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Kony 2012 and the case of the invisible media

Much has been said about Invisible Children’s video campaign to rally awareness towards the atrocities of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. But more important is what Kony 2012 means in our ongoing relationship…

The Kony campaign is not as accessible as it makes out. BellaSalsaa

Much has been said about Invisible Children’s video campaign to rally awareness towards the atrocities of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony.

But more important is what Kony 2012 means in our ongoing relationship with viral news events. It’s time to uncloak the “invisible” social media.

The Kony 2012 campaign idealises the ethos of social media activism. Jason Russell, Invisible Children’s co-founder, explained it quite effectively in the opening seconds of his Kony 2012 video:

“Right now there are more people on Facebook then there were on the planet 200 years ago. Humanity’s greatest desire is to belong and connect. We hear each other. We share what we love. And this connection is changing the way the world works."

What a resonating, powerful statement.

Only there’s one problem: we can’t actually hear each other. At least not on the Kony 2012 YouTube video.

That’s because all comments have been removed, 500,000 of them. The comment feature – now “disabled” – means not a single piece of feedback now exists on a YouTube video with more than 84 million views in 15 days.

The fastest-trending viral video, ever. YouTube has not given an official explanation. It’s hard to believe that the inability to comment could be due to traffic. I mean, there are Justin Bieber videos around with 7,666,565 of them.

Youtube has disable the comments on the KONY2012 campaign video. Avakian

Just like Kony’s activities in Uganda, increasingly corporatised social media would very much prefer to remain invisible. Social media has come of age and “grown-up” into corporate mandates and business models. They need to answer to shareholders and investors.

We can share what we love, but we can’t share what we don’t. At least not when and where it matters most – on the Kony 2012 video itself. Isn’t that the whole point of social media?

YouTube’s actions are shocking, especially considering the theme of the video and nature of the campaign. Many would argue that it’s outright censorship. We are told to listen, share and connect to empower others across the planet, yet the ability to listen and connect on the content and platform itself has been conspicuously taken away from us.

Does this mean we shouldn’t trust social media? Absolutely not. But ignorance isn’t bliss in this case. As David Skok at Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab notes, it’s time to separate our stories from our storytelling tools.

16 days, 84,425,037 views, and a game that lets us “Kick Kony’s *&$”, Kony 2012 isn’t as “interactive” as most of us would like to believe.

In social news media, our participation is sandboxed. We play inside the framework of online media such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, subject to various external forces: algorithms, other people’s search queries – and of course – operating and advertising budgets.

As London School of Economic’s Eilika Freund argues, we don’t interact as much as we respond. In the case of the Kony 2012 YouTube video, we can’t even respond. When we are provided with an opportunity to participate, it’s often with pre-existing narratives, which – like Kony 2012 – have already had the opportunity to make their impact. Not exactly a media suitable for civil discourse.

Within social media, our responses, whether positive – endorsements, comments, “likes” and “shares" – or negative – factual challenges, criticisms, and questions – are part of the exact same medium we use to share the story. This is a fundamental problem, and the YouTube Kony 2012 video is the perfect example of why it is problematic.

Can we remove a share? “Dislike” a Facebook post? “De-Tweet” a story link on Twitter?

Further, how we obtain news – as well as our understanding of news events – increasingly arrives through our social networks, pushed to us through connections we trust.

Just like Google says, this stuff matters.

Social media adds yet another layer of mediation to complex events like the Kony 2012 campaign. In the words of Hewlett-Packard scientist Bernardo Huberman, online audiences are stuck in “feedback loops of attention”.

Many believe that negative response to the Kony 2012 campaign has helped to invalidate the cause, and that the arrest of co-founder Jason Russell has derailed its purpose.

Perhaps. But viral news leaves us little time to consider and reflect before we help spread the news. In this sense, it is essential to see social media as selectively social. Not selective because we of what we share, but selective because of how we share.

Credibility in news has changed: it’s less a function of in-depth, investigative journalism, or even common sense. It has been outsourced to audiences by social media.

Friends, co-workers and acquaintances now play an increasing part in the “aggregated trustworthiness” which leads us to our news. Of course, this happened long before social media. But news in social media is inherently loaded – and not with just a editorial slant – it’s tainted with our relationships.

Trust is the channel through which we consume news and our feelings, emotions and interpretations of others now play part. Facebook even has a patented formula for it - it’s called EdgeRank.

As we consume news as well as research it, we should consider what participation really means and think about how we form credibility around complex news topics we encounter in social media. It’s a matter of perspective.