I spend most of my time on this blog defending digital activism, but when I heard about the Kony 2012 video, even before I watched it, I decided toexpress my opinion by posting this picture on my Facebook page:
After posting it I was immediately shocked at my self. The message in the image was exactly the kind of snide digital-doesn’t-matter nay-saying that I constantly criticize on this blog.
I know that reposting the Kony video does matter. As Amy Sample Ward of NTEN has pointed out, even tiny acts of digital activism like re-tweeting, re-posting, or joining a Facebook group are a way of 1) identifying oneself publicly as caring about the issue, which can be useful to online organizers and 2) spreads the message to others within one’s social network.
This kind of activity also falls squarely within the first activist function of digital technology: shaping public opinion. People who were previously unaware of the situation in Northern Uganda now are. They are also aware of what it might be like to be a child living in a war zone, what the International Criminal Court is, what it does, and the importance and possibility of taking action to address a distant and intractable wrong. Also, given the strong positive response (the video has 97% positive feedback on YouTube), it made people not only aware but, on some level, made them care as well.
So it’s not worthless. In many ways it is valuable. Still, it annoyed me. Why? There are rational reasons to dislike the campaign:
1) The organization that produced the film, Invisible Children, is problematic.
- “Last year, the organization spent $8,676,614. Only 32% went to direct services with much of the rest going to staff salaries, travel and transport, and film production.” (source)
- “Charity Navigator rates their accountability 2/4 stars because they haven’t had their finances externally audited.” (source)
- “In their campaigns, such organizations [as Invisible Children] have manipulated facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders.” (source)
2) The solution proposed in the video won’t work.
- The video demands the arrest of Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, but the situation is more complex. Arresting Kony will not have the dramatic impact the video creators propose.
- “It is no longer clear that the LRA represents a major threat to stability in the region.” (source)
- “The LRA is now reduced to about 200 fighters…. Rather than occupying villages, as the LRA did when they were stronger, they now primarily conduct 5-6 person raids on villages to steal food.” (source)
- “Finding Kony isn’t a simple thing to do. The areas in which he and his forces operate are dense jungle with little infrastructure.” (source)
- “Russell argues that the only entity that can find and arrest Kony is the Ugandan army. Given that the Ugandan army has been trying, off and on, since 1987 to find Kony, that seems like a troublesome strategy.” (source)
- “Kony continues to rely on child soldiers. That means that a military assault… would likely result in the death of abducted children.” (source)
- The big action they propose in the video, blanketing the cities of the world with Kony posters, supports this oversimplification of the problem. It proposes a fun and slightly deviant action, but in pursuit of an ultimate goal that has more symbolic than practical value for Ugandans.
3) The video and campaign are unintentionally racist.
- It robs Ugandans of agency. (source)
- Invisible Children has no Africans on its board of directors and collects money for itself rather than for Ugandan organizations. (source)
- The heroes of the film are white young people and adults from the US and Europe, particularly video narrator and campaigner Jason Russell.
- The victims are Ugandan children. Ugandan adults appear in the film to validate the work of Invisible Children, not to represent their own work.
- The video embodies the outdated idea of the “white man’s burden,” that white people improve the countries of the global south by intervening and enforcing their values, that the people who live in these countries cannot improve their countries alone.
These are the rational reasons for disliking the video, though, to be honest, my reaction was visceral and emotional. I think what bugs me the most is my own culture, the fact that the most successful recent attempt to raise awareness about a human rights abuse in Africa starred and was narrated by a handsome white man, came in the form of a high-concept, high-cost video with a booming rock soundtrack, titled to hook the 2012 US presidential race, and happily simplified its cause for the sake of an easy-to-absorb and appealing emotional narrative (protagonist, antagonist, easy solution, your role).
And it worked. Or is so far. If this is the new recipe for engaging Americans in the problems of the rest of the world, this makes me sad. Are we only able to engage with others’ suffering through the glitzy flashing lens of our own popular culture?