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Social Media Activism or Mere Slacktivism?

CASE STUDY: Was Kony 2012 Social Media Activism or Mere Slacktivism?

Case Study PDF | Additional Case Studies


Screencapture: YouTube

On March 5, 2012, Jason Russell, co-founder of the NGO Invisible Children, uploaded a 30-minute film on YouTube titled Kony 2012. In this short film, Russell introduced Americans to the plight of children in northern Uganda who live in fear of being kidnapped by warlord Joseph Kony. With over 100 million views in just six days, this video quickly became a viral sensation, blanketing the feeds of many social media users (Kanczula, 2012). After visiting Africa in 2003 and witnessing the violence led by Kony, Russell says that he was compelled to raise awareness about this vicious Ugandan group in hope that the United States government would intervene to stop this humanitarian tragedy.  His short film focuses on Jacob, a Ugandan boy who lost his brother to the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a group of armed rebels serving Kony that was founded in 1987. The LRA terrorizes African children, forcing them to mutilate the faces of innocent people and kill their parents. Jacob describes the horror of life in Uganda and how he lives every day in fear of the rebels. Jacob is not alone: more than 30,000 Ugandan children have become victims of Kony and the LRA’s inhumane tactics. Russell’s work is both provocative and hopeful: when Jacob cries in the film in fear of one day being kidnapped, American voices console him and make the promise: Kony will be stopped.

This video was very successful in capturing the attention of concerned social media users: over 4 million tweets mentioned Kony after its release (Kanczula, 2012). Brendon Cox, director of policy and advocacy for Save the Children, an NGO with a similar mission to Invisible Children, states that he supports the Kony campaign because “Anything which continues to pressurize world leaders to bring Joseph Kony to justice is to be welcomed…This viral film shows that even though Joseph Kony is in hiding his crimes will not be forgotten.” In addition to creating the most viral video in history, the campaign led to President Obama’s deployment of a small number of U.S. troops in 2011 in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to capture Kony. Support for Invisible Children’s campaign involved over three million social media users who pledged to support “Stop Kony 2012,” including notable celebrities like Oprah and Bill Gates. Many of these supporters gave money to the campaign: over $28 million was raised to publicize the fight against Kony in 2012 alone (Curtis et al., 2012).


Screencapture: YouTube

Reactions to this instance of online activism were mixed, since it was premised on making Kony’s activities highly public. The goal of this campaign, reiterated many times in Russell’s film, was to make Kony “famous.” While Oprah donated $2 million to this information-based activist campaign, Ugandans threw rocks during a public screening of the film (Smith, 2012). A young Ugandan man captures the source of this anger after the screening by asking, “How can anybody expect me to wear a T-shirt with Kony’s name on it?” Beyond the publicity, others worry about this strategy of making a trend out of unjust individuals. What happens when the trend dies out? “Kony is so last month,” claimed a Twitter user soon after the initial enthusiasm of the campaign faded (Carroll, 2012). Many Ugandans took offense to this American organization’s campaign and its supposed colonial nature. Ugandan journalist and blogger Rosebell Kagumire claimed that the film “makes out a narrative that is often heard about Africa…about how hopeless African people are in times of conflict” (Curtis et al., 2012). Others voiced concern with potential ulterior motives and short cuts involved in the activist campaign. The film’s sensationalization of Kony and the LRA strategically presented certain information, including hiding the fact that Joseph Kony hadn’t been in Uganda for six years before 2012. Filmmaker Simon Rawles voiced concerns about the motivation for such a persuasive retelling: “I felt a little nauseous watching the film. Couldn’t help but feel the director’s concern was less about addressing the needs of those affected today by the LRA and the complexities of tackling the rebel group, than as serving as a very slick promotional vehicle for his charity” (Curtis et al., 2012). There are some grounds to support this criticism, such as the fact that Invisible Children only spent about 30% of their revenues for directly helping Ugandans affected by the LRA, while the rest was used for film production and staff salaries (Goldberg, 2017).

Others worry that Kony 2012 is a case of “slacktivism,” or easy online efforts being mistaken for real and effective activist movements. Offline efforts connected with this campaign went nowhere: while Russell ardently pleaded for supporters across the world to “cover the night” on April 20, 2012 (i.e., vandalize their hometowns so that Kony’s name would be everywhere), turnout was abysmal. In Los Angeles, the streets were mostly free of Kony posters and young activists (Carroll, 2012). Likewise, in Sydney, Australia, out of 19,000 who registered online to attend a Kony 2012 rally, only 25 actually participated (Marcus, 2012).

Despite the apparent enthusiasm of internet activists, Joseph Kony is still alive and in power in Uganda. The Kony 2012 campaign seemed to raise many questions concerning the ethics and effectiveness of online activism: can social good come out of making the horrific crimes against Ugandan children a “trend” and their tormenter “famous?” Is such publicity-based activism on social media usefully raising awareness, or is it simply a too-easy “slacktivism?”

