In the beginning there was Ghyslain Raza, the Star Wars Kid. Then came Aleksey “Impossible is Nothing” Vayner, whose video résumé ballroom danced, downhill skied, and benchpressed its way into the stuff of viral video lore. And now, just maybe, there’s Jason Russell, the impeccably coiffed, furtively proselytizing leader of Invisible Children, the San Diego based nonprofit whose slick Kony 2012 “experiment” has become the fastest spreading viral video in history.
As of this writing, the video has tallied over 81 million views on YouTube alone. Alleged video (yeah, probably NSFW) of Russell epically melting down on a street in the Pacific Beach neighborhood may not have anywhere near as many hits as the Internet film heard ‘round the world. But the raw footage, which reportedly shows an erratic, naked Russell howling incoherently and spanking the asphalt, stands to go damn near as viral as IC’s short on the plight of Ugandan child soldiers.
What happened? Did the Internet just ruin Jason Russell’s life?
Kony 2012‘s virality is unique. However unconscionable the actions of the man, warlord Joseph Kony, the film seeks to make famous, its meteoric rise shows just how quickly the Internet masses can turn on something, anything. It didn’t take long for a rising tide of skepticism to reveal IC’s sketchy financing and potential profiteering, and to otherwise spotlight Kony 2012‘s lack of rigorous research and basic factchecking, which certain critics claim resulted in the film’s glossing over – and White savior-ing – an incredibly complex issue. Russell and Ben Keesey, IC’s CEO, had no choice but to take to major news networks recently and defend their mission.
This could well explain Russell’s hospitalization after being taken into custody Thursday when San Diego Police responded to numerous calls reporting a man bad tripping something fierce. They found Russell stripped to his skivvies and disrupting traffic, howling and cement-smacking all the while. His wife said his antics were the result of intense stress. But there are murmurings that Russell was intoxicated – your Facebook wall is probably telling you he’d eaten some seriously high-grade blotters that he bought with all the cash that’s rolling in – and was also vandalizing cars. Oh, and that he was masturbating, too.
Time will tell if these details hold up. If they do, talk about taking Light Saber-ing to an entirely new and obscene level.
And that’s the thing. The Internet may’ve ruined the lives of Ghyslain Raza and Aleksey Vayner, but only temporarily. Raza, of course, was so tormented by his peers that he wound up dropping out of high school and checking into a child’s psychiatric ward, where he was diagnosed with depression. The trolls threatened Vayner with deportation and death. But it’s precisely the Star Wars Kid and the Most Eager Potential Employee Ever not being public figures before the online crowds came laughing that allowed both of them to get back to some semblance of normalcy after the stings of passing viruses wore off. As of 2010 Raza was heading up a cultural and heritage preservation initiative in his hometown, and going for a degree in law from McGill University. Vayner, who recounted his hardships to us at ROFLCon in 2010, was never deported. Or killed.
Still, viral humiliation or not, we’re learning just how grim the effects of cyberbullying can be, or trying to learn. Friday’s verdict against Dharun Ravi, who faces up to ten years in prison for webcamming his roommate Tyler Clementi for laffs and embarrassing him to the point of suicide, is a chilling complement to Russell’s case. Clementi was driven to jump off a bridge presumably because his rights to privacy and sexual orientation had been violated; Russell, on the other hand, was driven to insanity presumably because he tried to violate the “rights” of his audience to transparency and honesty.
Of course that violation doesn’t justify the storm of online attacks that have been made about Russell’s personal religious beliefs – as protected under the law as Clementi’s sexuality. But concealing your motives in a highly political and personal video is a conscious invitation to criticism. The days of being criticized in the confines of a dorm or on a newspaper page are history: on the viral Internet, criticism knows no limits.
In the context of the Internet, with its high-speed aggregation of fact-checkers, critics and trolls, Jason Russell brought this on himself. The publicness of his personal convictions came at his choosing. Never mind the merits or faults of his and IC’s Kony 2012 campaign, or even whether he was in fact beating the Kony Baloney with a head full of the world’s best acid. When you carry the sort of social (and physical) capital that Russell and IC do – did? – your chances of being smote down at the hands of critical online masses are about 7,000 times greater than the average, unsuspecting, decidedly invisible sap whose churlish dormmate uploads some incriminating photo or bit of video to the Internetz at the other’s expense. Those who live by slick viral videos can die by them too.
How Russell rebounds here will only regain him so much. In a way, the challenge he faces is on par with that of writer and performer Mike Daisey. It was sheer coincidence how at around the same time Friday that news of Russell’s run-in was breaking nationwide a reporter with NPR called bullshit on portions of Daisey’s “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” an excerpt of which made up the most downloaded episode of NPR’s This American Life. This uncharacteristic oversight from such a long-running and respected non-fiction storytelling showcase had the show’s host, the hitherto unimpeachable Ira Glass, retracting the episode and firing off a mass email of apology to TAL listeners. In the end, there was only face-palming.