KONY 2012 and the mischievous media habits of slacktivists

0 Posted by - March 13, 2012 - Blog, Editorial, Screen
Video still from Kony 2012.

Video still from Kony 2012.

I was swamped at work last week, when I took a little Twitter break to see what was going on in the world. My feed was bombarded with what appeared to be a video gone viral, called Kony 2012. Even celebrities like Rihanna, Taylor Swift, and Kim Kardshian, you know, the intellectual heavyweights, were endorsing the campaign to stop Kony.

Not knowing what a Kony was (something to do with ice cream? Who’d want to stop ice cream?), and not having time to look into it, I just threw up a Twitter update: @craigsilliphant says, “what is a Kony? Do I care about this?” I didn’t retweet any of the Kony stuff, because I didn’t know what it was all about. I went back to my work, and when I logged in later, one of my Twitter followers had posted, “Ugandan War Lord. Watch the video.” Well, thanks, duh. She obviously didn’t realize that I’d been too busy (lazy) to watch the video in the first place.

Over the next couple of hours, the Kony video made its rounds. People posted and reposted it on Facebook and Twitter, with some even proclaiming that they’d made their children watch it. Because I still hadn’t watched the video, I decided to remain silent about it and not repost it. I remember what my Mom had said to me as a child when I’d gone and done something stupid because my friends were doing it; “If Kim Kardashian was going to jump off a bridge or forward a Kony video without looking into it, would you?”
Well, no, Mom, now that you put it that way.

The video was made by Invisible Children, which I soon discovered, is not a TLC ghost hunting show. Invisible Children is an organization that seeks to create awareness of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda, led by none other than warlord Joseph Kony, whose atrocities have been legendary. He has plundered, raped, and killed many and practices the use of child soldiers in his rebellion against the Ugandan government. (Note: there may be some cynical humour in my ramblings here, as usual — but there’s nothing funny at all about child soldiers.)

The inevitable backlash to the viral video began, still before I’d even had a chance to see it. The Internet has a weird ‘news’ cycle these days. A story breaks and makes the social media rounds, then the cynics stage a backlash movement, only to have the optimists strike back at the cynics, all before the newspaper can even get the original story out.

But who was right?

The detractors were throwing down condescending vitriol, calling Kony-forwarders lazy and self-indulgent, with sarcastic status updates like, “I clicked on a video, and now I’m patting myself on the back for saving the world.”

Slacktivism is the term for the idea that you can register your pleasure/displeasure with something on social media and then wash your hands of it, having done your part. Some detractors even went as far as to chastise ignorant Westerners for their hubris, postulating that we think we can march in there with our ‘white skin’ and our money and dole out reward and punishment Deus ex Machina-style to the ‘lowly’ Africans. While I do think we need to mind our hubris in the West, I totally reject the claim that we shouldn’t do what we can to help.

I’m pretty skeptical about everything (which generally just serves to make me aware of how much I contradict myself), but I thought to myself, ‘Why do we suddenly care about one warlord and ignore what’s going on in Syria?’

Whitney Huston’s funeral got round the clock coverage this year, while people were dying in Syria. We covered our eyes and ears during atrocities in Darfur or Rwanda that we could have actually done something about. Hell, in 1994, Canadian Forces Lt. General Romeo Dallaire waved his arms and cried that the sky was falling as he watched a genocide unfold before his eyes in Rwanda. We couldn’t even be bothered to even pay enough attention to shrug him off. At least until 2004, when they made Hotel Rwanda, starring Don Cheadle. Then we were incensed. Apparently, if you boil something down into a movie, or better yet, an Internet video, you have our undivided attention.

But the past is the past; maybe Kony 2012 can’t go back in time and change Rwanda, but can sharing this video ad nauseum help Uganda? Would stopping Kony do anything to stem the tidal wave of child soldiers? If you had a car that was destroyed and about to be written off, putting one new tire on it isn’t going to make it roadworthy again, right?

Or is that just sour grapes? Why ride someone’s ass for forwarding a video whose point was to make Joseph Kony a household name so he’d be easier to identify and catch? There’s something noble in that, isn’t there? We’re making the world a better place one click at a time, aren’t we?

Those optimists forwarding the video blindly can tell themselves that, but the truth is more complicated, as it usually is.