Discussion Questions:

  1. Was Kony 2012 an ethically-worthy film? Was the campaign surrounding it ethically valuable? What ethical issues does this film raise?
  2. Does the effectiveness of the film and campaign matter for your moral appraisal of Russell’s efforts? Why or why not?
  3. Is the Kony 2012 campaign an instance of innovative activism or mere “slacktivism?”
  4. What are the ethical concerns with enhancing the publicity or visibility of those doing immoral actions? How might such plans backfire, and what can be done to make them ethical and effective?

Further Information:

Carroll, Rory. “Kony 2012 Cover the Night fails to move from the internet to the streets.” April 21, 2012. Retrieved from

Goldberg, Eleanor. “Group Behind ‘Kony 2012’ Closing Because Of Funding Issues.” December 6, 2017. Retrieved from

Kanczula, Antonia. “Kony 2012 in numbers.” April 20, 2012. Retrieved from

Marcus, Caroline. “Kony 2012 campaign a giant flop in Sydney.” April 21, 2012. Retrieved November 15, 2018, from

Smith, David. “Kony 2012 video screening met with anger in northern Uganda.” March 14, 2012. Retrieved from

Curtis, Polly & McCarthy, Tom. “Kony 2012: What’s the real story?” March 8, 2012. Retrieved from


Michaela Urban & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
February 23, 2019

Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

“Some of My Best Friends are Internet Vigilantes”

CASE STUDY: Racists Getting Fired and the Ethics of Fighting Racism

Case Study PDF | Additional Case Studies


Screen capture from Racists Getting Fired

The accessibility of the internet allows nearly anyone to say nearly anything, regardless of its wisdom. On the web, power seems to be in the hands of the people posting content. Emerging from this chaos of expression and speech is a digital system of checks-and-balances, in which those speaking so freely online can be called out for their negative utterances by any other denizen of the online world. This criticism of what is said online can easily travel into the lives and jobs of offline persons. Take the Tumblr account Racists Getting Fired as an example. The page is “dedicated to publicly revealing the identities of people who use social media to express racist viewpoints, and then contacting their employers” (Haggerty, 2014). The blog originated in response to the heated reactions and racially-charged postings that followed the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Eventually, the website’s wider potential in sharing and shaming racists became apparent; One such posting screen captured and listed on the site was a tweet by an individual who said of Baltimore rioters (after a controversial death in police custody), “I’m sure all those pieces of shit went right to the pharmacy and stole every drug in that CVS.” Another site visitor comments: “So this woman think she can not lose her job. It’s crazy in Baltimore right now and She saying racists things. Please call her job […]. Please REBLOG! We came together before, let’s put a end to ignorance! I will be calling the corporate office Monday morning!” Another signaled their support with the succinct command to those listening to “DESTROY HER INCOME.” When University of Oklahoma fraternity members were caught on video singing a racist song, their names and family information were quickly posted on the site, along with comments such as “The expelled OU racists’ names are […]. Spread their names. Make them exist in infamy. Make sure they can never get jobs beyond (maybe) working for their parents.” Successful campaigns are listed in the section labeled “gotten,” dedicated to the success stories of the racists who had been fired from their jobs after being featured on this site. Many of these “vigilantes” are proud of the blog’s victories, as it “provides a gleeful jolt of dopamine when there are actual results” (McDonald, 2014).


“Code word” tags for submitted images and posts from Racists Getting Fired

While it does not completely disable structural racism in our society, defenders point to the blog as providing a method of delivering justifiable consequences to outed individual racists. Speech has consequences, such defenders say, and the Racists Getting Fired blog is merely coordinating individual efforts to point out such hateful utterances to the alleged racists’ employers and schools. People are free to be racists online, but they should not expect to be free of the criticism and the negative publicity that this expressivity might bring with it.

But critics worry that crowd-sourced vengeance for societal wrongs might go too far. One concern is that by going beyond mere criticism to the organized contacting of a alleged racist’s employer or educational institution, the anti-racist activists transgress the limits of ethical speech. Accountability of such campaigns is compromised, and there are often few checks of the quality of claims that allege that an individual is actually a racist. Take the example of Brianna Rivera. Rivera’s vengeful ex-boyfriend created a fake profile posing as Rivera, posted a number of racist remarks, and then sent screenshots of the faux posts to the Racists Getting Fired Tumblr blog (Levine, 2014). It didn’t take long for the blog’s community to begin their attacks on her and her employer. Thanks to observant users, the post was revealed to be fake and the blog ceased to share it, although versions of the original post remained on Tumblr. Rivera was able to keep her job, though she could never reclaim her reputation as her name would always be associated with the original Tumblr post. This case shows that even with screenshot “evidence,” innocent people could be harmed. Furthermore, even if an individual actually made a racist post or comment, one might still object that being a racist shouldn’t automatically result in being fired or losing one’s economic livelihood. After all, there are many professions were workers can do their jobs adequately while subscribing to incorrect—or even hateful—views.

