The Strange Viral Saga of Keaton Jones: Feel-Good Story or Cautionary Tale?
The arc of the social media-verse is long, and it bends toward absurdity.
This incomprehensibly cruel year only could have ended with Keaton Jones.
Keaton’s viral fame and even faster backlash is about as 2017 as it comes; one last memory from 12 months of balancing real horror and pain with a never-ending barrage of tragicomic bullshit. Of course Keaton’s touching story pulled back to reveal a Confederate flag-toting family and arguably exploitative mother—not just because we’re living in a hell world that’s careening toward the worst possible outcomes at all times, but because 2017 is a year of unmasking, and of seeing things as they truly are. Even before the inevitable outing, social media vigilantes had begun holding stories like Keaton’s to a higher standard, interrogating why only certain (white) kids go viral; why some people’s pains are privileged over others. In the end, the family pictures riddled with Confederate flags were just the icing on the cake—added proof that we all should have been more skeptical from the start.
Keaton Jones is a bullying victim. However, the only reason why we know this—why the whole world knows this—is because of a video uploaded by his mother, Kimberly Jones. Jones says that Keaton asked her to make a video after she picked him up from school last week; Keaton was leaving early because he was afraid of lunchtime bullies. In the video, which Jones subsequently uploaded to her Facebook, Keaton asked, “Why do they bully?” He continued, “What’s the point of it? Why do you find joy in taking innocent people and finding a way to be mean to them?” Sobbing, he insisted, “People that are different don’t need to be criticized about it. It’s not their fault.”
Mama Jones shared the video, along with a message to her Facebook friends: “Talk to your kids. I’ve even had friends of mine tell me [their] kids were only nice to him to get him to mess with people. We all know how it feels to want to belong, but only a select few know how it really feels not to belong anywhere.”
Keaton’s emotional report from the lunchroom frontlines—“They call me ugly. They say I have no friends”—quickly struck a chord. The New York Times reported that the Facebook video had been viewed 20 million times by Sunday night, in addition to the myriad accounts that republished the clip across social media. Likes and retweets catapulted Keaton’s story into the timelines of influencers and major celebrities. Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown offered to “be your friend,” and Captain America Chris Evans reached out to Keaton and his mom with tickets to the Avengers premiere. Mark Hamill shared heartfelt words of wisdom, and Tennessee Titans tight end Delanie Walker promised tickets to an upcoming game. Jarrett Guarantano, a University of Tennessee quarterback, tweeted out a photo posing with Keaton, his “new best bud.” “This dude is very special and has changed my life forever,” Guarantano wrote. “Now I have the little brother I always wanted!”
Faster than you could say “social media adept PR agencies,” Keaton had built up a red carpet’s worth of A-list supporters, including Gal Gadot, Justin Bieber, and LeBron James. And, predictably, this onslaught of attention left good Samaritans searching for a way to help. Enter GoFundMe, 2017’s favorite website for supporting viral causes and/or crowdsourcing your health care. “Stand Up For Keaton” was created on December 9 by Joseph Lam. On the page’s description, Lam says that he has no prior relationship with the Jones family, writing, “This video really touched my heart. I decided to do this GoFundMe to help with this child's future.” With the help of thousands of donors, Lam managed to raise almost $60,000 in just two days.
Keaton’s viral fame was moving so perfectly apace that it almost felt like it was happening within a social media simulator. But no one, not even sweet kids who get bullied at school only to be celebrated by Gal Gadot, exists in a vacuum. And even the most universally sympathetic piece of viral content can backfire in an instant. Keaton’s reckoning came quickly, with Monday morning unearthing a cache of old social media posts depicting the Jones family as the friendly white supremacists next door. Old photos from Kimberly Jones’ Facebook page showed various members of the family posing with the Confederate flag.
