What is truth?: The controversies around Kony2012 and This American Life

Like just about everyone else with an internet connection, I am aware of both the video and the “controversy” surrounding the video Kony2012. I first saw it posted on a friend’s wall with the comment that her 12-year old son had made HER aware of it.

That is how it started: young people sharing it with other young people until it became one of the most viral videos of all time.

Before I even watched the video, however, I felt a combination of emotions because of what my immediate reaction was to learning of its very existence. My very first thought was, “Who is going to try and poke holes in this video?”

We live in a “Prove it!” age where seemingly everything can be faked and there are competing industries of content creators and content disprovers. I’m not sure what makes me more sad: that our willingness to believe what we see has been decimated by those who would prey on our trusting nature, or that there are so many out there who prey on our trusting nature.

Before I was even finished writing this blog post, another “truth” controversy was unearthed, this time by the producers at American Public Media’s This American Life. A recent episode devoted to Mike Daisey’s one-man show “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”  was their most downloaded episode ever.  Then it was revealed that the actor had taken a few liberties with the facts, throwing big parts of the story into question.

What these two episodes share is the now common tendency to play fast and loose with the truth. Both the Kony video and the “Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” get both stories mostly right, but the liberties taken with some details immediately call into question the whole narrative.

Or do they?

There was a time when it meant something to be a journalist, and there are still legions of ink-stained wretches (can you still say that in a digital age?) who do their damnedest to get it right. But neither Jason Russell nor Mike Daisey are journalists, they’re storytellers. My question is: Can simplifying complicated stories in the service of a larger goal ever be excused? Much of the criticism leveled against both the Kony video and Daisey’s “This American Life” interview had more to do with what screenwriters or authors might term creating a “composite” character. Kony2012 has been accused of, among other things, being oversimplified. Not false, mind you, just oversimplified. Well, as someone once said, complexity is complicated.

Daisey, for his part, recounts an incident where some Chinese Foxconn employees were poisoned due to exposure to a chemical but, in his account, he claimed it happened in one factory in China when it, in fact, happened in a different one. I’m just not sure how this blows up his whole story. With more than a little indignation, Bob Garfield noted in his essay on On the Media, “…facts in and of themselves do not constitute truth. They can be selected and arranged any which way, intentionally or unintentionally, to distort truth and turn it upside down. That is precisely how political consultants earn a living: assembling nominal facts to tell big, fat lies.”

Fair enough, but a lot of this seems like hair splitting to me. No one can deny that Kony is an evil guy. No one can deny that Apple, and every other electronics manufacturer on planet Earth, exploit lax Chinese labor laws and low prices in order to give us the shiny gadgets we all want. Now, because of Daisey and others, they are trying to clean up their act, the way Nike did 15 years ago. And the whole world knows about Joseph Kony.

But it still gnaws at me, this idea of getting things MOSTLY right in the service of another goal. It’s OK as long as you agree with that larger goal, right? But what if you don’t? And where are the ethics?

Nicholas Kristof wrote an OpEd in the New York Times on March 15. Since getting behind the Times’ paywall is becoming less and less of a trivial matter, here is the takeaway:  Kristof, who has probably seen more of mankind’s atrocities than any living journalist, delivered a point-by-point rebuttal to the early Kony backlash.

“It’s true that indignation among Americans won’t by itself stop Kony. Yet I’ve learned over the years that public attention can create an environment in which solutions are more likely.

I asked Anthony Lake, now the executive director of Unicef who was President Clinton’s national security adviser during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, whether a viral video about Rwanda would have made a difference then. “The answer is yes,” he said. He suggested that this kind of public attention would also have helped save more lives in Darfur and in Congo’s warring east.

In 1999, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright paid a brief visit to war-ravaged Sierra Leone and was photographed with a 3-year-old girl whose right arm had been chopped off. The photograph, widely circulated, helped galvanize outside powers to crush the militias. Sierra Leone is now at peace, and that girl is studying in the United States.

I asked Albright, who later led a task force on preventing genocide, what she thinks of the Kony video.

“Shining a light makes a lot of difference,” she said, adding that Kony’s prospects are probably less good now than before the video came out.

The bottom line is: A young man devotes nine years of his life to fight murder, rape and mutilation, he produces a video that goes viral and galvanizes mostly young Americans to show concern for needy villagers abroad — and he’s vilified?

I don’t know if this initiative will make a difference. But if I were a Congolese villager, I would welcome these uncertain efforts over the sneering scorn of do-nothing armchair cynics.”

Social Media is STILL Stupid

About one year ago, I wrote a tongue in cheek post entitled Social Media is Stupid. (Click the link to refresh your memory. Go ahead, I’ll wait…it was a short post.)