Motivating supporters of Racists Getting Fired is the sense that they are creating social sanctions and economic harms for those who deserve such a punishment for holding racist views; this seems to be part of a strategy that will de-incentivize the holding of racist views in our communities. Meredith Haggerty doubts this tactic will work, and argues that these blogs aren’t going to truly change anything in society: “while watching [a racist] apologize for his comments is cathartic, and honestly, hilarious, it seems naive and unreasonable to think that there is now less hate in his heart” (Haggerty, 2014). She declares that public outings like this are “dangerous impulses.”  Asam Ahmad argues for the practice of “calling in” instead of “calling out” or shaming those who make racist remarks: “calling in means speaking privately with an individual who has done some wrong, in order to address the behaviour without making a spectacle of the address itself.” Ahmad advocates this manner of reacting to racists as it seems to holds the best chance for fixing racist attitudes—public shaming simply harms racists, and makes them all the more defensive against the activists causing this harm.

As activism grows in dispersed but unified online publics, the question becomes all the more imperative: Do these crowd-sourced sites and tactics assist in the battle against hate and social injustice, or do they simply represent a new means of abuse and create further animosity among fellow citizens?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What ethical values are in conflict with sites such as Racists Getting Fired?
  2. Do you agree with the “naming and shaming” approach to those who make racist (or sexist) comments online? Why or why not?
  3. If false accusations (such as that made against Rivera) could be eliminated, would such sites be ethical means of anti-racist activism?
  4. Do such crowd-sourced tactics stand a chance of creating a less racist society?
  5. How are such sites ethically different from in-person forms of activism such as picketing and boycotts?

 Further Information:

Ahmad, Asam. “A Note on Call-Out Culture,” Briarpatch Magazine, March 2, 2015. Available at:

Haggerty, Meredith. “‘Racists Getting Fired’ and the Desire to Do Something About Ferguson.” WNYC, December 2, 2014. Available from

Levine, Sara. “Vengeful Ex Posts Fake Rant to Racists Getting Fired Tumblr, Gets Busted By Internet Sleuths.” Bustle, December 2, 2014. Available from

McDonald, Soraya Nadia. “‘Racists Getting Fired’ exposes weaknesses of Internet vigilantism, no matter how well-intentioned.” The Washington Post, December 2, 2014. Available from


Alex Purcell & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
November 30, 2018

Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational use. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

Is Incivility Ever Ethical?

The Center for Media Engagement and Media Ethics Initiative Present:

Is Incivility Ever Ethical?

Dr. Gina Masullo Chen

Assistant Professor of Journalism
University of Texas at Austin

October 16, 2018


Dr. Gina Masullo Chen is an Assistant Professor in the School of Journalism and the Assistant Director of the Center for Media Engagement, both at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research focuses on the online conversation around the news and how it influences social, civic, and political engagement. She is the author of Online Incivility and Public Debate: Nasty Talk and co-editor of Scandal in a Digital Age. She is currently writing her third book, The New Town Hall: Why We Engage Personally with Politicians. She spent 20 years as a newspaper journalist before becoming a professor.

The Media Ethics Initiative is part of the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow MEI and CME on Facebook for more information. Media Ethics Initiative events are open and free to the public.



The Ethics of Climate Change Communication

There are many important decisions to be made in how we communication about climate change. What is unhelpful with appealing to a scientific consensus as a way to persuade others to hold your views on climate change? How should we argue with others on this heated topic? Watch the video below to see how Dr. Jean Goodwin (North Carolina State University) addressed these pressing issues in her Media Ethics Initiative talk.


Anthems and Activism in the NFL

Mediating the Politics of the NFL

Did you miss the exciting Media Ethics Initiative research talk on the controversial NFL national anthem protests? Or did you try to catch the talk, but couldn’t find a free seat in the packed room? Or perhaps you want to relive the excitement once more? Now you can watch Dr. Michael Butterworth (UT Austin) discuss the ethical issues in the recent NFL anthem protests and the media coverage they evoked on our Youtube channel.

Anthems and Activism in the NFL

BW Pic

The Media Ethics Initiative Presents:

Anthems and Activism: Mediating the Politics of the NFL

Dr. Michael L. Butterworth

University of Texas at Austin

October 11, 2017 — 1:00-2:00pm — CMA 5.136

In recent months, professional football players have used the national anthem ceremony as a stage for political protest. Such moments of activism have sparked significant conversation and controversy, and they have also received substantial media coverage. This talk examines the ethical and historical context for political protest in sports, considers the relationship between the NFL and sports media, and speculates about the future of activism during the national anthem and beyond.

Dr. Michael L. Butterworth is a Professor in the Department of Communication Studies and Director of the Center for Sports Communication & Media at the University of Texas at Austin. His research explores the connections between rhetoric, politics, and sport, with particular interests in national identity, militarism, and public memory. He is the author of Baseball and Rhetorics of Purity: The National Pastime and American Identity during the War on Terror, co-author of Communication and Sport: Surveying the Field, and editor of Sport and Militarism: Contemporary Global Perspectives.

Free and open to the UT community and general public

For further information, contact Dr. Scott Stroud

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[Video of Talk here]

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