Judging by the fact that you’re on the internet and reading this, you’ve no doubt already been swept up by the digital storm that is KONY 2012. For those of you who haven’t a clue what I’m talking about, I suggest you take 29 minutes out of your day to watch the viral video created by San Diego-based NGO Invisible Children: KONY 2012. Whether you’re taken with the idea or not, this video has catapulted Ugandan guerilla group leader Joseph Kony from a relatively unknown name to spectacular fame in a matter of days. And, as one of the most wanted war criminals in the world, he is certainly someone worth taking note of.
Kony and the atrocities he has committed aside, there are so many things I find fascinating about the current social-media-and-social-justice-infused buzz. Firstly, what began as a public outcry in response to Invisible Children’s emotive film has now turned into a heated argument between two camps of snarling social media users. While some are bowled over by the clever use of slick and trendy film-editing and the undeniable force of social networking, others are much more sceptical about Invisible Children and their idealistic crowdsourcing tactics. The Invisible Children team have now updated their website in response to these criticisms.
So, is KONY 2012 a social “experiment” that will redefine the age of social media, raise awareness of some of the great injustices of modern times and capture the culprit? Or is it simply a sensationalised youtube upload, overlooking the complexities of a fading situation in Uganda, that most will watch once and then forget about as soon as the next video of Beyoncé breast-feeding in public surfaces?
To tell you the truth, I was so excited after watching the KONY 2012 video that I not only shared it on Facebook and Twitter, but also checked out the job vacancies page on invisiblechildren.com. I find the power and attraction of social media fascinating. I like the way that the video addresses that within the opening few minutes. The potential reach and impact of successful online campaigning for the greater humanitarian good is exciting. I’d like to be a part of it. It didn’t even occur to me that ‘making Kony famous’ might entail negative consequences. Despite having read a substantial amount of off-putting KONY 2012 babble since first watching the film and admiring several more eloquent strands to the debate, this campaign still triggers something in me. It affirms my thoughts on the boundaries of cutting-edge, socially conscious communication: the best is yet to come.
In the past, we read the paper, watched the news on TV or listened to the radio and then discussed the headlines with each other face-to-face… over cups of coffee, in classrooms and workplaces, on buses or walking along the street. News spread quickly via word of mouth, but individual conversations were limited to the number of people present. Nowadays, we can show our appreciation or distaste for something in a very public setting at the click of a button and have instant access to a whole variety of opinions and perspectives as people join in the conversation from varying corners of the globe. While you could argue that the increase in online activity means that people are talking less, a campaign like KONY 2012 is pretty hard to stay silent about. In addition to online interaction, people are talking about it here in Ethiopia and I’m sure others are discussing it wherever you are right now. Within hours, KONY 2012 became the biggest human rights-based discussion in the history of social communication. It’s racked up an impressive 65 million views on Youtube and Vimeo already, and the hashtag #stopkony is still trending on Twitter after four days.
One real strength of Web 2.0 is this large-scale conversation. Sure, something about viral videos, like that band you love who went from playing cosy pubs to packed out stadiums overnight can be irritating. However, I’m sticking to my guns and am not ashamed to have jumped on the bandwagon. KONY 2012 is by no means perfect as a campaign or as a concept, but it is undeniably effective. Invisible Children are masters of marketing and crowdsourcing. Their lightning response to the inevitable backlash exemplifies tight social media policy. The organisation is pumping money into advocacy and production because they recognise the potential of social media in mobilising civil society. And boy, has it paid off. Conversation is now flowing on East and Central Africa, on the Lord’s Resistance Army and their 25-year reign of terror, and the thousands of men, women and children they have abducted, mutilated, enslaved and killed. But it doesn’t stop there… the KONY 2012 frenzy has fuelled discussion on charitable giving, development methodologies, military intervention, western ideologies, slacktivism, and the effectiveness of awareness generation and online activism. The campaign’s appeal has pulled the most influential and most unlikely of characters into this dialogue. Millions have watched the film and been moved, one way or another, because they care.
There are a multitude of issues in desperate need of pragmatic solutions in Uganda, not to mention other African countries, and removing Joseph Kony from the picture is not the answer to all of them. But hey, mass support for good old-fashioned justice is hard to come by. And that is what we’re witnessing here…. a coming together of people from all different walks of life who want to see Kony face up to all of the truly awful things he has done. Social media enables international solidarity.
Jason Russell said it himself, KONY 2012 is an experiment. Invisible Children has my utmost respect for trying. Sometimes in life, you step out of your comfort zone and into the unknown and you see or hear something that makes you so sad, so frustrated, and so angry that you feel compelled to help. You are bursting to share what you’ve learned with as many people as possible and go to bed at night wondering how you can help raise awareness and make a difference. There are those that will always try to put out your flame, to criticise your motives and your methodologies. Those people are not going to make one inch of a difference in comparison to Invisible Children unless they channel their own passion into constructive advice or action.
What we’re witnessing is incredibly exciting and what happens next is crucial. Through all of the attention and buzz surrounding KONY 2012, what one blogger said resonates loudest, “it’s only apathy if you don’t care”. Anyone who’s been inspired by the campaign, or angered enough to critique it evidently cares about humanity and about this particular cause. It would be fantastic if both the supporters and critics of Invisible Children in Uganda and the rest of the world now take advantage of this week’s surge in social solidarity and take rational steps forward to hold Joseph Kony accountable for his actions, in the least detrimental way possible. It will be even better if everyone working in the field of human rights and development can learn from and build upon the success of KONY 2012. It is too early to tell what the end result will be, but for now KONY 2012 should be applauded as an example of inspirational and thought-provoking social communication at its best and an encouraging nod toward the future potential of social media.