Even the White House probably didn't see it coming.
Thanks to the overnight and largely unforeseeable success of a single YouTube video, President Barack Obama's press secretary found himself fielding questions about Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. In a week that featured no shortage of domestic news, a social-media onslaught suddenly rewrote the political narrative – for better or worse. Policy makers, who could once count on weeks of groundswell before an issue became mainstream, were given a first-hand lesson in the split-second nature of social-media campaigns.
This week, San Diego-based not-for-profit group Invisible Children released a 30-minute video called Kony2012. It encourages viewers to get to know Mr. Kony, who has led the Lord's Resistance Army for more than two decades and has been implicated in myriad crimes against humanity, including the use of child soldiers. In less than a day, the video went viral, amassing tens of millions of viewings. The phenomenon grew so quickly that it eventually elicited positive responses from the likes of Bill Gates, Justin Bieber and the hacktivism group Anonymous, as well as the White House.
"We haven't really seen anything of this scale," said Queen's University professor and social-media expert Sidneyeve Matrix. "[Invisible Children] made it really easy to be a part of something. The engagement ladder started with: just watch this video and share it."
To be sure, the Kony2012 campaign has also been the subject of withering criticism from activists and members of other non-for-profit groups. Critics have called the campaign extremely simplistic and paternalistic, and have questioned why a charity spends so much of its budget on what amounts to a slickly produced marketing video.
But as a marketing campaign, Kony2012 has surpassed all expectations. More importantly, the response to the campaign, especially from hordes of younger Web users who may never have previously heard of Mr. Kony, illustrates a new political norm, in which hot-button topics seem to take hold in the public consciousness with little or no prior warning – a flash mob of activism.
"For a lot of people, this is going to be their first case of activism," said Rob Cottingham of Social Signal, a Vancouver-based social-media strategy firm. "If you start reading the tweets and comments, they're filled with the kind of enthusiasm you're seeing from people who are becoming engaged politically for the first time."
Politicians have already felt the impact of other sudden on-line campaigns in recent months. In the United States, lawmakers quickly backed away from a proposed copyright bill after thousands of people organized an online protest that saw some of the biggest Web sites on Earth go dark for a day. In Canada, the Conservative government also retreated on a Web surveillance bill after citizens took to Twitter and other social-media sites to voice their displeasure. In both cases, politicians didn't anticipate how easily a smattering of opposition could reach critical mass.
The Kony2012 campaign seems primarily directed at what Beth Kanter, an expert on non-profits, has previously described as "free agents" – individuals who may be interested in working for change, but have no affiliation to any one particular group or cause. The Kony video appears to assume little to no knowledge about the cause (so much so that critics have decried its message as bordering on misinformation). But because the video's message is so simple and emotionally charged, and because viewers are asked to do little more than share a link to the video on their social-media feeds, a previously little-known organization has managed to force an otherwise low-profile issue into the spotlight. In the process, the Kony2012 phenomenon likely marks the end of an age when politicians had plenty of lead time before an issue exploded into the mainstream.
"Those days are probably gone," Mr. Cottingham said. "For a lot of decision makers and a lot of people working in the field, hoping to have control of the agenda … is no longer a viable dream."