I spoke to Jason Russell for the second time last week as one of my final interviews in over two months of reporting for a TIME piece on Joseph Kony, his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the anti-L.R.A. activist group Russell co-founded with two friends in 2003, Invisible Children. In the time since we’d first spoken in mid-February, Invisible Children had released its 10th film on Kony, Kony 2012, and it had gone viral: Russell said hits were approaching 100 million. Invisible Children, as the TIME article later detailed, had already pulled off one of the greatest advocacy campaigns of all time, a true wag-the-dog story in which a small group of activists had built massive momentum on college campuses across the U.S., then translated that into such vociferous political pressure in Washington that the Congress and the Senate passed a law mandating the U.S. President to act against the LRA. To that Barack Obama had responded by sending 100 special operations troops to the Central African Republic, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda.
(PHOTOS: On the Ground: Safe from #Kony?)
That result was stunning testament to the success of a new form of slick, digitized, youthful politics that was, depending on whether you liked or disliked Invisible Children and Russell, either stunningly innovative or recklessly broke all the rules. The truth is it was a bit of both. No advocacy campaign has ever come close to shining the kind of spotlight on a developing world conflict in the manner Invisible Children has. At a stroke, conventional media presentation, whether print, radio, television, blogging or social media, all looked desperately tired, as though, like apes trying to figure out the telephone, we’d all somehow missed the huge potential to engage and communicate the new technology was offering. Russell told me Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer and distributor, was just one among a number of media figures who had telephoned him to say: “This changes everything!”
There was a contrary view, however. This held that by simplifying and sensationalizing the LRA conflict, by supporting armed intervention despite being a humanitarian organization, and by personalizing the narrative of Kony 2012 — all in the name of maximizing the appeal and accessibility of the campaign — Invisible Children had scored an own goal. It had exposed itself to such a barrage of criticism that the campaign would quickly collapse, and whatever beneficial effects it had would disappear with it. That was the intelligent criticism, and there was, undoubtedly, a sensible and valuable debate to be had over where truthful journalism and activist advocacy part ways — and whether that explained why a small San Diego activist group could go viral with its presentation of the LRA in a way that the New York Times or the BBC, or indeed TIME, never will.
What actually happened, however, was that worthwhile debate was drowned out by a wildly inaccurate, malicious online “takedown,” most of whose participants were utterly uninterested in truth but focused instead on a point-scoring, trashing and hurting, the digital pogrom of the unaccountable, anonymous Invisible Mob. Strangely, even as the participants zeroed in on Invisible Children’s fast and loose presentation of the facts, most responded not with superior research or knowledge but ever wilder and thinner conspiracies: this was about oil, this was about radical Christianity, this was about the U.S. electoral cycle. A lot of it was directed at Russell himself, and deeply personal, cruel, bullying. When I spoke to him the second time, he told me most of the world seemed to view him “as the devil.” He also told me he hadn’t slept for nine days. Three days later he suffered what appears to have been a psychological breakdown and was found by San Diego police naked and kneeling in the street, slapping the pavement with his bare hands. At which point, the baying and blood lust only increased. Russell was down, naked and humiliated. Millions took that as a cue to point and laugh.
This is the other lesson of Kony 2012. Invisible Children have shown us the almost limitless, instant — and by that I mean wondrous — potential for engaging the world that our new media tools allow. But Invisible Children has also shown us the price we have to expect to pay for that: an almost limitless, instant — and by that I mean thoughtless — response. It’s been enough, apparently, to break Russell, someone whose intent, whatever you thought of his methods, was merely to shine a light on one of the world’s more forgotten, and nastiest, conflicts. Will anyone be brave enough to try to do the same again?