I had just whipped out my smartphone and settled a question about my 11-year-old son’s homework in record time. Impressed, he shook his head. How on earth did I manage to make it through high school without the Internet? “I feel sorry for you, Mom.”
True — kids today can get to information much faster. But my generation’s path was easier because it was more direct: topic => library => card catalog => books => voilà. Information was physically confined by front and back covers, neatly indexed.
Not only does their information world swirl at turbo speed, but it’s exponentially broader than ours ever was. That makes the picture much harder to read. Whereas even the thickest books eventually ended, a Web hunt can last forever. Kids must play detective, scrutinizing sources and sniffing out ideological biases, leaps of logic and just plain mischief. Is this source lying? Uninformed? A corporate stooge or hack? Kids have to be librarian and editor, curator and jury.
And for children trying to navigate an increasingly global moral universe, growing up in the Internet age is especially daunting. Take Kony 2012, the nonprofit Invisible Children’s controversial and wildly successful documentary-style social media campaign. The campaign has commanded children all over the world to participate in the Cover the Night event on April 20, in which they “step away from their computers and into the streets” to show the world that they are serious about bringing to justice a Ugandan warlord who preys on children.
More than 100 million people watched the initial Kony 2012 video in a week, making it the most viral video in history. Then the grown-up backlash began. Out came “facts” about the nonprofit’s finances; truth-squadding from actual Ugandans; worries about a “white savior” complex; and, most fatally, the group’s narrator and co-founder Jason Russell’s very public psychotic breakdown. Credible evidence emerged that Russell was cursed by Ugandan voodoo “magic.” (Hey, one of my great-great-grandmothers was said to be an obeah woman; I’ve no reason to doubt it.)
Invisible Children’s follow-up video, which has been viewed “just” 1.6 million times, has been declared a failure. It’s over. Keep it moving, folks. Nothing to see here!
Not so fast. Like all effective propaganda, the Kony 2012 campaign wasn’t about facts. It was a direct emotional appeal in which children spoke to other children about how to save other children. Simple, direct orders were repeated over and over again. An arbitrary deadline was imposed on when the bogeyman would be captured. It was a choose-your-own-adventure story. And kids would decide how it would end and what would happen to the bad guy.
Part of me finds Invisible Children’s motivations earnest and the dream of knitting a global community of children against oppression very, very seductive. But given the track record of messianic figures leading the rainbow throngs to God’s light, to be honest, this kind of power terrifies me.