HETRICK: If you want to save Syrians, produce a viral video

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Bruce Hetrick

Last year, a viral video called “KONY 2012” was all the rage. On their website, the film’s producers, an advocacy group called Invisible Children, call it “the fastest-growing viral video of all time.” On YouTube alone, the video has been viewed more than 98 million times.

The bad guy in “KONY 2012” is warlord Joseph Kony. Operating out of central Africa, he and his Lord’s Resistance Army fighters are, says Reuters, “wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes … accused of abducting thousands of children to use as fighters in a rebel army that earned a reputation for chopping off limbs as a form of discipline.”

With Kony unknown and unnoticed by the world’s masses and powers that be, Invisible Children embarked on an experiment: “Could an online video make an obscure war criminal famous? And if he was famous, would the world work together to stop him? Or would it let him remain at large?”

In addition to the film, Invisible Children and its supporters lobbied members of Congress, staged an event attended by thousands in Washington, and otherwise asked influential politicians and celebrities in the U.S. and abroad to “pressure international governments to support the regional efforts to stop the LRA.”

In my college classes, where we studied KONY 2012 as a public relations case history, young people asked, “What can we do?” and “Why won’t our government help?” and “How can we get them to act?”

Appalled by a monster turning little boys into soldiers, enlisting little girls as sex slaves and slaughtering his own countrymen and others, my social media channels sounded similar appeals for U.S. and global intervention.

Fast forward a year.

Joseph Kony is still at large. Reuters reports that he and his army are “thought to be hiding in jungles straddling the borders of the Central African Republic, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.” In other words, places that most Americans don’t care about and can’t locate on a map.

Besides, there’s a different bad guy du jour: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He’s not hiding in a jungle. He occupies a seat of power in another place most Americans can’t locate on a map.

Rather than an underground militia of little boys, Assad has a national army at his disposal.

The Washington Post reported that “fighting between government forces and rebels has killed more than 100,000 and created 2 million refugees, half of them children.”

“The killing,” said the Post, “started in April 2011, when peaceful protests inspired by earlier revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia rose up to challenge the dictatorship running the country. The government responded—there is no getting around this—like monsters. First, security forces quietly killed activists. Then they started kidnapping, raping, torturing and killing activists and their family members, including a lot of children, dumping their mutilated bodies by the sides of roads. Then troops began simply opening fire on protests. Eventually, civilians started shooting back.”

Then, says the U.S. government, Assad’s army used chemical weapons—a violation of international law.

Sounds like Kony on steroids.

But alas, there’s no viral video personalizing the problem. No close-up footage of a little boy-turned-soldier who’s been forced to murder his own parents. No tearful interviews with escaped teenage sex slaves. No grassroots call to action because it’s the right and moral thing to do.

Instead, the call to act is coming from the top down.

It’s tinged with dislike and distrust of the guy at the top.

It’s tainted by previous top-down appeals fraught with lies and fabricated evidence.

It’s riddled with citizens’ frustration that our elected representatives in Washington can’t agree on anything having to do with human health, but somehow they overcome their differences to dispense death.

It’s maligned with the knowledge that we try to be the world’s cop when we can’t afford enough cops at home.

So instead of debating moral values, the sanctity of human life and the responsibilities inherent in being the world’s foremost defender of democracy, we’re caught up in partisan gamesmanship, arguments over affordability and sermons of self-interest—not to mention doubt and disbelief over the evidence and the limits of any intended intervention.

There’s a book called “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” At that age, I read “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”

Having done so, I must apologize to the victims and victims to come in Syria. But as a result of places like Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan—places where we’ve been promised small interventions only to lose many lives—it now takes more than a mere wolf cry to move us to act.

Find a filmmaker to produce a viral video. Then maybe the American masses will come to your rescue.•


Hetrick is an Indianapolis-based writer, speaker and public relations consultant. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.


  • Be ready for success
    It seems that viral awareness is the best way to 'rally the troops' nowadays. Organizations need to be prepared for success though. The Kony 2012 thing was amazing, until the leader danced naked in the streets. Not being prepared led to embarrassment and loss of credibility.

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