The Internet is the latest tool for compassionate activism. When the sights of Angelina Jolie's leg goes viral, she magnifies her female celebrity by focusing attention on the miseries of Darfur. She teases and titillates in a celebrity culture and uses her fame for a good cause.But the Internet is not necessarily the best means for educating the public in injustice. It confuses and deceives, as well.
When a remarkable documentary video called "Kony 2012" circulated on Facebook and YouTube, promoted on Twitter by Hollywood celebrities, it drew more than 80 million hits. Jason Russell, the young filmmaker who made the video, became an instant hero for telling the world about Joseph Kony, a brutal Ugandan warlord who kidnapped unsuspecting children and forced them into prostitution and a children's army to wreak murder and mayhem.
Instant fame is not always benign. It turns out that Jason Russell, a co-founder of "Invisible Children," an organization trying to find Kony and rescue the children, was not careful with the facts. His video contains errors, its history is outdated, and the African conflicts are dangerously simplified.
Kony fled Uganda six years ago and hasn't been seen there since, and the children's army is diminished and scattered. The sloppy research seems aimed at a kindergarten mentality, literally, as the filmmaker uses his son, age 5, to act as a "commentator." Commercial shortcuts peddling feel-good slogans inscribed on bracelets and splashed on posters protesting the warlord's evil deeds eventually drew questions about the filmmaker's finances. He collapsed with a mental breakdown. He was videotaped naked, running down a street in San Diego. He was diagnosed with a "reactive psychosis" and put in a hospital.
This is a story reflecting unintended consequences of the digital age run amok. It has farcical and pitiful dimensions of an Internet melodrama rising from undisciplined, unedited, uneducated electronic overload, when there are no responsible gatekeepers to make sense of high-speed information moving swiftly like a racing car without brakes on the digital superhighway. When videos go viral, they command a huge audience, generating a digital din more like barroom babble than serious debate.