Complicating this already strange story was a series of posts by MMA fighter Joe Schilling, who alleged that he reached out to Keaton’s mother to offer to fly him out to an MMA show, and was instead urged to advertise a GoFundMe page. When Schilling insinuated that Keaton’s mother was exploiting her son for profit, the user, “kimberlyjones_38,” responded, “What happened to us whites sticking together and helping one of another against the predator?” On Monday, Keaton’s older sister Lakyn Jones tweeted, “The Instagram KimberlyJones_38 is NOT my mom. She has a private Instagram and hasn’t talked to anyone. We haven’t received any money and don’t plan on it. The gofundme’s aren’t by any of us.” She also insisted, “Those who know me and my family know we aren’t racist. My brother doesn’t say the ‘N’ word. Please leave it alone”.
By Monday afternoon, The New York Times reported, the Instagram account and linked GoFundMe campaign had been deleted, with a GoFundMe spokesman stating that, “the identity of the campaign organizer did not match anyone associated with the family.” Also on Monday, Joseph Lam announced his decision to pause his GoFundMe campaign. “As many of you know I paused the donations as well as the comments,” Lam wrote. “As I sit back and read these comments and watched the video again I feel I have to make this update. THIS IS NOT ABOUT THE MOM!!” In regards to Lam’s initiative, a GoFundMe spokesman explained that, “When a stranger starts a campaign and does not have a direct connection to the individual they’re raising money for, funds are collected by our payment processors, held, and then only released to the person named as the beneficiary.” He added, “All funds are on hold until we’ve received additional information from the beneficiary of the campaign.”
In an inevitable post-backlash interview, Kimberly Jones insisted that the resurfaced social media posts were just a joke. “The only two photos—the only two photos on my entire planet that I am anywhere near a Confederate flag. It was ironic. It was funny,” Jones told CBS News, insisting that, “I’ve said I spent most of my life being bullied and judged because I wasn’t racist.”
Reflecting on the public support/outcry the video has elicited, Jones noted, “I knew that it could be great and I knew that it could be awful, and it has been.” Meanwhile, Keaton insisted that the video was his idea because he’d “had enough of it.” The middle schooler offered a more optimistic stance on his viral fame, saying, “It made me feel like I had accomplished something real. Something that could actually change the world.”
In so many ways, the phenomenon that is Keaton Jones could have only happened right here and right now, at the intersection of social media viral fame, altruistic celebrity shout-outs, the normalization of white supremacy in Trump’s America and the power of woke Twitter. But some of the most interesting and nuanced backlash to Keaton’s story goes deeper than the (still necessary) assertions that bigots are bullies, and Confederate flag-waving families shouldn’t reap monetary rewards. As many Twitter users have pointed out, Keaton’s viral appeal was racialized long before the flags, in a world where the plight of a white boy is perceived as less political and more pressing than those of people of color.
Connections have been drawn between Keaton’s bullying and the systemic obstacles facing children of color, with commentators pointing out that some celebrities clearly feel more comfortable reaching out to a white bullying victim than speaking out on behalf of, say, a black victim of police violence. The most precise comparisons are also the most painful ones—like Ashawnty Davis, a 10-year-old bullying victim who committed suicide and passed away last month. Model Munroe Bergdorf is one of many people resurfacing Davis’ story in the wake of Keaton Jones’ viral implosion. “In these situations it is important to always look deeper than the surface, rather than jumping on the bandwagon,” she wrote. “It seems that Keaton’s mother is a proud white supremacist who has been posting racist vitriol on Facebook for some time now.” Bergdorf continued, “Where was the public outcry for the death of Ashawnty Davis? This 10 year old hung herself in her closet after being relentlessly bullied. Let’s change the conversation and show support for the family of Ashawnty. RIP babygirl.”
Already, Rihanna has responded to the shifting discourse, replacing an Instagram post in support of Keaton with a tribute to Ashawnty Davis and Rosalie Avila. Other celebrities have continued to show social media love for Keaton, arguing that the 11-year-old doesn’t deserved to be punished or criticized for his mother’s problematic posts. But try as we might to salvage some humanity out of this failed “feel-good” story, it’s really more of a cautionary tale.