In an op-ed piece on March 14th, New York Times contributor Nicholas Kristof weighed in on the virtual feeding frenzy that has resulted from Invisible Children’s “Kony2012” video. Kristof attempted to take a neutral stance on the video, but was clearly disdainful of its critics, saying, “I don’t know if this initiative will make a difference. But if I were a Congolese villager, I would welcome these uncertain efforts over the sneering scorn of do-nothing armchair cynics.”
The video, which has been viewed by over 80 million people, has been highly criticized, including by the government of Uganda and citizens living in northern Uganda, for being simplistic and misleading. Some critics have gone as far as to say that it depicts a sort of neo-colonial attitude of white saviors rescuing voiceless Africans. Those criticisms prompted defenders of the video to argue in favor of increased awareness, even if done in simplified ways.
While one could hardly categorize all the criticism of the video–including that coming from Ugandans themselves–as simply sneering scorn, Kristoff’s point raises an interesting question regarding the role that such advocacy efforts play in today’s hyper-communicative world, and the incredibly important issue of ownership.
Today’s communication networks allow for large quantities of people to rally around issues rapidly. Many have noted the incredible impact that social media and communication technology had in organizing and sustaining the revolutions in Egypt and elsewhere. But there is one major difference between the utilization of social networks and media technology in, for example, Egypt, and Invisible Children’s impressive dissemination efforts. Namely that the messages used in Egypt, the individuals communicating, and the groups organizing, were indigenous Egyptians. It was not an external effort, but born from and spread through internal networks, representing internal frustration through the words of the people who live there.
The Kony2012 video also strives to express frustration, but not through the voices of the place itself, and because of this, it falls short of being representative. Nor is the intended audience a central African one, but rather a US and Western one, feeding into a sense that solutions to African problems are to be found externally rather than within the people, skills, capacities, and ingenuity of the place itself. As the world continues to harness the power of social media, it will be important to consider the means through which communication takes place, who owns it, whose voice is being amplified, and whose voices are perhaps being muted by it.
It is not uncommon for advocacy efforts to simplify and distill down complex situations in order to reach a mass audience. Indeed, it is the very simplification that allows for a broad spectrum of interest and engagement from a large number of people.
Today, not only are many messages simplified, but the process through which people demonstrate their attention to a cause has also become easier. Whereas in years past one had to participate in marches, write letters to their elected officials, and sign petitions, today one simply has to “like” something on Facebook in order to demonstrate their interest in and support for a cause. Very real benefits can be attributed to this by generating an easily quantifiable indicator of public interest in a topic. At the same time, such indicators are ambiguous in terms of the level of commitment or sacrifice people are willing to make for a certain cause.
To use the Kony2012 example: it is not hard to support, in general terms, a broad effort to capture Joseph Kony, who is without question a criminal. Yet the amount of money the US has contributed to this effort has remained small relative to other conflict situations. Does the interest of 80 million YouTube viewers mean that, in the current economic climate, these viewers would support increasing US funds towards this effort? It is notable that the 100 military advisors placed in central Africa by the Obama Administration are strictly there in a supportive capacity, and not authorized to engage in direct military action unless threatened, hence limiting risk of endangerment. Does the interest generated by Kony2012 translate into a US public willing to sacrifice our own in this effort? If history is any judge, the answer to that question is likely no.
Further, are the policies and decisions being sought after in Western governments the same that would be sought after if the communication were controlled by and broadcasting the voices of the people of the place themselves? After the International Criminal Court issued indictments for Kony and the top leadership of the LRA in 2005, extensive debates ensued in northern Uganda that demonstrated the diversity of indigenous opinions regarding what Kony’s fate should be, with many arguing in favor of a local process of reconciliation and cleansing rather than an international process of justice.
Similarly, the Acholi Religious Leaders continue to argue in favor of a peace process rather than the continuation of a military campaign. Through their campaign, Invisible Children has promoted one dominant solution—military intervention—without representing the variety of opinions from people of affected countries on what they see as the optimal solutions. With this in mind, one must wonder whether the Congolese villager would in fact prefer this campaign in which their own voice is not heard and that puts forward a solution they may not agree with (the Congolese military has a long history of predatory behavior, and may not be the better of two evils for some).
As the news on Kony2012 shifts away from the video itself to the condition of the founder of Invisible Children and his public breakdown, it is worthwhile to note that the organization is one of only a small number with programs in the remote area of Central African Republic where the LRA is believed to be operating. Some of these programs are focused on communication, enhancing civilian protection measures through increasing access to radios and other means of technology. It is only a pity that the organization didn’t work to marry its advocacy efforts with its program efforts and use their community contacts and communication systems on the ground to amplify central African voices rather than their own.
Rachel Locke is a Visiting Fellow at the International Peace Institute
About the photo: A still from the video “Kony2012.”