Internet activism: A look at the KONY 2012 campaign

Internet activism: A look at the KONY 2012 campaign
My daughter stopped me before I went to work on March 7 and said, “Mom, you have to watch this!” It was a half-hour video produced by the American charity Invisible Children that she received from two friends via Facebook.
Wow, it is really something — an ingenious piece of video production that pulls at your emotions, draws you in, and makes you want to participate in the campaign to make Joseph Kony a household name. The video tells you about Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army that operated in Uganda and kidnapped children to serve in his rebel army: boys to kill and girls to serve as sex slaves. There is an interview of Jacob, a boy who was kidnapped but managed to escape. His brother was not so lucky. He was caught and killed by his captors who used a panga to cut his neck.

In one of the most moving scenes, Jacob says, “It is better when you kill us. And if possible, you can kill us, kill us. For us we don’t want now to stay because . . . we are only two. No one is taking care of us. We are not going to school, so. . . .” When asked whether he would rather die than stay on earth, Jacob replies, “Yes. Even now. How are we going to stay in our future?” he asks. If his brother was still alive he would say to him, “I love you, but now I miss you, so it is better when we meet , we are not going to meet, but we may meet in heaven you see? So it is better I will not talk much. It will start something. Because if I saw my brother once again, I don’t . . . ” Jacob breaks down weeping like a small child.

Kony’s actions are so evil the International Criminal Court put him at the top of its list of persons to be prosecuted for crimes against humanity — only he needs to be caught first. There was a prior campaign run by Invisible Children to put pressure on the U.S. government to provide support for the Ugandan army to find Kony and bring him in. President Barack Obama agreed to send 100 U.S. military personnel to help with this effort.

However, because government programs can always be cut, the charity decided to begin a new campaign, “KONY 2012,” to ensure that government support doesn’t disappear. The idea goes if everyone knows about Kony, if he is made famous, then people will be more inclined to continue and add to the pressure on governments to bring Kony to justice.

This campaign encourages young people to buy an activism kit that includes posters, a T-shirt, and two bracelets. April 20, oddly the same day known by some as 420 or Cannabis Appreciation Day, is the day when participants will deploy and on April 21 people all over the U.S. and Canada will wake up to see lawn signs, posters, and T-shirts adorned with Kony’s name. In conjunction, 20 celebrities, including George Clooney, Justin Bieber, and Rihanna, have been recruited as “culture makers” to pass on the message about the campaign, and 12 leaders have been targeted as “policy makers,” including our own Stephen Harper.

The interesting thing about this campaign is that because the video has gone viral — 2.7 million viewers one day after the March 5 launch and almost 55 million by the morning of March 9 — the campaign will show us if it is possible to create a bypass route to political power if the millions of people it has reached decide to mobilize.

The video itself does a pretty clear job in telling the viewer why this campaign will work. It uses a pyramid to describe how governments make decisions in the national economic interest as dictated by elites and then corporations controlled by elites market down to the masses. However, if the masses make enough noise, they can influence the government and bypass corporate and other interests. So, even if the U.S. or Canadian government has no national economic or security reason for being involved in Uganda, you and I can still make them do the right thing, just because it is the right thing.

Now in this case, I am not sure that it is the right thing, and I will get to that a bit later, but as an old-school activist who has stuffed many envelopes, organized workshops, and handed out buttons this mobilization experiment is a game changer, when it comes to reaching youth.

There has been some pretty quick criticism of the Kony 2012 campaign. Because it is attracting primarily white people in the U.S., mostly girls and young women between the ages of 13 and 24, it recreates the same distorting power dynamics of rich versus poor and black versus white. Rather than empowering Africans, it empowers predominantly middle-class and upper-middle-class white kids, setting them up as saviours for disorganized black folk. Thus, the campaign ignores the recurring domination of North over South and just perpetuates it.

Even if Kony is found and tried, and there is a possibility that he may already be dead, prosecuting him will not bring peace to the region. The problems of violence in Africa are very complicated and this campaign is much too simplistic. Not enough of the money goes to the cause; instead it is going to the organization. Finally, there is the assumption that the help that the U.S. is providing to the Ugandan army is in the form of weapons.

Invisible Children has defended itself against these attacks in other fora, so here I will focus on the criticisms relating to race, gender, and complexity.

While I find that the re-creation of colonial relationships is problematic, it is important to note that not all the middle-class youth involved will be white. There are a number of black people who are part of the middle class and are very active in projects connected to Africa.

The involvement of young women in international politics and global change is a thing to celebrate, not to denigrate. While the video pulls on emotional heartstrings to create empathy for the children who have suffered, I am not sure this is such a bad thing. There are many films and documentaries that seek to create the same emotional environment with a view to encourage people to act. Perhaps it is somewhat manipulative as a tactic, but it allows the viewer to remain engaged to hear the details of the story.

If young women respond to emotion more readily than men and are prepared to engage on the issue, then I say good for them. At the heart of every human being there is an emotional life that provides us with context and meaning. This is not something that we should pretend does not exist. For many young people, male, female, or trans, I imagine this campaign will be their first step into activism. The cost is only $30 and some time. This is a low-risk activity and for a few it will be a life-changing moment.

Finally, regarding complexity, critics should remember that scholarship and technical solutions through national and international governmental bodies is the work area of professionals, not activists. You do not create social change through a course on political relations or international development. The video does not attempt to provide greater clarity about the sources and possible solutions to the wide variety of interconnected peace and security, health, and agricultural issues that Uganda and other African countries face, nor the role that our post-colonialism global economy continues to play in continuing the domination of the North over the South.

It deals with the very narrow issue of impunity for crimes against humanity. Although there may be disagreement over which level of perpetrator should be brought to justice, there is general agreement that Joseph Kony is a bad guy. Regarding the claim that the U.S. government will be spending money to arm the Ugandan army, which in turn will cause greater havoc, I doubt very much that American involvement will be without strict control. So let’s start where we can agree and not imagine that one campaign can solve all the world’s problems.

The Internet and ancillary communications products are the tools of younger generations of activists, as we saw in the Occupy Movement and also in the Arab Spring. Internet campaigns carry the hope that our communities can organize to do the right thing, even when our politicians don’t want to. Whether or not one agrees with the Kony 2012 campaign, it will be interesting to see how it plays out, and you can be sure that there will be others to follow.

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