The inspiration for the post was from the inimitable Sarah Perez of ReadWriteWeb back in May 2008 where she outlined how social media could be used to support social causes such as the victims of the Chinese earthquake, tornado victims in Corvida, charities, social causes, news gathering and social good.

Well, the stupidity of social media is rearing its head once again, this time in Iran. Iranians inside the country, and millions around the world who support those who challenge the recent elections, are blogging, posting to facebook and using twitter to coordinate their protests.  By using the hashtag #iranelection, all tweets on this topic can be organized and searched on a moment’s notice. (Go to search.twitter.com and enter #iranelection to see how it works.) Even though the government has attempted to shut down texting and internet access, enterprising citizens have figured out a way around the roadblocks.

The next time you hear someone who has never used twitter, or any other new media tool for that matter, but who has a fully formed opinion peppered with such enlightened observations like, “Why do I care what you had for lunch today?”, fill them in on what I’ve written about here.

We are in the middle of a worldwide communications revolution, folks. facebook and twitter may not be the standard bearers on into the future, but how much more proof do you need that things have changed forever?

Social Media, the State Department…and you

One of the goals I have always tried to pursue with this blog is showing how new media and/or social media are making inroads in places where you might not expect. I also endeavor to give you a reason to care. It’s great that everyone is on Twitter, but so what? Facebook is growing faster than the population. And?

So with that in mind, and marrying technology with my other great interest-politics, I bring you today’s item of interest.

Obama gets all the credit for making this the most technologically savvy campaign and Administration ever, right? But there have been things going on at the State Department for awhile now that are worth noting. The Office of eDiplomacy is been around since 2003 with a mandate to improve communication inside and oustide the State Department. They have been blogging since 2007, at the unfortunately named Dipnote, and are active on Twitter. (As a nice feature, they show who is manning the Twitter feed at any given time. When I checked in at around 9:30pm, Daniel was holding down the Twit fort.)

So, is anyone paying attention? Apparently so. Blog visits are up 100% from 10,000 to 20,000 per day, Twitter followers have tripled since Inauguration Day, and they have 2 1/2 times the number of Facebook friends. So I guess I am not the only techno-politico geek out there.

OK- so what? The last election and the massive mobilization of voters directly because of their ability to get, share and create infomation online was the beginning of a significant shift in the relationship that we all could (and many of us do) have with the government. The traditional focus, especially at the State Department, has been from government to government. But what if that focus shifted to government to people, people to government and people to people? There is too much going on on the international stage and the stakes are too high. Many people are not content to be spectators anymore. Previously disenfranchised people or those of us who felt helpless to effect change now have a way of networking with one another as well as back to Foggy Bottom. As Secretary Clinton recently pointed out, “…[this] is the heart of smart power. This changing landscape requires us to expand our concept of diplomacy.” She went on to cite the example of the Columbia grads who used the Million Strong Against the FARC Facebook group “to organize 14 million people in the largest anti terrorism demonstrations in the world. In a few short weeks, their actions did as much damage to the terrorist networks as years of military action.”

Pretty strong stuff. The power of social media helped get at least one guy elected, a lesson probably not lost on Mrs. Clinton.

More information from TechPresident.

The message is the message

For companies and organizations considering adopting new media or social media strategies, there is one piece of advice I would offer above all else: have something to say!

With all the talk in the media, and on this blog, about the Administration’s use of new media to both get elected and communicate with the public now that they’re in office, very often the news peg seems to be how well Obama team used social media and new media  to communicate their message to a large and previously underserved group. This morning on NPR, I heard a story that several GOP congresspeople were now using Twitter to talk to their constituents because, as the correspondent put it, they had “got beat [sic]” at the new media game.

What gets left out of this discussion is that perhaps the Obama MESSAGE was what resonated with people, and the whole social media thing was just a hook to communicate it better and mobilize people to act. Blogs, Twitter, YouTube, message boards- they’re all great. But they ain’t worth a damn if you don’t have anything of value or interest to communicate.

This is not a repudiation of the GOP platform. The point I am trying to make is you have to avoid the temptation to pick up every shiny new object and, instead, focus more on what it is you’re trying to communicate. There is no “delete” button on the internet, so you better make sure you are giving the folks “news they can use.” Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and all the TOOLS might all be gone in 5 years, replaced by something we cannot identify today. But the strategies and methods are here to stay.

Not sure if there are any Jim Rome fans who read this blog, but he is a TV and radio host who always warns his callers to “have a take- don’t suck!”

The medium is not the message. The message is the message.

Trouble figuring out your social media strategy?

So you’ve been hearing how social media can help with your overall communications and marketing plan and you want to get started. Maybe you’ve even got the boss to buy in and you’re beginning to see the opportunity to move the plan forward.

