media economy photography politics

Kony2012, symbolic action and the potential for change

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. 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:

1. The media economy

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.

2: Contemporary activism

I’ve been irritated by how some critics dismiss the response of young people to the video:

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.

3. Change in the face of global problems

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

14 replies on “Kony2012, symbolic action and the potential for change”

[…] missed opportunities of images never capturedNYT Lens: Empowerment, Through a LensDavid Campbell: Kony2012, symbolic action and the potential for changeNYT: David LaChapelle, From Photographer to ArtistVerve: Kirsten LuceVerve: Jeremy NicholVerve: […]

[…] PDN: Remembering 13 Unsung Heroes of PhotojournalismLynsey Addario was featured on Guardian’s brilliant ‘Best Shot’ series…Guardian: Photographer Lynsey Addario’s Best ShotGuardian: Photographer Tom Craig’s best shotGuardian: My best shot: The one that got away Guardian: My Worst ShotGuardian: Photographs Not Taken: what makes a photographer freeze? NYT Lens: Empowerment, Through a LensDavid Campbell: Kony2012, symbolic action and the potential for change […]

David Campbell wrote:
“As I understand it, the first 300 views of any video happen quickly, and then for a day YT analyses whether they follow a legitimate pattern or whether its someone sitting at their computer clicking on and off.”

That sounds astonishing for YouTube, as Vimeo provides a counter example of a site that measures quite discretely. Vimeo stats tell you how many times a video page loads, how many users press the Play button, how many people close the page before the video finishes, how many people watch the video to the end, geography, etc. And it never counts views from your own IP address. Views are real.

After using Vimeo, I was shocked to find YouTube, with it’s auto-playing videos, counted a page load as a view. That amounts to zero stats. We know nothing more than the page loaded. And it counts all the author’s views. Monitoring traffic patterns seems overly sophisticated compared to simply designing a player that measures accurately. (Unless it’s retro-active, ie. it was badly designed to inflate views, but views are currency. Instead of fixing it, they set a filter for an upper threshold of abuse. Everybody benefits from inflation.)

[…] Later, in a more sober light, I reflect on the fact that I don’t really do *any* genre films for charity clients. So perhaps not getting around to the musical is not such a failure. Nonetheless, I feel shaken and unsure of what I’m doing now. I feel we should be discussing the implications of Invisible Children Global Night Commute Musical but I don’t honestly know where to begin. And I’m tired from spending all last week thinking about the implications of Kony 2012 campaign video, and the curious criticisms of haters. […]

Rob, I get the point and don’t think some comparison b/w clicking/liking and petitions/referenda is illegitimate. I do think, though, that the personal recommendation function of social media is taking us into qualitative areas – it requires one to accept a recommendation, like or learn from something, and think enough to pass it on. Unpacking those processes reveals something quite complex even if quick. Of course, as today’s second post on Kony shows, we are now learning much more about the pre-existing activist networks that were the precondition for the video’s virality.

Thanks for the response David. Food for thought as always. Just to clarify, I did not mean to suggest social media engagement per se is just like a petition – only that a narrow part of this engagement (online click-through type actions, and to a certain extent ‘sharing’ and ‘liking’) are very similar to petitions / informal referendums. I think that is a fairly reasonable statement, and in my view it is important we determine the relative value of actions that predominantly seek ‘quantitative’ rather than ‘qualitiative’ engagement. However, In my view social media has much more to offer than this – particularly as an mobilisation and organisational tool (though it needs acknowledging that ‘clicktivism’ may act as an entry point to deeper engagement). I also agree that power resides in many places other than politicians offices. However, in is undeniable that a great deal of power (and responsibility/accountability) does lie there. When you have limited resources it pays to cut to the chase.

Rob, thanks for the response. On the video stats, its worth noting that YouTube tries, through algorithms, to prevent people gaming the view stats. As I understand it, the first 300 views of any video happen quickly, and then for a day YT analyses whether they follow a legitimate pattern or whether its someone sitting at their computer clicking on and off. Once its deemed legitimate, further views depend on people viewing for a substantial period of time. I’ve seen some suggestions people need to watch more than half for it to count as a view. YT won’t confirm that publicly, but if so then we can give the data about viewership more credence.

As for your second point, whether or not its true the public sphere has been closed off as Tufekci argues, there is little double many people perceive it as closed. Either way, I think you have a fairly conventional reading of the place of symbolic action (which is in fact a part of all action), and rendering the social media engagement as just like a petition in relation to the formal institutions of politics is to my mind way to narrow and instrumentalist. I think social media engagement involves for many much more than being the digital equivalent of signing a petition. That engagement is for many qualitative, so your quantity vs quality frame is too limited and overlooks that.

I think its revealing you say “quality time with decision makers behind closed doors is valued higher by most campaigners.” That has certainly been what has driven most of the dismissals of social media engagement (though I acknowledge you are not dismissing it). While, of course, access to politicians has to be a part of any holistic campaign, their offices are not the only place power resides. We need to think about politics more broadly and more creatively.

Cheers David for a thoughtful response amongst a great deal of noise. Its been an interesting week. I’ll start with a nerdy point. Part of the fuss about Kony2012 was that so many people watched a 30 mins video. But did they? As far as I am aware, what we know is that XXmillion people ‘started to watch a 30mins video’ but we have no idea how far they got through the whole of it. In many ways a minor point and the fact that XXmillion clicked the link in the first place trumps this – however, suffice to say we shouldn’t all be going out an making half hour productions and expecting the same results. If people watch 30min videos like this all the time we wouldn’t have been so surprised.

As for slacktivism and ‘non-activists taking action’ – it is not true that this sphere has been closed off to them. Slacktivism / clicktivism is essential a petition, which have been around for centuries. Social media make it easier and faster for more people to take part. But this is an economy where each individual action’s value may be devalued as supply increases (value is also determined greatly by the political system and the issue involved). Most activists know that petitions are rather blunt tools and it is very hard to judge what a sufficient number is in order to have impact. Many fail. The value of such campaigns may in the end be that of an ad hoc opinion poll or unofficial referendum – allowing political decision makers to gauge public feeling. Quantity vs. quality – most campaigns need both. I have no problem with symbolic actions, and I certainly would not deride young people from taking part in such actions – but quality time with decision makers behind closed doors is valued higher by most campaigners. If 500,000 signatures gets you that access then well and good. I will be traveling Monday to follow up on a campaign using both of these tactics. Getting attention for a distant story is not easy – maybe the most encouraging thing to take away from Kony2012 is that so many people were interested in the story that had got so little international attention. In the end, maybe its all about story telling?

‘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. ‘

Well put.

Hi David,

thank you for your reflection on this issue. I think this is and will be one important issue to think of. I myself have been studying the relationship between media’s audience and distant suffering, and find that in the gap between seeing and taking action there is a vast unknown that cannot be simply dismissed.
One of the more empathetic looks at the action of the audience during a crisis (although not a political crisis) by scholars of crisis informatics can be read here
Look forward to reading more of your writing.

Comments are closed.