reflections on the kony campaign

Having reached 70 million views faster than any previous YouTube video, unless you’ve been living under a rock (or offline), you will have hear of the Kony 2012 campaign video. In fact, you may already have completely moved on – the media coverage certainly has.

Kony 2012 is so seductive for precisely the same reasons that make it so dangerous. The half-hour video, now viewed 40 million times, sets viewers up for a message so gratifying and fulfilling that it is almost impossible to resist: there is a terrible problem in the world, you are the solution, and all you have to do is pass along this video. [Max Fisher writing in the atlantic, see also a selection of African reactions to the video]

I’ve tried to read widely and pull some threads together about the Kony 2012 campaign.

What is really happening in Africa?

Plenty of blog posts emerged to give a clearer picture of what is happening in central Africa – South Sudan, and Uganda [more Ugandans died in road accidents last year (2,838) than have died in the past 3 years from LRA attacks in whole of central Africa(2,400)]. With years of experience reporting and working all around Africa, Dinaw Mengestu talks about the history of relations with, and deals offered to, Kony over many years.

Ideas around how poverty relief needs to work (from a Christian worldview), and how a western framework for “fixing the problem” is inadequate (also from a Christian worldview).

An article with a great headline – “the horror and the hashtag” provides this quote: “Stopping Mr. Kony is a righteous meme, but there are better ways to get there than this hashtag.” There have been questions about the content of the film. A plea not to reduce Uganda to a meme encourages people to think critically about the situation, not just to accept the message of the video without criticism. A question as to whether violence – rather than bringing peace – begets anything but more violence.

The video can (as one brief scene suggests) make work in the region more difficult.

Social change needs subtleties. It needs room for negotiation, compromises, and shifting the debate. It also needs really boring things: tedious days of discussion and engagement, mind-numbingly unsexy drafting of agreements, and an open mind at all stages. And it needs very invisible people committed to working away on these things through small, but important contributions. These are not people who buy action kits and re-tweet.

It’s easy to make the assumption that every other country has the same government and freedoms that Australians have, but even a cursory reading will reveal that Uganda has more structural problems than Kony – its own government and army, to start with.

An academic looks over the campaign and finds it simultaneously encouraging and frustrating

“Direct action” in the Invisible Children sense is all about instant gratification: it’s pushing 1-Click on “Change the World”. And the world just doesn’t work that way. Fundamental change is hard, it’s slow, it involves the messy working out of lives in the local, lives in the global.

Critiques of Invisible Children, Bloggers, and Jason Russell

If you want to read vitriol against filmmaker Jason Russell, there’s no shortage of choices. If you want subtle vitriol against bloggers, there’s a Kony 2012 blogger bingo card.

A particular incident (that I won’t link to) shows Jason Russell experiencing the challenges of being the public face of a world-wide viral video. Even bloggers who have covered the topic, and finding new audiences, are rethinking their blogs in light of the extra attention.

Many critiques were made of the finances of the organisation (Invisible Children) that created the video, and they presented a well-crafted response to the criticism, and one Invisible Children staffer participated in an interview with Good magazine.

This lengthy piece speaks in detail about the complexity that has been distilled down to be transmittable in a YouTube video, and wisely asks the question: “If we want people to pay attention to the issues we care about, do we need to oversimplify them?”

Yes, a lot more people are aware. But does awareness matter?

The bottom line is, research your causes thoroughly. Don’t just forward a random video to a stranger because a mass murderer makes a five-year-old “sad.” Learn a little bit about the complexities of the region’s ongoing strife before advocating for direct military intervention. Wil Wheaton

Critiques of Slacktivism

There are legitimate problems being raised with what is termed slacktivism –

Just because a fancy film tells you something doesn’t mean it’s right. This film is circulating fast and people are watching it, feeling guilt then clicking share. job done.

The project with the slickest video is not always the most effective use of donor money.

There are people who are enthusiastic about film-making and social justice who are excited.

i’m a film major, ergo, i love film. and if there’s two of my passions i could put together, it would probably be the use of media for justice. it tingles me. this little video has made its way round the globe, got people talking, engaged activism! this is one of the greatest examples yet of the untapped potential of the media to help heal our world, to bring about change for the better and help us understand issues we have little proximity to. church, listen up! God can use films, when we give Him a freakin’ chance.

Is it better to watch and share a video that tells something of the horrors of a situation, and seeks to do something about it, than to read an article that is truly horrifying, and then do nothing about it?

