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The Unfortunate Lesson of Kony 2012: Nuance Diminishes Outrage

Research undertaken as a video about an African warlord went viral suggests such a film can inspire moral anger—so long as it sticks to an oversimplified message.
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(Photo: Kony 2012)

(Photo: Kony 2012)

Remember Kony 2012? A 30-minute video expose of a Ugandan warlord, it was one of the fastest spreading viral videos in history, with more than 100 million viewings in six days. Its success suggested that the Internet can be used to stir up public outrage to the point where governments will feel the need to take action.

Then, it all faded away.

Why that happened, and what the episode says about human nature, is the subject of a somewhat pessimistic new paper. It concludes that examining a tough issue in its full complexity dampens emotional involvement on the part of the public, which gets more aroused by black-and-white portrayals of clear-cut enemies.

In the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture, three psychologists—Daniel Sullivan of the University of Arizona, Mark Landau of the University of Kansas, and Aaron Kay of Duke University—describe a real-time experiment they conducted during the “Stop Kony” campaign in the spring of 2012.

"Reducing a complex issue to the actions of a single enemy can inspire moral outrage and inspiration to take action." If you're trying to rally support for a military strike, you're best off identifying a demon.

The online video was originally posted on March 5, 2012, by the non-profit organization Invisible Children. It painted a blistering portrait of Kony, the head of the militia known as the Lord’s Resistance Army, pointing to his enslavement of children (many of whom became child soldiers) and comparing him to Adolf Hitler.

“Almost immediately after the appearance of Kony 2012, criticism of the campaign emerged from various quarters, suggesting that the issues involved were more complex than the video had acknowledged,” the researchers note. In response, the makers produced a follow-up film a few weeks later.

A “more nuanced” look at the situation, it reasserted the importance of apprehending Kony, but added that his capture “was only one (however important) step in improving the life of people in the central African regions where he has operated.”

It failed to go viral, receiving relatively little Internet traffic.

To determine the impact of the two videos as they were released, the researchers assembled a pool of 217 Americans (38 undergraduates and 179 adults recruited online). At the beginning and end of their session, each of them filled out a questionnaire measuring their general level of “moral outrage,” including their determination to take action in response to major ethical misdeeds.

The first group of participants—those whose data was collected between March 10 and April 11, 2012—watched the original 2012 video. The second group, whose data was collected between April 12 and May 4, watched the more nuanced follow-up film.

Although the participants’ feelings of moral outrage increased after seeing either film, “the magnitude of the effect was considerably larger among participants who watched the first video," the researchers report.

In addition, “those who watched the second video showed a more favorable response to an article criticizing the notion that Kony is a threat.”

The results provide evidence for a dynamic smart politicians instinctively understand: "Reducing a complex issue to the actions of a single enemy can inspire moral outrage and inspiration to take action." If you're trying to rally support for a military strike, you're best off identifying a demon.

But as much as we like to believe that defeating one evil person will solve our problems, that isn’t the way the world generally works. This research suggests acknowledging that reality saps our enthusiasm for action, and that the most inspiring campaigns are also the most simplistic ones.

The researchers concede these results have “somewhat pessimistic implications.” But they also point to a challenge for those who would like to shape public opinion. Leaders need to find “ways to maintain public emotional investment in political issues,” they write, “despite the often complex realities that surround these topics.”

Kony, by the way, is still alive, if somewhat less powerful than he was two years ago. At least, that’s according to a thorough, nuanced Wall Street Journal story that won’t inspire anyone to take action of any kind.