Why bandwagon activism is dangerous

There’s a social media malestorm arising and Joseph Kony is at the centre of it.

A video exploded on social media networks this week. It’s a half-hour documentary sponsored by the Invisible Children organization – a group that is working to de-stabilize The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda.

The video has been viewed more than 40 million times and it has been covered by major news outlets, including the New York Times, the CBC and The Huffington Post.

Celebrities have jumped on the bandwagon – including Rihanna and Ryan Seacrest – and the campaign has raised a staggering $5 million in 48 hours.

It’s incredible, that’s for sure.

But the speed at which this is mobilizing is also somewhat alarming, largely because many of the people supporting the cause know nothing about it – aside from what is shown in the 30-minute clip.

I think it’s great that people want to embrace causes, but  they should have a firm understanding of that cause first.  If they don’t, they can end up doing more harm than good.

Take for example, the liberation treatment.

A “movement” exploded in 2009 in support of an experimental “liberation” treatment therapy that was developed by Italian vascular surgeon Dr. Paolo Zamboni.  In layman’s terms, Zamboni theorizes that Multiple Sclerosis is caused by blocked veins near the brain and spinal cord.

His suggested treatment, which has not been clinically proven and is not generally supported by Canadian doctors due to the complications associated with it, involves “unblocking” the affected veins. It captured the public’s attention after receiving favourable media coverage by CTV, which described the treatment as a “revolutionary” therapy that “could free MS patients from a lifetime of suffering” – a PR-friendly soundbite that spread like wildfire across the Internet.

More than 500 Canadian-based Facebook groups, pages and events were created by the general public (read: not medical professionals) to promote and discuss the controversial treatment. This eventually led to a heated debate on Parliament Hill about the funding and procedures assigned to clinical trials.

I am all for the democratization of news, but calling a therapy a “miracle cure” doesn’t make it so – no matter how loud the masses yell.  Only a team of medical professionals can make that call, and only after years of stringent research.

But the bandwagon activists don’t have time for research, because they’re too busy yelling.

And that’s why it solves nothing.

Bandwagon activism requires little-to-no effort and zero independent thought, both of which are needed to create long-lasting, positive change. Viral activism is, essentially, a lynch-mob mentality – despite its good intentions.

If you want to get involved in a cause, do some digging. You don’t even have to look far. Joseph Kony and the LRA’s story is nothing new; it’s been covered by major news outlets for years.

But the fact that it’s making the rounds now – because social media said so – is, to me at least, a larger commentary on society than the wars and exploitation that have been taking place, right under our noses, for centuries.

Read a newspaper. Visit a third-world country and talk to the people – I mean really talk to them – about their struggles. Learn about a society before you barge in with sympathetic eyes and a huge wad of cash.

And be prepared to do more than press the “share” button on your Facebook profile.

UPDATE: March 17, 2012: Invisible Children founder Jason Russell has been arrested for yanking it in public and vandalizing cars in a drunken spree (and part of his tirade was caught on tape). Supporters say this doesn’t hurt the cause – but I disagree. It’s hard to run a functioning charity when your leader can’t keep his sh!t together. Like I said, do your homework, people. Do your homework.



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Shoe girl, knitter, crazy cat lady, music nerd, bookworm and sci-fi geek. By day I am a freelance writer and social media consultant.

(5) Readers Comments

  1. Amen.

  2. Great read. I truly agree with your views. I had to have a talk with my son about exactly this issue after one of his highschool teachers ordered “The Kony Kit” for the school’s community service volunteers. Yes, it’s great that children are willing to take a stand when they see something that’s wrong. However, parents and teachers need to educate their children on how to research and form their own opinions instead of following like sheep. Facebook can communicate some great ideas to our youth but it can also be the perfect forum for brain-washing; especially for teenagers who are ready to be independent and not necessarily take their parents’ word for things anymore. We need to teach our kids (and in this case, also their teachers) critical-thinking skills and show them that’s it’s okay to go against the flow if that’s what they believe to be right.

  3. Hi Jodi — Thanks for stopping by.

    I completely agree. It’s always been important to develop critical-thinking skills, but I would argue it’s even more important now, in the advent of social media.

    I think people are generally aware that they should question advertising and other forms of media, but on social media those waters become muddied – largely because it’s friends and family (and not large corporations) who are sharing the information.

    I also think people need to be made aware that social change doesn’t happen by pressing “forward” – it actually requires some work.

    Yes – revolutions have happened thanks to the Internet, but the people who made that happen did more that write on a Facebook wall. They wrote letters. They took their message to the street – and they got involved.

    But I suppose that’s a whole other can of worms.

  4. Hey Cheryl,

    Great article! I guess like anything there will always be good and bad with any new idea or technology. I think you make a great point that there are a lot of people that don’t really know what they are supporting without doing some investigation into the cause itself and rely on a simple retweet as a form of that support. But, I also think that with regards to the Kony situation and the Liberation technique and many other situations to come that social media will expose people to causes, possible medical break-throughs, new ideas etc. that may not have been otherwise.

    Social media is a relatively new phenomena and with any new technology society has to figure things out to make it better. It will happen but it will take time. Hopefully this new way of communicating it will spark peoples interest enough to further research the cause they are posting or tweeting about.

  5. Hey Stacy!

    Thanks for stopping by … how are you doing???

    You raise a really good point, and yes – you’re right. Social media is a great way to expose people to causes they may have missed otherwise.

    I guess the emphasis needs to be put on teaching people how to process the information. Sharing ideas is a powerful thing – even more so when people understand the concepts behind those ideas!

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