Joseph Kony, an African warlord leading the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), has become an international sensation thanks to Invisible Children, a group of human rights activists. They been able to successfully wield social media to make people care about their cause. Kony is now famous because the world wants his arrest and prosecution for his “crimes against humanity.”
I watched the KONY 2012 video. I clapped at moments of triumph for people in Uganda and didn’t allow myself to hide my eyes at the images of mutilation or abduction. Even though I’m the last person to follow major trends, considering the gravity of the idea and the sheer number of people attempting to share it through Twitter and Facebook, I understood that it is something that I shouldn’t ignore.
After finally seeing the video for myself I learned a few things:
- Everything about the video was created to appeal to the youth of developed nations. There were cute kids, horror, and a mission deeply seated in social media and activism. Anyone watching that video can help by sharing it.
- This is a 9 year old problem, with circumstances that may or may have changed since the video was produced.
- There was both the Mumford & Sons and dubstep in the same video. And it worked. Both reflect the way the filmmaker appealed to the culture Gen Y knows and loves. It made it seem like the video wasn’t coming from a major stuffy organization, or a ragtag group of freedom fighters – it came from one of us. Or, at least, it was meant to feel that way.
And so we shared it. We applauded the message. And then we criticized it. Hours after Kony 2012 came out, journalists and citizens made it their duty to reveal the darker side of Invisible Children. They questioned their finances, their journalistic integrity, and their choice to support the Ugandan government. The video focused on empowering the well-off youth of the developed world, subsequently undermining the power of Ugandans trying to solve their own problems. It didn’t offer any support for the people who have already been victimized by Kony’s army. Besides the tactics the video proposed, many simply saw Joseph Kony, with his current weakened army, as the least of the problems in a time when strife is spanning different parts of the African continent.
I want to pause a moment and reflect on how easy it is for social media to raise something up and tear it down again. I was skeptical about the video. Then I watched it. I was moved. Then, unlike many people who saw and instantly retweeted, I kept reading. By the time I watched the video, alternative viewpoints were already out there. Visiblechildren.tumblr.com already had the ball rolling in finding fault with the campaign and the multi-million dollar organization behind it. I read the thoughts of experts and activists who saw the good intentions of the video but found that it very obviously could not, and did not cover the complex issues surrounding the situation.
The KONY 2012 video was not a documentary. It told a well-constructed story to garner support for a cause that the film maker, Jason Russell, believes in. Like much criticism with media, the world wanted it to do more. Explain more. Be more. Russell is trying to end Kony’s reign of terror but he is not attempting to capture him all by himself. He’s not asking people to join the troops sent to advise the Ugandan officials. He is asking for money and for people to talk about Kony. So far, he has been wildly successful. His true goal for the video has been met far beyond his belief. In addition to criticizing the thing we watch, we should also try to understand the motives behind another’s creative work.
Stanford, this post is not only about KONY 2012. It is about how we responded to it. It is about our expectations. The barriers to create a video like Russell’s are shrinking everyday. At any moment a cause can call us to pull up our Facebook page and wear a cool bracelet. They will feel familiar and right, but we have to question them. Every video you see, whether it is one concerning the abduction of children or college students being pepper sprayed, there are two sides to the story. Or many sides. If you care about a cause and want to be more than a member in the growing trend of “fake activism,” do more than share a video or statement. Social media has given us the incredible power to do more – or just to make us feel like we have. Considering that we are at the heart of social media production and politics, and that any one of our students has the potential to be the next Zuckerberg or Page/Brin, it is imperative that we consider social media’s faults when it comes to sharing information.
When we are barraged with multitudes of images and videos, meant to pull our heart strings, we can only do one thing: be thoughtful. Question what you see. Engage with the media. Start a debate or discussion. It is at moments like this that we have to shift the way we interact with the messages we on and offline.