A week on from the “Kony 2012” video eruption, I want to take a step back and ask: what does this tells us about the media economy, what does it suggest about the state of activism, and how should we think about change in the face of global problems?
I’m not going to add much to the enormous volume of critical analysis on Invisible Children’s campaign. Whydev.org has a comprehensive readers digest of links, and posts from Unmuted, Michael Wilkerson and Alex de Waal detail what de Waal calls the “dangerous and patronizing falsehoods” I too see in the video. Ethan Zukerman has a great overview, Charlie Beckett offers a self-styled grumpy indictment, while the defence comes from Bridgette Bugay, Chris Blattmann and, of course, Invisible Children themselves. For me, the militarized vision of Invisible Children – both in terms of its red-shirted “army for peace” and its proposals for how to capture Joseph Kony – contains more than a whiff of the Machine Gun Preacher, and that’s not a recommendation.
That said, I want to move beyond the framework of ‘the video right or wrong’ and look at three important issues:
The viral speed and spread of the Kony video has been incredible, and it underscores how “tastemakers, communities of participation and the unexpected” work together to promote a small number of videos on to the global cultural stage. Significantly, the length of any video is not a determinant of potential virality, meaning that the conventional wisdom about our allegedly shortened attention spans need to be seriously questioned.
The scale and quality of the critical response to the Kony video has also been momentous. If you spend time online you might take these things for granted, but the ease with which passionate and knowledgeable voices can now be heard is quite remarkable. In this case the access we now have to Ugandan journalists like Rosabell Kagumir is also a plus. While her video response has been viewed by ‘only’ 400,000 people, a fraction of tens of millions who have viewed the Kony video, that total nonetheless exceeds the daily circulation of The Guardian newspaper in the UK. Our global media economy is now marked by networked relations of ‘old’ and ‘new’ media that make those categories meaningless, something manifested in the diverse range of sources curated by The Guardian’s Live Blog of the debate.
I’ve been irritated by how some critics dismiss the response of young people to the video:
If there’s anything Joseph Kony fears most, it’s Americans changing their profile pictures.
— Andy Borowitz (@BorowitzReport) March 8, 2012
@texasinafrica StopKony shows people’s utter lack of critical thinking. See a video, totally buy that it’s 100% accurate, and then act on it
— Anand(@nothingtosay22) March 9, 2012
In an otherwise powerful post, TMS Ruge let fly:
The click-activists, denied context and nuance, have spewed their ignorance all over the comments section in self-righteous indignation for all the world to see. They have whipped out their wallets and bought their very own Super Hero activist action kits. They have bombarded their friend’s Facebook wall with ignominious updates.
Ok, so the Borowitz tweet is a little bit funny. And of course it’s fine and correct to say that “Oprah and bracelets won’t solve the problem.” But let’s also think about what has happened and what these denunciations assume.
A personal account first. I was working at home last Monday. After I encountered the burst of attention about the Kony video in my social media stream, I went downstairs and found my teenage daughter, recently back from school, watching something on her smartphone. It was the Kony video, all 30 minutes of it. She found it because it was in her social media stream, it came to her via friends’ recommendations, and they were debating its content and meaning. In the end, scepticism meant they weren’t impressed by the action pack. It was a stunning moment where I observed at first hand the very phenomenon so many were beginning to comment on.
What those comments have too often missed is they way young viewers negotiated the meaning of what they were watching. They didn’t just swallow a party line. Their critical engagement was captured in this story of London teenagers’ reactions, as well as the comment from Jess on this post. The critics have complained the Kony video homogenizes and infantilizes the issue of the LRA. But some of those same critics have homogenized and infantilized viewers of the video. There is a sense the production is so slick there can be only one message received (except, of course, by urbane critics) and any response like passing it on is evidence of the victory of emotion over reason.
The viral success of the Kony video demonstrates you can get attention for distant stories, and that emotion and reason can work together. Getting attention is a complex business. Somebody has to be moved, and being moved means having compassion (so another nail in the coffin of ‘compassion fatigue’ as a collective socio-psychological syndrome). It involves making stories available in the social media stream (because in the new media economy that’s how many get their news), recipients accepting a recommendation, viewing some or all of the story, and making a decision to comment on it, or pass it on, or both.
