Thursday, 8 March 2012

KONY 2012: Yes, social media can raise awareness, but does "clicktivism" do more harm than good?

Adrift in a world of YouTube clips of cute kittens and the latest lulz-inducing memes, The Golden Latrine knows a thing or two about sharing links. But now advocacy groups are trying to reconfigure the act of cut-and-pasting a link into something altogether more profound - political activism.

So-called clicktivism is on the rise - although the ease with which the coalition government swatted aside the Drop The Health Bill e-petition shows its limitations. In short: it's easier to ignore Facebook clicks or e-petitions than a protester with a placard outside your constituency office.

The latest and perhaps most noteworthy clicktivist effort yet is KONY 2012, a film made by the Ugandan charity Invisible Children, which has gone viral globally thanks to an astonishingly effective social media campaign. The film asks viewers to help make Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony "famous" in order to bring him to justice at the International Criminal Court (ICC), who put out a warrant for his arrest in 2005.

Now, let's be clear, a 30-minute movie is never going to be able to capture all the complexity of the situation on the ground - and major simplification is probably required to engage the average internet user with an attention span shot to pieces by high-velocity browsing. But while it's slickly-produced and designed to tug at the heartstrings, KONY 2012 left me feeling distinctly queasy.

Forget the portentous opening voiceover about the power of the Facebook generation or the scenes of Invisible Children's Jason Russell "explaining" the conflict to his son, what really troubled me was watching Russell evangelically telling a lecture theatre of students: "Who are you to end a war? I'm here to tell you who are you not to".

In an ideal world, Invisible Children's millions-stong new army of latte-drinking clicktivists could swoop in to arrest the war criminal and liberate the child soldiers. Except Joseph Kony has not been in Uganda for 6 years and, as Joshua Keating put it in Foreign Policy:

the LRA now numbers at most in the hundreds, and while it is still causing immense suffering, it is unclear how millions of well-meaning but misinformed people are going to help deal with the more complicated reality.
There are already 100 US Special Forces on the ground advising Ugandan government forces, who have themselves been accused of serious human rights abuses.

With US military forces already enagegd, what, then, are the filmmakers hoping to achieve? KONY 2012 makes the case that without continued public backing, "international support could be removed at any time," which seems a bit of an airy claim to warrant such a lavish advocacy campaign. And why impose an arbitrary deadline (the end of 2012) for rounding up Kony?

The message of KONY 2012 is simple: military intervention is a necessary and good thing. This is, to put it mildly, extremely contentious. Previous attempts by U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) to get rid of Kony have provoked a brutal backlash from Kony's followers, as this piece in Foreign Affairs last November makes clear:

Operation Lighting Thunder, and other such missions to fight the LRA in the Central African Republic and in southern Sudan, served mostly to kill efforts to keep beleaguered peace talks going. And, far from neutralizing the LRA, they prompted a strategically effective and ferocious response. In January and February 2009, the LRA abducted around 700 people, including an estimated 500 children, and killed almost 1,000
While there's no doubting the good intentions of Invisible Children, KONY 2012 shows a definite refusal to acknowledge the Law of Unintended Consequences. I couldn't help but recall Live Aid: the same infectious feelgood factor, the celebrity advocates (Bono, Rihanna, Jay Z, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg) and political heavyweights (Bill Clinton, Condi Rice, George W. Bush), the same naive belief that action automatically equals a positive outcome.

Live Aid gives the lie to this belief. For all the cosy TV retrospectives reflecting on Saint Bob and how good Queen were, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) estimated that up to 100,000 people may have died inadvertantly as a result of resettlement programme made possible by the aid effort. Yes, Live Aid saved lives, but it cost lives too. As David Rieff put it, writing in The Guardian in 2005:

Isn't it better to do something rather than give in to cynicism and do nothing? This is the question familiar to anyone who has criticised organisations that view themselves as dedicated to doing good in the world. To those UN agencies, relief organisations and development groups working in crisis zones from Afghanistan to Aceh, any "non-constructive" criticism, especially the kind that implies that it might have been better to refrain from acting at all, is so much nihilist piffle.

Edmund Burke's dictum that for evil to triumph, all that is required is "for good men to do nothing" (a favourite quotation of Kofi Annan's) encapsulates this view. Yet an alternative case can be made: in the global altruism business, it is, indeed, sometimes better not to do anything at all
That doesn't mean we should lapse into cynicism though. Invisible Children's undoubtedly do a lot of good work in central Africa, but their enthusiasm for military action might, sadly, undermine all that. Military interventions, after all, tend to esculate. As Joshua Keating wrote:

One of the biggest issues with a simplistic "Stop Kony" message is that discussions of Navy Seals or drone strikes are inevitable when patience runs out with Ugandan-led efforts . But what about the dozens or hundreds of abducted and brainwashed kids? Should we bomb everyone? Will they actually stop fighting after Kony is gone? What if they shoot back?
Before any wannabe clicktivists rush out to buy a wristband or a KONY 2012 'Action Kit', they might want to have a think about that.

Note: For those that want to analyse the film further, there's an extremely amusing deconstruction of the KONY 2012 at Wronging Rights entitled The Definitive ‘Kony 2012′ Drinking Game.

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