KONY2012 Empowering or Misleading a Facebook Generation?

A shot from Kony2012 documentary projected on a New York building. Photograph: Keith Bedford/REUTERS

It is hotly debated whether Invisible Children Inc. have crafted a film communicating an experience of empowerment, or produced a fundraising video that has relied too heavily on digital platforms and not enough on civil resistance, promoting a simplistic perspective of activism for newly recruited campaigners.

The Kony2012 video seeks to inspire outrage, hope, and a sense of personal empowerment on the part of the viewer. The direct emotional appeals endow newly recruited activists and encourage them to believe that they can actively influence humanitarian affairs. O’Brian states that, in trying to harness the web for activism, the campaign succeeded: “because it is highly emotional, while asking people to take fairly light-touch actions: re-tweet or repost this video; email your congressional representative; maybe donate a little money” (2012)

The film gives audiences a sense that by watching the video, they have already done something important, and by sharing the video the sense of accomplishment and empowerment is intensified. Wanenchak states: “The video presents the ignorance of the developed West as its primary sin and the primary obstacle in the way of Joseph Kony being brought to justice; it therefore implicitly offers the simple fact of “awareness” as a form of blanket solution to this problem, with the supposition that action will necessarily follow.” Therefore, at the click of a “share” button, and donation of $30, young individuals all over the world were quickly convinced they were co-producers of an exciting campaign, rather than a passive consumer of the ivory tower discourse that academics regularly generate.

During an Interview by BBC Panorama, Teddy Ruge, a Ugandan born co-founder of social networking initiative Project Diaspora stated: “My initial response to this video was the fact that this was – it came across blatantly as a fundraising video. You know, just calling for 13-year-olds to click and send their $20 and get a bracelet and get a t-shirt, as if that was something that would solve the situation in our country, or should have solved the situation in our country 20 years ago when it really mattered. But ‘click activism’ rarely translates into real world solutions on the ground.”

Invisible Children activist and sociology and politics graduate Sarah Cooper states: “Click activism for a small majority of people does actually translate into people who want to get involved personally with Invisible Children… but for a lot of people its just like, ‘oh yeah this looks like a good thing, I care about people, I’ll click a button, I’ll like it and support it,’ but as far as backing it up with anything, you know there is always going to be something else that is just around the corner and people sadly have the tendency to forget.”

It is believed the ‘empowerment’ these newly recruited activists feel via the Kony2012 movement is destructively misleading a generation, by distorting their perception of what is required to generate genuine reform. Researchers’ advocate that the most significant threat to digital activism is when cyber protests completely replace protesting in the public sphere and instead place all their energy into producing online activism efforts. Ratmin points out, “as more and more activists go online to release their energy and frustration, others may become blind to their efforts, and large-scale movements may be harder to organize as a result” (2010).

An episode of The Stream interviewed journalist Rosebell Kagumire who asserted that the Kony campaign presents younger generations with a naïve perspective on what activism is and can achieve, and that it promotes complacency among these newly recruited activists.

Many agree the Kony 2012 movement has relied too heavily on digital platforms and not enough on civil resistance, promoting a simplistic perspective of activism for newly recruited campaigners. Miller declares, “Liking a video on Facebook is one thing. Getting off the couch is quite another,” this notion illustrates many critics thoughts on the Kony2012 effort.

Participants in the campaigns ‘Cover the Night’ event were asked to commit to a few hours of volunteer work before spending the evening distributing promotional material throughout the community. Unfortunately, barely 5000 people pledged to get involved on Facebook, with the events page not specifying a location. Miller states that the event “was a big reality check for a phenomenon that barely a month ago had been all over the Internet.” Some ask whether the early success of the film set impossibly high expectations, while others feel this is typical of generation Y and there “slactivism.”  The Kony2012 movement exemplifies social media’s overrated ability to deliver a medium that acts as a vehicle for political activism.

There is no doubt that online platforms can potentially facilitate socio-political organization, as Ramtin suggests: “the future of political activism in repressive environments belong to those who mix and master both digital activism and civil resistance” (2010). However the failure of the ‘Cover The Night’ escapade really unearthed the deskbound nature of the campaigners involved in the Kony2012 movement.

OBrien, C. 2012, OBrien: Kony 2012 campaigns tests impact of online activism, Oakland, Calif., United States, Oakland, Calif.

Ratmin, A 2010, “The empire strikes back: social media uprisings and the future of cyber activism,” Kennedy School Review, Vol 10, p 64

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