We can obscure his complexity by repeating snide comments about “slacktivism,” but as Zeynap Tufekci writes this is
not just naïve and condescending, it is misinformed and misleading. What is called commonly called slacktivism is not at all about “slacking activists”; rather it is about non-activists taking symbolic action—often in spheres traditionally engaged only by activists or professionals (governments, NGOs, international institutions.). Since these so-called “slacktivists” were never activists to begin with, they are not in dereliction of their activist duties. On the contrary, they are acting, symbolically and in a small way, in a sphere that has traditionally been closed off to “the masses” in any meaningful fashion.
Isn’t that something that we want, people thinking and acting in ways they haven’t previously? Amazingly, some of the critical responses to the reception of the Kony video have derided the idea of “raising awareness” as “vapid” and “useless”. Of course I understand the limits of awareness when the video in question is flawed. But awareness is not simply the product of the video’s content; it is the end result of the video and the (unintended) debate it prompted. And even with a flawed video awareness can only be a problem in itself if you believe that people are just passive recipients rather than active viewers who contribute to and participate in the subsequent debate.
There is, without question, a big difference between the sort of activism generated by the Kony video and solving problems on the ground in distant locations. But I think this episode should prompt us to conduct a hard-headed analysis of a soul-searching question: what can we who are at a distance actually do in the face of global problems to change things?
This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently as I try to formulate a better understanding of what contribution, if any (dare I say it), photographers can make to global change. I’m a long way from knowing how to discuss this let alone having an answer, so I want to end with a few thoughts that demand more work. But we should begin by examining the conventional assumptions about how change is achieved.
The first observation is that if you have, like me, worked on campaigns and in practical politics, you quickly come to realise there is no place, no ground, where you can go to easily solve problems. There’s no magic room where some Wizard of Oz-like character is pulling the levers of power. If only it were that simple. Power exists in networks and relationships, and it’s not under anyone’s control. We are all, to differing degrees, at a distance from the problems, even if we suffer directly.
The second observation is that the standard approach to change assumes a set of linear, causal relations between information, knowledge and action. If someone provides information, you can know and action will result. That, of course, is the assumption at the heart of the Kony video, but significantly it’s also an assumption at the heart of critical responses to the Kony video. The critics think that if the information is wrong then poor action will result.
No one would argue against trying to seek the best information so as to make better understanding possible. But the linkage between that and desired outcomes is not clear. Social movements like those in the US promoting civil rights and women’s rights have seen decades of individual and collective action make imperfect progress, through a series of small, uneven steps that have culminated in unfinished advances. Nobody planned them at the beginning and at various points along the way few knew what the outcome would be. As they persevered there were competing strategies, violent and non-violent, people working within established social institutions as well as beyond them in cultural spaces, full time activists and (mostly) occasional participants. They deployed diverse tactics like writing, picturing, speaking, voting, protesting, and much more.
All this is to say when we think hard about pursuing change we should adopt a more humble approach to what we can do and how we can do it. We then have to insist upon the importance and urgency of doing something even when it seems limited and uncertain. In this context, symbolic action should not be underestimated. As Tufekci notes:
there is no “activism” that does not have a strong symbolic side. Thus, today’s “meaningless click” is actually a form of symbolic action which may form the basis of tomorrow’s other kind of action.
And the key word in that quote? May. There are no guarantees. Who knows what can come of something even if it seems insufficient?
So let’s understand that this episode shows the importance of social media in the structure of the news economy, as well as the supply of compassion that can drive attention amongst those who don’t use traditional media. And let’s not write off the actions or motives of those who made Kony2012 viral, even if we fervently wish it had been another video in another campaign.
Featured photo: Screenshot from Invisible Children page detailing their response to the critiques of Kony2012. The original photo is by Glenna Gordon, and she discusses the image and its use here and here.