“But it’s for a good cause…”

And what better way to kick off than the hot topic of the moment, Kony 2012. To quickly summarise for anyone who happens upon this post and has somehow missed every other blog/news site/social media page out there, Kony 2012 is a glitzy viral campaign by the international charity Invisible Children to make the name of its eponymous Ugandan warlord famous, and advocates the intervening of American troops in Uganda to assist the native government in his capture.

This campaign came to my attention, like most folks, through near monopolization of the topic on my Facebook homepage and twitter feed on March 7th, imploring me to view and share the video. In my experience, such sentiments are usually motivated by emotional blackmail and passive-aggressive provocation, with no other purpose than to let people know you care.

There have been plenty of other campaigns, though less emotionally manipulative, that have purported to have a tangible effect on wider society. Recent examples of this phenomenon include the campaign to have everyone change their profile photo to their favourite childhood cartoon to stop child abuse (the adherence was mostly due to nostalgia) and the annual Breast Cancer crusade where women post ambiguous comments, none of which relate to the disease, and whose sole purpose is to tease men in their exclusion from the “awareness” drive, including of course the small percentage of men who also suffer from the disease, as well as the husbands and male family members of victims who might find the whole charade a little distasteful.

The popularity of Facebook trends such as these are a good example of the seductive power of slactivism, i.e. a way for people to feel good about themselves without actually doing anything. These promotions excuse themselves on the basis that “raising awareness” alone is enough. If these campaigns included any sort of stimulating information or explained how you could actually make a difference then they would have some merit; this awareness would act as a catalyst to action and lead to palpable benefits for society. But they don’t.

Which leads me to the Kony campaign. The video itself is a slick piece of emotive drama, which juxtaposes images of Jason Russell (the creator) and the happy family life he leads with the plight of Ugandan children who have suffered at the hands of Joseph Kony, a warlord and leader of the Lord’s Resisitance Army, who utilises child soldiers and is guilty of such heinous acts that he is currently #1 on the International Criminal Court’s Most Wanted list. It features Jason explaining to his son in childlike terms why Kony is a bad man, which sets the tone for the method of exposition for the audience. The Ugandan government are portrayed as an honourable regime (and not a human rights abusing military dictatorship) wishing to seek out the man of the moment but limited by technological and financial restrictions. Thankfully, however, Invisible Children, the US Army and YOU are here to save the day!

IC proposes that we bombard celebrities and politicians to petition the US to step up their involvement in Uganda and bring about the capture of Kony through force, with the impression given that his current presence is an oppressive shadow on the happiness of Uganda and their liberation is dependent upon Western involvement. Then, just to make sure we don’t forget, on one dark night in April everyone is urged to go out and plaster all available surfaces with pictures of Kony and various merchandise, and also buy a $30 to help fund their activities.

It’s undoubtedly an appealing message, and, as a viral campaign, sets the standard that every charity, business and organisation will hope to emulate. They have resoundingly succeeded in their aim of making him famous, becoming the fastest campaign to achieve over 100 million views (even more impressive considering the video itself is 30 minutes long) and instilling a chest beating “lemme-at-him” fervour in the millions who took the time to both watch the video and subsequently share it.

At the time of writing, the video has amassed, from Facebook alone, 8.6 million referrals and almost 11 million embeddings. Twitter adds another 1.2 million referrals onto that, bringing the total from those two sites alone to over 21 million.  Given the magnitude of this attention, it begs the question: what tangible effect does this actually have? What actual difference can people now make to the plight of the child soldiers on the back of this keyboard revolution?

It’s not as if Kony is the head of a company whose products can be boycotted, nor can he be forced out of hiding by a pile of hashtags and video sharing. He can’t be directly held accountable just through awareness, nor are most people willing or able to hunt him down with an AK and administer justice Expendables-style. Before the video, a small amount of people knew he was a heinous monster; now a lot of people do.

What irks me, and infuriates a lot of people whose endeavours are affected by misdirected advocacy, is that no consideration is given to the effects of automatically republishing anything that has the auspices of a good cause attached. It can always be justified that, at worst, it won’t cause any harm. In the case of Kony, it could reasonably be argued that you are spreading harmful misinformation and I’m sorry, but just because you thought it was a good cause doesn’t exonerate you from the harm you create by your unwillingness to do any research before hopping on board a bandwagon. Unlike the trivial campaigns noted at the beginning, the Kony campaign, if it comes to fruition as intended, has the power to cause untold harm. (This is articulated much more eloquently here) Wrongingrights.com notes the following:

“Organizations like Invisible Children not only take up resources that could be used to fund more intelligent advocacy, they take up rhetorical space that could be used to develop more intelligent advocacy. And yeah, this may seem like an absurdly academic point to raise when talking about a problem that is clearly crying out for pragmatic solutions, but, uh, the way we define problems is important. Really, really important. Choosing to simplistically define Congolese women as “The Raped” and Ugandan children as “The Abducted” constrains our ability to think creatively about the problems they face, and work with them to combat these problems.

Second, treating their problems as one-dimensional issues that can be solved by a handful of plucky college students armed only with the strength of their convictions and a video camera doesn’t help anyone. This gets back to something very simple that Alanna Shaikh wrote a few months ago:

“Bad development work is based on the idea that poor people have nothing. Something is better than nothing, right? So anything you give these poor people will be better than what they had before.”

By the same token, any old awareness advocacy you dream up doesn’t necessarily constitute “helping.””

M.G. Vassanji notes Ugandan’s discontent with the issue:

“Rosebell Kagumire, a Ugandan blogger, observed, “this is another video where I see an outsider trying to be a hero rescuing African children. We have seen these stories a lot in Ethiopia, celebrities coming in Somalia.” The film only furthers “that narrative about Africans: totally unable to help themselves and needing outside help all the time.” Another blogger, TMS Ruge, wrote, “Africa is our problem, we hereby respectfully request you let us handle our own matters. If you really want to help, keep the guilt and charity in your backyard. Bring instead, respect, and the humility to let us determine our destiny.”

It should be noted that the screening of the documentary on location in Uganda resulted in a mini riot.

The Daily What conclusion of this excellent blog post sums up my feelings on the blind advocacy of campaigns with no knowledge, involvement or accountability on the issue at hand:

“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.

There is no black and white in the world. And going about solving important problems like there is just serves to make all those equally troubling shades of gray invisible.”

The promise of ridding a hated warlord, with you as a contributory factor in his overthrow, is fantastically utopian but taking the video at face value makes it seems like it’s almost possible.

But the reality is we have no right to make uninformed calls for military action, with the inevitable deaths of civilians and enslaved child soldiers, in a country we have no prior knowledge of on the basis of one 30 minute video from a charity with a clear agenda just so we can be part of the latest trendy trend.

To finish on a more upbeat note, Chris Blattman notes:

For all its weaknesses, Invisible Children has been more effective than any of us at raising awareness, and they may get us closest to the least worst action we can take. They can get better, and I hope this time they do.

What’s new and amazing is that, with the direction that coverage has taken, the average high school activist, donor and Congressman might just understand a little better what separates advocacy from badvocacy, and demand better in future. And that makes me hopeful.”

And that’s all I have to say about that.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: