious journalistic practices that began with Erdely and wound their way up to Rolling Stone’s top editors.

In April, the Columbia School of Journalism compiled a lengthy report on the problems with both the article and the practices surrounding its reporting. In an introduction to the report (which Rolling Stone willingly elicited and published), Managing Editor Will Dana writes, “Sexual assault is a serious problem on college campuses, and it is important that rape victims feel comfortable stepping forward. It saddens us to think that their willingness to do so might be diminished by our failings.” Here Dana succinctly summarizes the dangers of viral, incendiary stories: when the method by which the specifics of a crisis or crime is criticized, the problem itself runs the risk of losing its credibility.

Though many of the accusations in the article, and of Jackie’s story, were ultimately proven to be untrue, the actual percentage of rape reports that are deemed false is believed to hover at or below eight percent. Because of the sensational popularity of its article, and its subsequent retraction, Rolling Stone must face the consequences of having potentially hurt, and not helped, its campaign to end rape culture on college campuses. Sexual assault, and the bureaucracy involved in the process of getting help and pressing charges is still a very real problem for many students. However, a highly publicized article that pointed fingers, and had to, in turn, point one back at itself, was not the correct method of activism.

The social media users that contributed to the virality of KONY 2012, “A Rape on Campus,” and other such stories are ultimately not to blame for the failings of seemingly reputable organizations and news outlets. If a nonprofit or a magazine is generating content to start a moral revolution, the information they share should be rigorously fact-checked down to the last detail. Invisible Children should have had resources at the ready for the fame that was to follow, and Rolling Stone should have published an article it was able, willing, and proud to defend.

If a story is too good to be true, or even too bad, or sad, it probably is, especially when it comes neatly packaged in an explosive article or well-produced and easily shared YouTube video. Topics that are messy and complex are just that—they have solutions that are difficult to grapple with, and must be conveyed with the utmost care in order to convince naysayers. If an organization creates a digestible form in which to catalyze readers, viewers, and ultimately, sharers, there is most likely a large chunk of the story missing.

In real life and online, we have an obligation to be our own skeptics. We must constantly sift through the click-bait, listicles, articles, and videos thrown at us in every direction—even, and perhaps especially, when they come from supposedly reputable sources. The world cannot be saved in a click, nor should it be. Examining and investing in important causes should not be discouraged, but we must be careful not to believe everything we read, especially when it comes with a shining, tantalizing “share” button, ready to broadcast a cause around the world.