How Social Science Could Help Build a Better Kony Campaign

03/30/2012 08:13 pm ET | Updated May 30, 2012

Co-written with Adam Waytz of the Kellogg School of Management

You've almost certainly seen Kony 2012, the arresting, flawlessly produced video released by the organization Invisible Children earlier this month. It has become one of the fastest-spreading media events in history, the most viral in a sea of viral messages. Kony 2012 is designed raise awareness of the atrocities committed by Joseph Kony in Uganda and elsewhere, with the aim of bringing Kony to justice. On its surface, the impact of such a message is unassailably positive.

The reality of Kony 2012 has proven to be much more complex, producing two starkly different responses. On the one hand, many of the video's millions of viewers have joined Invisible Children's cause. On the other hand, many detractors, including outraged Ugandan audiences, have criticized Kony 2012 as a patronizing oversimplification of a complex issue, and a dangerous call for militarization. These concerns have been amplified by signs of Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell's psychological instability.

Details aside, Kony 2012's story raises a more general concern about viral activism: bringing awareness to a righteous cause -- a seemingly useful gesture -- may, in fact, fail to produce action, or, worse, harm those it aims to help. Social scientists have studied this tension for decades, and their research sheds light on how viral campaigns for activism can work, and why they so often fail. Here we focus on a few of these insights.

Empathy can turn us inward. Bill Clinton famously felt the pain of his constituents. Many of us similarly share others' suffering and joy and believe that this sharing drives our humanitarian urges to help those in need. This popular, centuries-old model of empathy is almost certainly wrong. Instead, the term "empathy" describes at least two things: personal distress, one's own discomfort in the face of others' suffering, and empathic concern, a focus on the specific needs and experiences of those others. These components of empathy, in turn, provoke very different actions. Critically, personal distress may motivate people not to help others but to simply quell their own negative emotions.

Consider research by psychologist Daniel Batson. Batson showed people a film of someone else being electrically shocked and asked them whether they wished to help this person by "taking" shocks for them. He further told some people that if they didn't help, they would have to watch the other person receive further shocks; others were told they'd be free to leave. Personal distress motivated people to help, but only when they'd otherwise have to watch the other person suffering. In other words, personal distress produces relatively shallow attempts to make oneself feel better. Sometimes this requires helping. More often, it simply requires detaching from the source of discomfort: the person in need.

Helping a little can replace helping a lot. Even worse, token attempts to help others can supplant more meaningful action. Research demonstrates that even the tiniest altruistic gestures -- for example, buying green products -- have the "flavor" of meaningful action and can cause people to experience moral satisfaction. Like the small doses of a virus included in vaccines, meaningless helping can inoculate us against the need to exert any real effort for a cause. Kony 2012 almost certainly produced this type of "slacktivism," causing people to feel distress, share the video as a token gesture, and then move on, satisfied that they were part of the solution.

Moral superiority can generate backlash. Ironically, the same feelings of personal distress that motivate well-intentioned -- if problematic -- helping also produced some of the sharpest criticism toward Invisible Children. This is because, for many, the video is personally threatening in prompting the question, "How could I let this happen?" Furthermore, because Kony 2012 highlights Invisible Children the organization at least as much as the invisible children of Uganda, it is easy to infer a sense of "moral superiority" from the filmmakers. Research demonstrates that people who are made to feel both threatened and inferior by such messages often derogate do-gooders, an effect that explains why meat eaters belittle vegetarians and SUV drivers mock hybrids. Although many criticisms of Invisible Children are legitimate, some anger at Kony 2012 may stem from an aversion to feeling "morally one-upped."

To be sure, Kony 2012, along with events like the Arab Spring, demonstrate viral activism's enormous potential. It also provides lessons for how future campaigns can harness this potential while avoiding critical pitfalls. The first lesson is that portrayals of unmitigated suffering can do more harm than good. A million deaths is not simply a "statistic," as Josef Stalin is purported to have said; instead, such suffering can overwhelm us with personal distress, leading to "empathy fatigue," in which viewers focus on alleviating their own discomfort, often through a shutdown of compassion. The Internet allows innovative media groups such as the Common Language Project to replace simplified images of suffering with nuanced, first-person accounts of the lives of people in need. Such other-oriented messages may allow viewers to more easily "get into the heads" of these people and foster empathic concern instead of personal distress.

A second lesson is to promote more-than-minimal opportunities to help. Research shows that people experience a warm glow from doing substantial good for others, which can unfortunately be co-opted by mere token efforts. Placing opportunities to share money and time on an equal level with opportunities to share a Facebook video may prevent people from substituting slight acts of altruism for more meaningful ones.

Finally, video campaigns can avoid backlash by recognizing the egos of their viewers and bestowing upon them feelings of autonomy rather than inferiority. Organizations that place themselves in front of the camera rather than behind it risk alienating the people who might be the most motivated to help the cause.

These lessons are not meant to undermine Invisible Children or their respondents. Kony 2012's cause is clearly important, and its critics similarly have valid concerns about its message. More broadly, Kony 2012 highlights the Internet's transition from mere marketplace of opinions to training ground for action. As such, the time is right to ask how to maximize the promise of online activism.