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Can We ‘Like’ and ‘Share’ Our Way to a Better World?
The "Kony 2012" video made me rethink online activism
Julijana Stefanovic
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I had just come home from dance practice—tired, hungry, and in desperate need of a long, hot bath—when I decided to log in to Facebook really quick. Scrolling through my news feed I saw, “Alice and eight others watched a video”… “Marco and 10 others mentioned ‘Kony 2012’ in their status.” Some of my friends had commented, “I know it’s long, but just watch it.” Though I was exhausted, I knew I had to click on the link and see for myself what all the fuss was about.

I was about to witness a phenomenon. Within days, the half-hour “Kony 2012” video had been viewed more than 100 million times worldwide—making it the most viral video ever, according to Visible Measures, a social video analytics company. But almost as quickly as it gained a sympathetic audience, “Kony 2012” drew criticism. In part, people questioned the motives of the specific organization behind this particular video. However, reaction to the video also highlighted an interesting question: How effective is social media as a tool for activism?

Obligated to Help

“Kony 2012” was produced by a nonprofit called Invisible Children, and explains the evil deeds of a Ugandan warlord named Joseph Kony. Since the 1980s Kony, who presents himself as a leader chosen by God, has headed a vicious group called the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The LRA’s original purpose was supposedly to defend a group of people being oppressed by the Ugandan government, and install Kony as the political and religious leader of Uganda. But over the years it has moved into neighboring countries and committed massacres around the region.

Young people especially drove the video’s popularity, just as Invisible Children intended. They responded to “Kony 2012” by spreading the word on Facebook and Twitter. I was one of the young people deeply affected by it. I watched as a child abductee named Jacob Acaye spoke about witnessing his brother being slaughtered. Listening to his fragile voice crack made me crack on the inside. The screen went blurry for a moment, and then a neat row of tears conducted its way down my cheek.

I was appalled. There I was, in a warm apartment with a bed and plenty of food and clothes, while children in Uganda were terrorized by this evil man. I couldn’t help but feel guilty. The video’s narrator, Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell, made it seem that every human being was obligated to help and until I did something, I would be partly responsible for these children’s suffering.

I shared the video on my Facebook page and wrote, “What are you waiting for? Share!” as my caption. I was sending text messages to all of my friends saying that they must go on my Facebook page and watch this video, then pass along the word.

Too Easy?

Within days, however, the apparent integrity of Russell and Invisible Children dissolved into thin air. Many people criticized “Kony 2012” for, among other things, presenting outdated information: Kony’s forces are weaker than the video indicates—they now only number in the hundreds—and they have moved to other border regions from northern Uganda. Critics also said the video included too few voices of actual Ugandans, and put too much emphasis on bringing money to Invisible Children for “raising awareness,” rather than helping Kony’s victims directly. Meanwhile, Russell himself was found in San Diego engaging in bizarre behavior that made people question his mental stability.

It was hard for my friends and me not to feel that we had been manipulated. In some ways, social media has made it possible for one person to have more of an impact than ever before, at least in cases where a person uses social media tools strategically and has some support.

Jason Russell had the help of his organization (Invisible Children has a team of more than 100 people), and the video they made together had a carefully-orchestrated release. Invisible Children targeted celebrities such as Zooey Deschanel and Rihanna, asking them to share, tweet, or repost the video. Their millions of (mostly young) followers in turn watched, tweeted, and reposted the video, and word spread like wildfire.

But some people are skeptical about the value of Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail as tools for activism. And when the credibility of “Kony 2012” was called into question, it felt as though the video may have proved those naysayers right. In a story entitled “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted,” published in The New Yorker in 2010, writer Malcolm Gladwell argued that social networking is not a significant tool for activism.

Any really important movement to make change in the world, wrote Gladwell, requires participants who have a close bond with one another. They must be so close that they will feel encouraged to face physical danger. When you’re surrounded by people you know will have your back it’s easier to be strong. But social media’s strength is connecting you with a looser circle of not-as-close friends. Therefore, wrote Gladwell, it doesn’t help you do truly difficult things in the world—it just lets you hold hands with a couple of acquaintances while clicking on a button to sign a petition.

Clear, Simple Goals

As an example of truly courageous activism, Gladwell writes about the Civil Rights movement and how four college students in Greensboro, North Carolina, bravely began a protest by refusing to leave a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in 1960. By the end of the month, there were sit-ins throughout the South, as far west as Texas. The Civil Rights movement gained huge support without e-mail, texting, Facebook, or Twitter.