But it can be confusing knowing how to get started. You may even have technology issues. Or internal disagreements on messaging or who is going to manage the community. You think you got it bad?

At least you’re not the President of the United States!

The nimble and effective online netroots campaign that helped launch the Obama-Biden ticket into the White House is still feeling its way during the first days of the Administration. But the point of this post is not to point out the problems that they may be encountering as they try and turn what was a powerful campaign movement into an equally effective governing movement. But, rather, to illustrate that while the Obama team is operating on a scale larger than what you’re probably facing, the lessons are instructive to the rest of us, whether we run small, medium or large organizations or businesses.

Organizing for America is the Adminsitration’s attempt to redirect all that Facebook-Twitter-YouTube iTunes mojo into an opinion shaping entity. (No website yet for Organizing for America. I TOLD you this stuff can be hard!)

Just like in the “real world,” figuring out an effective social media strategy inevitably implies what some like to call “failing fast.” Not everything you will try will work right away, or work at all. But flexibility is critical. David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager said in an e-mail to around 13 million members of  “Obama for America” (notice how “Organizing for America” and “Obama for America” yield the same acronym? Clever, huh?) “This has obviously never been undertaken before, so it’s going to be a little trial and error.”

The weekly radio address is now also a weekly video address, and has been since Election Day. The YouTube channel, as of this writing, reports over 800,000 views in two days, with almost as many flame throwing and offensive comments. (The videos are also on iTunes, WhiteHouse.gov and probably lots of other places, too) Still, I wonder how many of you, even the most hardened politcal junkies, ever actually heard the weekly Presidential radio address since they began with FDR as “Fireside Chats?” (As a video guy, I have to mention the the quality of the videos have improved signifcantly from the President-Elect versions to now. Amazing what a couple of lights, a decent background and an HD camera can do for your image.)

The principal takeaways are these:

1- Starting, or in this case maintaining, an effective social media strategy is hard work and requires committment, dedication, attention to detail and continuity.

2- Be ready to shift on the fly if the law of unintended consequences kicks in. Just because something is not going how you planned, does not NECESSARILY mean it’s going badly. Your “perfect” strategy may be revealed as “imperfect” the second you launch it. Study the lessons and adjust.

Pay attention to the difficulties someone else is having, and use them to your advantage. But do SOMETHING. The success of your business may be at stake.

Obama, Social Media and Top Down Change

In both the press and on blogs, much was made during the last election cycle about the mobilization of the grass roots to push Obama over the top. Even more was made of his campaign's savvy use of new media to motivate and engage voters to act.

A parallel meme has been floating out there among social media consultants and PR people about the ROI of social media implementation for companies and organizations. The uphill battle to convince the more set-in-their-ways decision makers can make SM adoption a frustrating sell, one that suffers from unfair and misguided comparisons to the old ways of doing things, such as direct mail, print advertising and other forms of top down communications. Spend a little time perusing the terrific blogs of good writers like Jason Falls, Amber Naslund and Mark Story and you will see what I mean. (And you'll also learn a lot.)

What do these two things have to do with one another, you're probably asking.

Despite what a lot of us would like to think, what happens in the Oval Office in particular and in Washington in general DOES have direct consequences on our day to day lives. I am not talking about waging wars or raising or lowering taxes or passing bills to make mountain lion hunting legal only on third Wednesdays of months that begin with the letter "A." (Hey, there MIGHT be a law like that for all you know.)

Presidents set the tone on many issues that influence our business lives and interactions and it seems to me that the incoming Administration has the potential to be a real boon to those of us in social media who have been beating our heads against the wall in trying to get others to see the light as it pertains to the adoption of new media into PR and marketing plans.

The story of Obama's usage of these tools during the campaign has been well told. What remains to be seen is how his Administration will keep the new media home fires burning. There have been a lot of pie-in-the-sky predictions, but as Mark Story points out, there ain't gonna be no Wiki White House. But that's OK. In the embedded video from Mr. Obama's most recent fireside chat, he outlines 5 things that need to happen right away:

  1. Make Federal builidings more energy efficient. (Something that will likely trickle down to the building industry at large.)
  2. Upgrade roads and bridges.
  3. Upgrade our schools, both in terms of their physical plants as well as technologically.
  4. Broadband. "It is unacceptable that the US ranks 15th in the world in broadband adoption. Here, in the country that invented the internet, every child should have the chance to get online, and they’ll get that chance when I’m President – because that’s how we’ll strengthen America’s competitiveness in the world.”
  5. Connecting hospitals and medical records via the internet to cut red tape and cut down on medical mistakes.

