The Strange Viral Saga of Keaton Jones: Feel-Good Story or Cautionary Tale?

This incomprehensibly cruel year only could have ended with Keaton Jones.

Keatons 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 Keatons touching story pulled back to reveal a Confederate flag-toting family and arguably exploitative mothernot just because were living in a hell world thats 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 Keatons to a higher standard, interrogating why only certain (white) kids go viral; why some peoples pains are privileged over others. In the end, the family pictures riddled with Confederate flags were just the icing on the cakeadded 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 thiswhy the whole world knows thisis 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, Whats 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 dont need to be criticized about it. Its not their fault.

Mama Jones shared the video, along with a message to her Facebook friends: Talk to your kids. Ive 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.

Keatons emotional report from the lunchroom frontlinesThey call me ugly. They say I have no friendsquickly 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 Keatons 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 carpets 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, 2017s 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 pages 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.

Keatons 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. Keatons 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 Keatons mother to offer to fly him out to an MMA show, and was instead urged to advertise a GoFundMe page. When Schilling insinuated that Keatons 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, Keatons older sister Lakyn Jones tweeted, The Instagram KimberlyJones_38 is NOT my mom. She has a private Instagram and hasnt talked to anyone. We havent received any money and dont plan on it. The gofundmes arent by any of us. She also insisted, Those who know me and my family know we arent racist. My brother doesnt 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 Lams initiative, a GoFundMe spokesman explained that, When a stranger starts a campaign and does not have a direct connection to the individual theyre 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 weve 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 photosthe 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, Ive said I spent most of my life being bullied and judged because I wasnt 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 hed 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 Trumps America and the power of woke Twitter. But some of the most interesting and nuanced backlash to Keatons story goes deeper than the (still necessary) assertions that bigots are bullies, and Confederate flag-waving families shouldnt reap monetary rewards. As many Twitter users have pointed out, Keatons 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 Keatons 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 oneslike 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 Keatons 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. Lets 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 doesnt deserved to be punished or criticized for his mothers problematic posts. But try as we might to salvage some humanity out of this failed feel-good story, its really more of a cautionary tale.

Read more:

Mom of Keaton Jones Hopes Firestorm Surrounding Her Doesn’t Diminish His Message

More from Inside Edition:
The mother of the bullied schoolkid whose tearful pleas broke so many hearts is under fire herself. Kimberly Jones is being called out over photos showing her, Keaton, and other family members posing with a Confederate flag. Keaton even apologized for his mom on Twitter after the backlash. “I love my mother but I also realize wrong is wrong. I hope we can put all her mistakes in the past and focus on bettering the world,” he wrote.