Clicktivism breakdown: What Kony 2012 says about clicktivism

via of hinduone Reddit

On March 5th the group Invisible Children launched their Kony 2012 campaign. I’m sure we – along with more than 85+ million others as of when I’m writing this – have seen the video. If not, check it out below.

The premise of the campaign is to make Joseph Kony, head of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a household name and to bring him to justice. The LRA is responsible for, among other things, abducting children and turning them into child soldiers.

In a very short time the campaign has generated a lot of attention, a lot of support, and perhaps even more criticism. I think that the criticism is where the really interesting discussion is, but perhaps that’s putting the cart before the horse.

First things first: the campaign is undeniably a success. It is in fact the most viral video ever. It set out to get everyone talking about Joseph Kony and it has done just that. For better or for worse for Invisible Children.

The video launched on March 5 and quickly went viral spreading across Facebook and all across the internet. It has more than 85 million views at the moment, which is no small feat for a video that’s almost 30 minutes long. To see how it spread check out Pew’s study and Ethan Zuckerman’s breakdown of Social Flows analysis. Both are very worth a look.

Quickly after it’s launch it was met with a torrent of criticism, some of it legitimate, much of it not. I think the discussion around clicktivism that arose from this video is worth tackling.

Much of the criticism was led by the blog Visible Children and echoed on Facebook and places like Reddit (see, for examplethese example threads).

While these are the criticisms that are dogging Invisible Children the most, I think that they are mainly superficial and were focused around where their funds went. There are some legitimate concerns about how Invisible Children want to achieve their goals, but for the most part I don’t think these address those concerns. I’d encourage everyone to research the charity you’re thinking of donating to and to find one that aligns with your principles. Attacking a group that works on raising awareness for not doing enough work on the ground is like criticizing an Italian restaurant because they don’t serve chow mein.

This is Invisible Children’s official response to those criticisms.

A more interesting thread of criticism arose a few days later as academics and activists started to enter the fray. Let’s spend some time on those.

1) Kony 2012 robs Africa of its agency and is the 21st century equivalent of “the white man’s burden”.

My first instinct is to give Invisible Children a pass on this, after all the campaign is aimed at raising awareness in the Western world right? But that’s the problem isn’t it. Ignoring African agency perpetuates the attitude that Africa can’t solve its own problems.

Out of all the criticisms I think that this is the most important and the most legitimate.

Teju Cole has an interesting article on this very point over in The Atlantic.

One song we hear too often is the one in which Africa serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism. From the colonial project to Out of Africa to The Constant Gardener and Kony 2012, Africa has provided a space onto which white egos can conveniently be projected. It is a liberated space in which the usual rules do not apply: a nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike savior or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied. Many have done it under the banner of “making a difference.”

How, for example, could a well-meaning American “help” a place like Uganda today? It begins, I believe, with some humility with regards to the people in those places. It begins with some respect for the agency of the people of Uganda in their own lives. A great deal of work had been done, and continues to be done, by Ugandans to improve their own country, and ignorant comments (I’ve seen many) about how “we have to save them because they can’t save themselves” can’t change that fact.

I think this issue may also seep into other campaigns. For instance campaigns surrounding climate change often talk about countries such as Bangladesh, Kiribati, and the Maldives as victims of Western progress. That’s not to say that they are treated exclusively as victims, they’re also often portrayed as active participants, but I know that I’ll be paying extra attention from now on.

2) The campaign oversimplifies a complex and nuanced issue.

This raises a very interesting question: is clicktivism by its very nature reductive?

I think the answer is no, it is not necessarily reductive, but it often is. One aspect of clicktivism, that is perhaps both a strength and weakness, is its adoption of marketing techniques. While this is fantastic in terms of reaching a wider audience and gaining support, turning campaigns into 30 second commercials loses a lot a nuance. Now this isn’t inherent to clicktivism so much as clicktivism lends itself to this type of campaigning; the internet as a medium has a short attention span.

That being said, any campaign that tries to sell itself with short, punchy messages should also provide the proper background for a more indepth investigation. I’m wary of any organization that won’t show its supporting evidence. Not everyone will track down that information, even if you shove it in their faces, but I don’t feel that the onus is on the campaign at that point. You tell them what you want to change, why you want it to change, and then show them where to get more info.

3) Watching and spreading a video does nothing to capture Kony.

It’s true, watching a YouTube video will have no direct impact on capturing Kony. The average Joe on the street doesn’t exactly have the jurisdiction to bring Kony to the International Criminal Court. It’s the standard argument against clicktivism, but that’s not the point is it.

I think Zeynep Tufekci of Technosociology refutes this better than I ever could.

My argument is this: the concept of slacktivism 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.

In other words, slacktivism should be seen as the encroachment of politics and civics into people’s everyday worlds which tend to be dominated by mundane concerns of day-to-day existence–or dominated by the consumerism transmitted through traditional media. It’s also a step in the unraveling of the professionalization of human rights and cause advocacy. [Credit: parts of this argument were developed in discussion with Alaa Abdal Fatah of Egypt and Sami Ben Gharbia of Tunisia].

So, not only are these people not slacking, they are acting symbolically in spheres that previously had higher barriers to entry. Symbolic action is not a magic wand–and its consequences depend on how it interacts with  other kinds of power, including institutional power.

The argument for the futility of clicktivism presumes that a) symbolic action has no power, and b) the point of an awareness campaign is to solve the problem. Neither of these is true.

That’s my take on the broader impact of Kony 2012. What do you think?