How KONY 2012 Trained the Audience — and YouTube — to Love Reactionary Media
A decade after the viral documentary aired, it’s time to reexamine the video and our reaction to it
Before Gamergate, rare Pepes, deplorables, and black squares, there was an era just after the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movements where people felt the internet may be a force for good. We witnessed a rapid shift of trust of digital institutions and social media platforms to usher in a connected world. People wanted more. Marketers were making “viral media,” Casey Neistat was challenging bike laws in NYC, a pop-tart shaped cat was making rainbows, and I was in the middle of launching a college degree in Internet Studies.
Then a shift occurred. In March 2012, a 30-minute ultra-viral video called KONY 2012 appeared online. We were told we needed to make a bad guy famous to save young children in Africa. For one, brief, viral week, KONY 2012 was everywhere and everything.
And then it wasn’t.
Let’s keep in mind that now, in March 2022, we are witnessing the outcome of the last decade of social media growth. We get front row seats to overwhelming ambient participation of every single commenter as they opine about an actual war or shill digital dollars. Today’s environment is one of the most partisan media environments of the connected era. With so many voices, it’s hard to pull the signal from noise, to detect the real stories coming across social media by comparison to the algorithmically amplified misinformation spread by teenagers on TikTok.
In 2012, there was Twitter, Facebook and YouTube all the same, but few of our contemporary issues were as prominent yet. KONY 2012 changed the digital world through documentary storytelling loaded with propaganda methodologies. But, to be more specific, the reactions to the video and its director Jason Russell’s subsequent meltdown built our modern alternative media world.