The video is getting people to share, but does their enthusiasm run out before they do anything more?

Viral Video

Seth Godin posted about viral videos with a few recent case studies including Kony 2012. Other blog post angles exist – what non-profits can learn about marketing, the emergence of a new form of influence for domestic and foreign policy. Making changes to your own consumption as a way of making a difference to Africa.

Bluntly read, what some of critics are arguing is that social advocacy, particularly around world affairs, should be left to experts: to politicians, to “serious” NGOs, to erudites. Young people–and this includes both the film’s 30 something-old creators, and its mostly 20 and under viewers–are told that this isn’t a world for them. It is too complicated, too hard, too serious. These are the same messages young people are getting about politics: If you don’t know exactly what you’re talking about, you’d better not talk at all. 
– Harry Jenkins, talking about why the youth find the IC cause so compelling.

Five reasons why the Kony video went viral [upbeat, emotions more than facts, clear villain, shows people sharing, clear call to action]

A social media marketing consult deconstructs the campaign at a micro level – what happens in the conversations kids are having with the parents about the campaign?

How the Kony2012 video functions as an organising narrative (it’s the story of Jason Russell as everyman solving a problem of injustice that everyone can relate to… so sign up!).

Angelina Jolie speaks out against Kony (not for the first time). In fact, the campaign managed a successful call to action from most of its targeted “culture shapers”.

Danah Boyd looks at the words mentioned in the tweets at the initial spread of the Kony meme, and talks about how it was Invisible Children’s existing networks (privileged white, Christian kids in the US). More detail is on the social flow site.

Oversimplifying Complexity

The Kony campaign may be both an example of how powerful social media can be and at the same time a cautionary tale about the benefits of such tools when it comes to complicated issues. [Gigaom summary article of the rise of the news story and some initial engagement with the campaign]

Is it possible that the response generated will move beyond “white saviour complex” and on to empowering Ugandans (and other affected parties) to solve their own problems? It seems unlikely, if the majority of the responses watch the video alone without investigating further.

There’s still no mechanism for a discussion of these kind of global issues, says the NYT, but at least it’s now possible to talk directly with people who are involved.

What should we do?

The message Invisible Children is sending is that anybody can change the world, and it’s easy. Watch the movie, share it with your friends, tweet at some famous people, and if you get really excited, put up some posters. I’d like to change their message slightly, although mine isn’t as catchy:

Anybody can change the world, but it’s difficult. And you should do it anyway. [visible children tumblr]

Obviously we should do something: but should we support Invisible Children in what we’re trying to do, or give them a wide berth?

Pulling the threads together

To look at the aftermath of the Kony video and think that you too can (with the right resources) put together a video that will become an overnight, world-changing viral hit is a misnomer.

There’s a legitimate complaint about the video that it oversimplifies the complexity of the situation. But this is a naive complaint in a way; the reason that such a long video resonated so far was the emotional impact of the father-son conversation and the rallying footage of ordinary people making a difference. This – by definition – leaves you with less time in the video to get the message across.

We can expect to hear more about the Kony phenomenon in their announced April 20th campaign to raise awareness offline – the “action kits” have all sold out, so there are plenty of people interested in continuing the campaign. The various complaints that I’ve read about the Invisible Children organisation don’t seem to completely exclude the notion of supporting them. More of a problem is the approach that is being recommended. While the capture of Kony is a noble goal, it’s unlikely to have a profound difference on Uganda, and is quite likely to do harm in terms of inciting violence in the areas where the searches take place.

If you want to make improvements to the region, perhaps the best call to action I’ve read is to take out a Kiva loan – provide some actual poverty relief on the ground (though it should be noted that Kiva is not without its critics).

In terms of self-improvement, spending time reading more about what’s wrong in the world, and in more depth than just tweets, videos, or Facebook status updates. Work on improving your attention span: when a popular cause comes along, spend some time looking into the background and understanding the debate as well as you can.

If you’re a media-maker, there are many lessons to learn from Invisible Children. Viral video can be a method for spreading a political or non-profit message, if it tells a human story, and has a call-to-action that resonates with social media users. If you’re trying to spread awareness, then a viral video can do good work: but make sure your house is in order, and you’re ready to respond to criticism, media enquiries, and a magnifying glass.

But – and this is the lasting question – is raising awareness enough? The campaign has seen people whose awareness has been raised motivated to raise further awareness. Is it even possible to generate actual change through social media, or is awareness as far as it goes?

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