In terms of Invisible Children itself, and their charity funds, concerns have been raised that the money going to them is more often spent on staff salaries and filmmaking, rather than on direct aid. They don’t have an external auditor, so who knows what the truth is? Some are calling Kony 2012 nothing more than fundraising propaganda, wagging the dog, as it were.

It’s the same media argument being made lately with the business of Pink Ribbon campaigns for cancer. People are using the iconic pink ribbon to sell their wares, with little of the money going to charity. Meanwhile, we donators walk away thinking we’ve helped someone, when all we’ve helped is some sleazy business owner build a bigger swimming pool in his or her yard.

“Fine,” the optimists said, after already letting the Kony cat out of the bag. “Share the story, but watch where you send your money.” But that’s still not the whole story.

Invisible Children support military intervention in Uganda. To give you the Reader’s Digest version, Kony was fighting against the Ugandan government, and I wouldn’t call him Luke Skywalker or anything, but the lines of good and evil aren’t as clear cut as you might think. If you’re supporting Kony 2012, you’re inadvertently supporting the Ugandan military and they’re no strangers to crimes against humanity. They enjoy murdering, raping, and looting just as much as Kony.

Add to this another little known fact that the video glosses over; Kony was actually driven from Uganda awhile back — he’s no longer a player there, and his army has dwindled to a few hundred (not the 30,000 people are quoting on Facebook). Meanwhile, the country of Uganda and even the continent of Africa itself have much bigger problems.

See what I mean about those darn contradictions?

Kony 2012 wants Kony caught so he can be tried as a war criminal in the International Criminal Court (ICC). But as Doug Saunders points out in his article for The Globe and Mail, the court already went after the LRA; the problem is that it was just as peace talks were actually starting between the LRA and Uganda, which could have brought an end to at least some of the bloodshed and exploitation.

Putting the LRA on trial pretty much gave the government of Uganda license to continue its own atrocities. Saunders calls it, “one of [the ICC’s] biggest failures.” Noting that things were going to get really bad for him if he were prosecuted, Kony disappeared into the jungle. “If not for the ICC,” says Saunders, “the conflict would have ended years ago.”

Now, you can’t honestly say what would have happened, as Tom Cruise proved in Minority Report, but one could argue that now that Kony will be recognized worldwide, it will drive him deeper underground and serve to ramp the war effort up anew. At the least, it’s safe to say that the situation is much more complex that the Kony video implies.

This information and back and forth just scratches the surface, I’m sure, and by the time you read this, there’ll probably be more facts and discussion points coming to light. One thing is certain; the world wields a complicated butterfly effect that is mightier than what you can solve with the click of a mouse. Did ‘forwarders’ help war children by sharing the Kony video? Probably not. Did they actually make the situation worse? Hard to say for sure, but the short answer is yes. Kony 2012 is probably not a good thing, but the genie is out of the bottle now.

All this being said, I still can’t totally side with the detractors and their condescending take on slacktivism. One thing happened here; people turned off their American Idol for a few seconds to open their eyes and absorb what was going on beyond the titular world of The Bachelor. The detractors may have won several crucial points with when it comes to Kony, but they’re also not seeing the big picture in terms of media dissemination. Instead of being mocked, people should be encouraged to be skeptical and question their universe — and you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

The Internet is still a noisy, bawling infant — but the information age is at an awakening. Where this could take us is staggering to comprehend, and in an optimist’s dream, it could bring about some Gene Roddenberry-approved world, where we all come together to better humanity and vanquish demons like Kony and the Ugandan regime. Slacktivism isn’t anything to champion, of course, but today’s slacktivism could be fueling the total awareness of future generation when they pick up where the slacktivists leave off. Ultimately, knowledge is power.

Go ahead and let your kids see the Kony video, now that the whole world has anyway. But learn about the situation and talk to them about it. Teach them that the world is a complicated place, and that their actions, even social media circles, will all have equal and opposite reactions. And if you can’t be bothered to learn anything beyond the oversimplified argument of a 30-minute propaganda video, then don’t blindly share it. Perhaps the Kony debacle can teach more people make informed decisions about the information they share, rather than blindly doing what social media or Rihanna tell them to do.

Craig Silliphant is a Western Canadian writer, critic, and broadcaster. He has insomnia, more apocalyptic dreams than necessary, and night terrors, often waking his wife up in the dead of night with his screaming.

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