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Online community journalism vs. Kony

Is social media the new face of the fourth estate? Alyce Hogg examines the Kony 2012 phenomenon and ensuing backlash and asks where, in today’s rapidly evolving media industry, should we place our trust?

The internet knows no fury, like the reddit hivemind made to look the fool.

Well, let’s be honest, 4Chan might give them a run for their money, but there’s always been a casual, almost joyful nonchalance about the way that particular community goes about systematically dismantling the lives of those foolish enough to put themselves in their firing line.

On the other hand, the painfully self aware and identity proud reddit revels in its own collective intellect, uniqueness and sense of community and belonging.

reddit is a social news website, with all content submitted by, and voted up or down by its registered users. This system of ‘upvoting’ and ‘downvoting’ determines the prominence of content’s position on the site. All content also links directly to a comments page, in effect, a discussion forum where wider discussion of the content takes place and factual inaccuracies and possible prejudices and biases are picked over.

It’s a community of over 8 million active users that revels without irony in chance, ‘real world’ encounters with other members, reverently chronicling those moments when the not so secret signs of redditor recognition (‘When does the Narwhal bacon?’) are returned (‘At midnight’).

It is also a community defined by its own strong sense of collective identity. The typical reddit user stereotype is that of the geek, the intellectual and the social outsider. At reddit, to be an overweight ‘neckbeard’, a basement dwelling gamer or a ‘forever aloner’ is to hold social currency.

The community’s self perpetuated perception that to be a redditor is to somehow be special; to be separate from and above the rest of the internet, has made signing up to reddit something like gaining membership to an elite organization.

Yet, reddit is neither elite, nor exclusive, but open to everything and everyone. It is generally uncensored and moderation of content is rare. It is free to sign up and its user base is expanding, rapidly.

So, it is that by the very nature of reddit, any perceived sense of community identity must be tenuous and fragile. Challenge it, or worse, manipulate it and watch as the hivemind erupts with fury and moves swiftly into damage control.

Enter Kony 2012.

Last week, reddit helped Kony go viral; the video was posted hundreds of times (some from spamming accounts), with some individual submissions accumulating thousands of upvotes.

It’s unsurprising that the clip exploded the way it did on reddit. The community has always been outspoken against injustice and has on several occasions proven itself to be charitable, with a sense of social responsibility.

Yet the community’s pride in its taste making abilities were short-lived, as comment threads began to fill with criticism of the Kony campaign and everything from Invisible Children’s politics and economics, to the emotionally manipulative tone of the video.

The nature of the content appearing on reddit concerning Kony 2012 swiftly changed from adulating praise for the movement, to highly critical analysis pieces, satirical memes and Facebook screen captures depicting conversations where Kony 2012 supporters were ridiculed, patronised and mocked.

While today a site search of reddit for the term ‘Kony’ still registers over 4000 hits, sorting the results by popularity reveals the overwhelming majority of upvoted content to be critical of the Kony 2012 movement and Invisible Children as a charity.

You’ll have to scroll through to the second page, to even find a link to the video itself.

The Kony phenomenon and consequential backlash against Invisible Children provides a pertinent lesson about the power of the collective intellect of online communities such as reddit. It demonstrates that social news sites are indeed open to exploitation and manipulation, but not without a price.

reddit’s response to the Kony campaign demonstrates that social news media and its user base has a legitimate place alongside the mainstream news media in the ever changing and evolving role of the fourth estate.

For so it was that while Channel Ten’s The Project ran Invisible Children’s propaganda piece in full, unedited and all but without critical analysis, the reddit community was deconstructing and scrutinising every aspect of Invisible Children, from their political and religious motivation, to the charity’s concerning finances.

Which would you trust?


Alyce Hogg is studying a Bachelor of Journalism with Honours. You can follow her on twitter @alycehogg

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