Am I still talking about Kony 2012? Yes, and with good reason. On April 20th, the campaign came to a close of sorts with Cover the Night, an effort to“make Kony famous” by plastering “every city, on every block” with “posters, stickers and murals of Kony to pressure governments into hunting down the guerrilla leader.” It was the last action of the original Kony 2012 campaign.
The Invisible Children site does not tell how many young people participated in Cover the Night (though I imagine they know). The Guardian, however, which has given excellent and critical coverage to the campaign, noted that:
The movement’s phenomenal success in mobilising young people online, following last month’s launch of a 29-minute documentary which went viral, flopped in trying to turn that into real world actions…..Paltry turnouts on Friday at locations across north America, Europe and Australia left cities largely unplastered and the movement’s credibility damaged. “What happened to all the fuss about Kony?” said one typical tweet. “Kony is so last month,” said another.
Although the campaign succeeded in increasing awareness of Kony and Western news coverage of Africa, and mobilized millions of youth to care (if briefly) about a humanitarian crisis on the other side of the world, it has so far failed in its own stated goal: the capture of Joseph Kony.
The standard discourse at this point would be to call Kony 2012 “slacktivism”: a clear example of how massive online action (millions of video views and shares) converted into modest offline action (thousands not millions of participants in Cover the Night) and no impact (Kony is still at large), and then using that observation to disprove the value of digital activism in general.
Let’s not have that conversation (again). Instead, let’s look at why the online action did not work. Sandrine Perrot, a long-time specialist on Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army at France’s Sciences Po, has an excellentexplanationon the siteThe Independent, here’s part of it:
In Congo or CAR [Central African Republic], making Kony famous by sharing the video, wearing a bracelet or sticking his poster in Western streets won’t bring any solution to the highly difficult operational terrain, to the weak coordination and raising tensions between the Ugandan, Congolese and Centrafrican militaries deployed since December 2008 (which the so far unfinanced joint UA/UN mission created on March 23rd will first have to smooth), or to the underlying strategic divisions between Washington, USAID, the State department and the defence department.
Kony 2012 has failed not because digital activism is inherently ineffective, but because their own strategy was. As Perrot points out, the reasons that Kony has not been capture are diverse and complex, including factors from difficult topography to the challenges multilateralism. Invisible Children’s theory of change -that mobilizing Western young people to increase Western awareness of the crisis would change that complex dynamic – was inaccurate. The arrest of the video’s creator, Jason Russell, while ranting and publicly naked, and the harsh criticism on the original video’s simplifications and misrepresentations did not help matters.This is how all digital activism failures (and successes)should be evaluated: by looking at the range of causal factors and placing the effect of the digital action in context.
Post-Arab Spring/Indignados/Occupy it is simply ignorant to argue that digital tools have no impact on political realities. They do, but the recipe of success and failure is far from clear. Scholars like Clay Shirky and David Faris argue that political outcomes have always been multi-causal and the introduction of digital tactics into these complex processes make them more complex, not less so.
In the case of Kony 2012 the political and logistical factors described by Perrot overwhelmed the effect of Invisible Children’s online and offline actions. The organizers mismatched context and tactics, a difficult task in any campaign, especially one as international andintractableas the ongoing crimes of the Lord’s Resistance Army.
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