The Kony 2012 viral video has become something of a icon of the power of social media, in both its most powerful and dangerous ways. While I’ve followed the various debates only from a distance, I thought I’d just post a few thoughts and resources. The original video itself has now (as of 4/5/2012) been viewed more than 87 million times, most of that within the first week of its release. (Oxford Internet Institute research fellow Mark Graham provides an interesting visualization of how the video spread, based on twitter mentions.) Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army is no longer an obscure and largely ignored phenomenon outside of central Africa, and is now the subject of wide-spread public awareness and debate.
I have yet to see a really good analysis of why the campaign was so successful (please share if you know of one). Invisible Children has been working for many years, building a base of support amongst college students in particular (I first became aware of their work in 2005 when a student of mine at Penn State shared their first documentary film, which I remember being somewhat better substantively than the viral video). So clearly the success isn’t simply rooted in a strategic use of celebrities and social media, but also linked with a long-term effort of ‘off-line’ organizing with a techno-savvy population.
But there’s also something about the substance of the video that contributed to its popularity: a simple story of innocent young victims being abused by an embodiment of evil brutality. Not only does the social media impact in this case ignore and/or distort the broader social and political context, but it also appeals to some of the worst elements of U.S. racism and imperialist sentiments. I won’t rehash those critiques, since that has been done well elsewhere: Colorlines’ great analysis of the problematic features of the ‘white savior’ complex; Mahmood Mamdani’s corrective analysis of the importance of Ugandan and other central African nations’ initiatives and non-military solutions; Juice Rap News’ hilarious satire warning us of the dangers of military intervention.
So, though I was initially pleased to hear about the existence of the viral video (and yes, watched the full nearly 30 minutes of it!), in the end I think it has done more damage than good. This sentiment is reinforced for me by the just released “Part II” video, which Invisible Children produced in an apparent effort to provide a more detailed picture of the dynamics surrounding the LRA and the purpose of their ‘first awareness, then action’ approach to confronting the LRA. There are inspiring calls to global solidarity amongst the youth of the world, with echoes of a progressive perspective (it doesn’t actually say “an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”, but it could be read into the video) . But the central message is still essentially the same–the “LRA’s violence” is victimizing innocent, vulnerable people, and it is the responsibility of citizens around the world, out of charity and the goodness of their hearts, to support militaristic efforts to get Joesph Kony. There is still no attention to the broader political and social context that created the conditions for the LRA to arise. There is no mention of the culpability of the Ugandan government, the International Criminal Court, the U.S. Government and other entities in undermining previous efforts to negotiate peace and amnesty. Mamdani argues this is in pursuit of their own geo-political interests: “Rather than the reason for accelerated military mobilization in the region, the LRA is the excuse for it.” There is no mention of U.S. geo-political interests in the region, which is especially important to be aware of in the context of a new ‘scramble for Africa’ between Russia, China and the U.S. for newly discovered oil reserves, strategic minerals, and a renewed interest for political and economic influence in the continent (see articles here and here for interesting perspectives.) In the absence of that broader understanding and analysis, I fear that the influence of the Kony 2012 campaign will reinforce dangerous interventionist tendencies of the U.S. government, and simply reinforce paternalist and racist sentiments amongst many well-meaning supporters.