At the same time, it’s interesting that the recent shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin—which some people have compared to cases of injustice that inspired the Civil Rights movement—is a good example of social media making a big difference. According to USA Today, “Social media catapulted details of the Trayvon Martin case onto the national stage, as outraged Americans used Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and the website change.org to get the word out about the incident in which a neighborhood watch volunteer shot and killed Trayvon, an unarmed African-American teen.”

image by Invisible Chldren

In this instance, it may be that “raising awareness” was enough of a goal. Social media was used to organize mass protests and demonstrations like the “Million Hoodie March” here in New York City. The protests had one major, straightforward intention: to expose the small-town politics that may have protected the shooter from being properly investigated, and ultimately bring about a full investigation.

However, the aims of “Kony 2012” are less clear. One stated goal was to see Kony arrested by the end of 2012, hence the video’s name. The video also encouraged viewers to pay Invisible Children $30 for a bracelet and “action kit,” and to gather together to blanket cities with posters about Kony on the night of April 20.

But when you have a complicated political situation involving several independent countries, getting people riled up may not address the issue. Though most of us can agree Kony is an awful criminal, there is a lot of disagreement about what should be done about him, and even whose responsibility it should be to bring him to justice.

No Replacement

It’s probably wrong to suggest that online activism and real-world activism represent an either/or choice. Instead, in most cases, the two things can complement each other.

Dave Boyce is the CEO of Fundly, a platform for online fundraising that incorporates social networking features. Since Fundly’s purpose is to make donating to nonprofits “fun, friendly, and social” online, I thought Boyce would have something to say about how social networking can help further a cause. Boyce agreed that online activism isn’t a replacement for real-world action.

“The dialogue can be richer online, because we have time and place to read and think and share, versus a possibly emotionally heated protest or demonstration where dialogue can’t happen because it’s too noisy or too kinetic [full of energy],” Boyce offered. “That said, there’s a time and place for peaceful assembly, and each of those methods has its own role.”

Some people have argued that online activism doesn’t have much impact, and can lull petition-signers into thinking they have made more of a difference than they really have. But Boyce sees it differently. “I believe that we should meet people where they are,” he said. “If where they are is just being willing to subscribe to some information or put their name on a petition, that’s fine. If over time we can provide compelling information about the cause, maybe that same person will become willing to advocate, or donate, or volunteer.” If we’re not willing to meet them where they are, he added, they may never get involved.

“Kony 2012” certainly met viewers where they were, and that’s why it was so successful. The very personal angle Russell gave the video helped draw young people in. He spoke about his own experiences in Uganda and how he became interested in bringing Joseph Kony to justice. The result was a video that screamed, “Hey, now that you know about this, you can help make a change!”

That’s one big value of social media—it gives you a message loud and clear. If I were to design a “perfect” social media campaign, I would try to equal the emotional impact of “Kony 2012,” as well as its urgency. However, though I would promote the campaign online, I would center the campaign around practical action in the real world, like mass protests, boycotts, contacting legislators, and other high-impact activities.

One Chance

Unfortunately, it’s possible that after “Kony 2012,” it would be harder for me to win people’s attention and sympathy with a worthy social media campaign. After hearing criticisms of Invisible Children, and then learning about Russell’s outburst, my friends made comments on Facebook like, “I can’t believe that this is the voice of the Invisible Children, this guy is crazy” and, “I can’t believe I wasted my time on this.” Next time a video comes along asking them to join a cause, they are likely to be automatically skeptical.

It’s a shame, because Invisible Children so effectively captured the world’s attention, but its moment passed quickly. Following the “Kony 2012” backlash, Invisible Children released a video called “Kony 2012: Part II—Beyond Famous.” This follow-up was intended to address the criticisms made about the first video, and highlight progress Invisible Children has made toward its goals.

But according to mashable.com, during its first five days, “Part II” received less than 2% of the views that “Kony 2012” received right after its debut. And the huge “Cover the Night” event planned for April 20 was mostly a flop. “Kony is so last month,” said one tweet reported in the Guardian. This shows that you have to be careful when harnessing the power of social media to spread a message: At best, you will get one chance to make your case for the world to hear, so it had better be good.

Maybe the lightning-fast rise and fall of “Kony 2012” does support Gladwell’s argument, at least partly. When it’s so easy to join a cause, it’s also easy to drop it—nothing is risked and nothing is sacrificed.

But whether it happens online or on the street, activism of any kind originates in people’s morality and humanity. “Kony 2012” demonstrated how effectively technology can trigger human empathy on a stunning scale. If we can translate that kind of empathy into lasting, active commitment, we really can make a change.

This story is part of the media/news literacy series, which is generously supported by the McCormick Foundation.

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