When Viral Goes Wrong For Creators

What makes viral stuff so interesting is how people latch on to it for so long and always have their two cents about it. We’ve seen the best, the worst and everything in between; some of these viral videos have brought awareness to an issue (see the latest Kony 2012) or promoted an artist into the mainstream. However, when something goes viral on social media, it may have unfortunate consequences for their creators—but each creator has handled criticism differently.

The unfortunate downward spiral of KONY 2012 creator Jason Russell is a prime example of how a viral video could shine a spotlight too bright for the creator. If you haven’t seen the half-hour long film, let me tell you, it has wonderful cinematic quality while at the same time giving scant details and a call to action about a relatively unknown conflict in Uganda. It didn’t matter at the time that Invisible Children spent a significant amount of its money on video production and salaries instead of helping the children of Uganda; KONY 2012 had nearly 100 million views on YouTube and Vimeo and was the talk of many for days since its debut a couple of weeks ago.

While the guys at Invisible Children were hoping for 500,000 views by the end of 2012, they weren’t prepared for the onslaught of viewers in so many days since the debut. Of course, with much attention comes great scrutiny, which fell mainly on the director Jason Russell, one of the founders of the nonprofit. For Russell, the questions and criticism seemed too much, which possibly led to his nervous breakdown in San Diego last week where he was accused of vandalizing cars, cussing people out and making bizarre movements in public. He is currently hospitalized due to “brief reactive psychosis” and his wife blamed his moment on the criticism, saying “many of the attacks against it were also very personal, and Jason took them very hard.” While the die-hard Invisible Children supporters will always go to Russell’s defense, others who marginally know of KONY 2012 may think twice before giving their support.

Although the criticism of KONY 2012 took a toll on Russell, others in his shoes have dealt with the blows from something going viral differently. In January, the public radio program “This American Life” aired excerpts of theater performer Mike Daisey’s monologue “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” The performer traveled to the Foxconn plant in China where they make Apple products and investigated its conditions. Daisey’s segment on “This American Life” was a big hit in its initial broadcast with nearly 900,000 downloads of that podcast to date. However, people overlooked the fact that Daisey fabricated many facts from his monologue as fact. NPR’s “Marketplace” called Daisey out on his fabrications, including the assertion that he met underage workers at the Foxconn factory.

In light of the fabrications, “This American Life” last weekend retracted Daisey’s segment and devoted its entire program on the controversy, with host Ira Glass taking full responsibility for airing the fabrications. Although Daisey apologized for deceiving the myriad of “This American Life” listeners, he made excuses and defended his work, claiming he is not a journalist and rather wanted a story—not something that reflects the program.

In spite of the segment deceiving multitudes of loyal listeners and curious fellows, Glass did the noble thing and did not make it a blame game despite the fact that he wasn’t the one who fabricated his facts. When viral goes wrong, creators have different ways of handling the aftermath—either losing their cool and make a scene or taking what’s bad and respond gracefully. Your call.