Note that points 3, 4 and 5 all involve technology, internet and broadband and this message was delivered via the good old fashioned radio, but also YouTube and iTunes.

It is my contention that these tough economic times as well as this kind of leadership from the White House bode well for the implementation of social media strategies for all kinds of businesses, organizations and brands. But don't try this at home, folks. Make sure to consult your social media doctor before taking any prescriptions. The harmful side effects brought on by unsupervised new media dabbling can be painful.

Just ask Motrin.

Not another Barack Obama/New Media blog post

Nope. This one is BETTER! At least, I thought so.

A 20-year old Dartmouth College junior named Vanessa Sievers ran for, and won, the treasurer’s seat in Grafton County, NH. The current county treasurer, 68-year old Carol Elliott, called her a “teenybopper,” and said the only reason she won was because of “brainwashed college kids.”

Ms. Sievers, not unexpectedly, had a slightly different take and attributed her success to other factors. According to the New York Times, her biggest investment was a $51 ad she placed on Facebook which she paid for with her own money. But here’s the killer quote from this rising political titan of New Hampshire politics: “I took advantage of new media and she [Ms. Elliott] did not.” The county Republican chairman, Ludlow Flower, was overheard muttering that neither college kids nor new media belonged in a county race.

Funny. That attitude seems to pervade the entire GOP.

Barack Obama and New Media

I am big fan of the blog Podcasting News. In the wake of the election, they posted their analysis of how Obama crushed McCain in terms of his masterful use of technology, new media and online communications tools.

The main takeaway is that Obama was always in control of his message where the McCain campaign, for lots of reasons, was often reacting to events and sometimes getting burned by new media.

The analysis does seem to leave out the benefit he derived from online media most central to his victory which was his fund raising prowess, much of which came from online donations and those solicited through e-mail, his website or the Obama iPhone app.

Nevertheless, it is a great recap of how to use online media to win friends and influence people. The stakes could not have been higher and the outcome was by no means assured. If the President-elect is committed to a new media strategy, there might be a lesson for every business or organization looking for a way to start a conversation.

Read the recap here.

Obama, McCain and online video

Whoever wins today’s US Presidential election, and recent history suggests there might be some dispute over the outcome, the UNDISPUTED winners were online video users.

A Cisco study found that online video viewers,who as we have pointed out in past posts include nearly 75% of all US internet users, were much more engaged in this year’s election than in 2004. Obviously, there is much more online video available than in 2004, so the results should be viewed as a harbinger for 2012 rather than a look back at 2004.

Some topline results:

  • 62% of online video users followed the election closely, compared to 37% of non-users
  • 84% gave “quite a lot of thought” to this year’s election, with 68% saying they were more interested in politics than in 2004
  • 75% felt that using online video helped them follow the election more closely

The ability to research and verify the candidates’ claims and counterclaims, the ability to time shift and examine their positions at one’s leisure, watch speeches and generally devote more time than cable or broadcast TV coverage permit are all contributing factors to this sea change. Undoubtedly, the Democratic ticket took much greater advantage of the internet in its imaginative use of online media and the web in general. But the study revealed no significant differences in either gender or income in terms of online video usage, so the playing field is open and level.

2012 and beyond will see vast increases in online media uses on the part of both parties, making 2008 look like 1908.

I’ve got a great idea: how about Twitter debates?

UPDATE: Apparently, we have an undisputed winner. No fighting about outcomes this time around.

The Internet and the presidential election

A recent study from the Pew Internet and American Life Project assigned some concrete numbers to what most of us expected: 46% of Americans have used the internet, e-mail or text messaging to get news about the campaign, share their views and mobilize others.

The internet certainly makes it easier for people to get involved, check voting records, verify candidates’ claims, organize themselves and, perhaps most importantly, influence others. People use the web to forward comments and videos, donate money, feel more personally invested in the campaign and organize on a grassroots level.

The internet being the internet, however, also means that mis- and disinformation is magnified along with every gaffe and misstatement. What struck me was that the level of engagement almost doubled from 2004 during the primary season (8% of adults in Spring 2004 compared to 17% of adults in Spring 2008) , traditionally a time when only the most hardcore voters seem to be paying attention.

A few highlights:

  • 40% of all Americans (internet users and non-internet users) have gotten news and information about this year’s campaign via the internet
  • 35% of Americans say they have watched online political videos, nearly triple the figure of 2004
  • 10% say they have used social networking sites like Facebook or MySpace to gather information or become involved
  • 6% of Americans have made political contributions online

And many users are digging deeper to circumvent the mainstream media and their soundbite driven business model to more fully form their own opinions about Messrs. McCain and Obama.

Greater involvement is great for the republic. So we’ll leave the predictions about Election Day chaos for another day.