The whole Kony 2012 debate has gotten me thinking about how activism has changed over the past few years, especially with the explosion of social media use. Back in 2010, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a much-read piece in The New Yorker about the so-called “Twitter Revolutions” in Moldova and Iran the previous year. Many observers had jumped to the conclusion that social media had reinvented grassroots activism, that, of all things, Facebook and Twitter were now powerful tools for populist change. But as Gladwell argued, activists’ use of Twitter in both countries had been way overblown, and in fact, it was hard to see how social media could ever live up to claims like that. Historically, most social movements, like civil rights in the U.S., had been based on what sociologists call “strong ties”—activists were more likely to commit time, energy, and personal safety, if they belonged to a strong, cohesive group of like minded friends. By contrast, social media are based on “weak ties” with very low personal commitment required of participants. Facebook users were more likely to belong to a “Save Darfur” online group than to make protest signs or risk arrest. If social media were having an impact on young people, it was not in terms of civic engagement.
A lot of things have happened since then, most importantly the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement. Both made heavy use of social media to organize, communicate, and get the word out to a larger public. Facebook allowed activists in Tunisia to coordinate and plan demonstrations under the radar of a clueless and very 20th-century regime. A new smartphone app allowed activists in the U.S. to broadcast episodes of police brutality as they were happening. And, yes, Twitter let demonstrators communicate in mass numbers quickly and effectively (some state prosecutors have even subpoenaed Occupy protesters’ Twitter feeds in recent months).
But, in spite of those developments, Gladwell’s argument still has a lot of validity today. The fact is that the basic elements of grassroots activism have not changed since the invention of Twitter. The role social media played in Zuccotti Park and Tahrir Square was to facilitate and streamline on-the-group organizing, not to take its place. The important flashpoints in those movements were still physical, and involved the same dynamics as previous grassroots struggles. And as The Atlantic’s Nathan Jurgenson has argued, Occupy was in many ways explicitly low-tech, from the (entirely print) People’s Library, to general assembly hand signs, to the iconic human microphone. While Occupy made use of new media to organize and coordinate with itself, once organized, it behaved much more traditionally.
And yet there are many activists and groups that still seek to address very real issues entirely through social media. Over the past decade or so, Facebook has probably been the most notorious. Especially in the U.S., issue-oriented Facebook groups have a history of being very popular, very good at raising awareness, but very bad at raising cash and affecting change, says Evgeny Morozov in Foreign Policy’s Net Effect blog. Like Gladwell, Morozov points to a brand of activism that is low-risk and essentially unconnected with larger groups or experiences. A powerful illustration is the group a Danish psychologist started in 2009 to address a problem that didn’t actually exist (the group opposed a never-planned dismantling of a fountain in Copenhagen). Within a week, the group had 28,000 members. And interestingly, activists in the Global South seem to be much better at translating digital participation into physical action. An anti-FARC Facebook group in Colombia got hundreds of thousands of people to march against the guerilla force in almost 200 cities in 2008. This may be because while joining a political Facebook group from Bogota or Cairo can be a brave act of personal conscience, in the U.S., there is very little danger. And in a network of weak ties, low personal risk means low personal investment.
This brings us to the now-ubiquitous Kony 2012 campaign, a movement that has generated quite a bit of awareness and controversy over the past few days. A viral video on the group’s website has already garnered tens of millions of views, but many observers have criticized the film’s overly simplistic portrayal of Ugandans and the larger conflict. Spending only a few of its thirty minutes on East Africa, the film’s moralistic message seems more akin to White Man’s Burden than humanitarianism—and many have criticized its commodification of the conflict, especially in light of Invisible Children’s allegedly shady finances. The group has certainly accomplished its stated goal of raising awareness about Kony, the LRA, and child soldiers in Africa, but it is hard for many to connect the film’s slick simplicity and the group’s consumerist message with facts on the ground.
But more broadly, Invisible Children’s use of social media has much more in common with groups like “Save Darfur” than with genuinely grassroots battles like Occupy. In the film, the campaign’s founder Jason Russell talks about the need to “make Joseph Kony a household name.” To do this, they want to get the attention not only of the American public, but also of “20 culture makers” and “12 policymakers,” including Bill Gates, Lady Gaga, and Ban Ki-moon. While Russell urges ordinary people to call their representatives and poster their neighborhoods, it’s these 32 people that he believes will have the most impact. “We are making Kony world news by redefining the propaganda we see all day, everyday, that dictates who and what we pay attention to,” he says.
But it’s hard to see how this redefinition plays out, especially as the campaign relies almost exclusively on the “weak ties” and low-risk participation that generally have very little social impact. If it’s our job to spread the video, buy the “Action Kit,” get the attention of celebrities, and not much else, what exactly are we redefining? In the film, Russell laments that “the few with the money and the power” tend to frame and address issues in their interests, but that’s exactly what Invisible Children is seeking to do. In encouraging young people to participate in clearly delineated ways for clearly delineated reasons, the group ignores the critical thinking and bottom-up organizing that made other movements so successful—with or without social media.
Of course, all this has to do with what Invisible Children hopes to accomplish. If their goal is to “make Joseph Kony a household name,” then they did a fine job. The popularity of the group’s film was unprecedented, and the speed with which it spread was astounding. As a result, tens of millions of people know more about Uganda and East Africa than ever before. However, if the group wants to work out some of the complicated questions that have surfaced over the past week about Uganda’s own poor human rights record, or the U.S.’s equally poor history of humanitarian intervention, or the neocolonial dimensions the campaign has assumed, then more bottom-up methods of organizing may be a good place to start. As Occupy and the Arab Spring have shown, young people have a lot more to offer than their money and their Facebook status.
Sources: Kony2012.com, Christian Science Monitor, The New Yorker, Wired, The Guardian, Al Jazeera English, Huffington Post, The Nation, The Atlantic, Net Effect, LA Times, siena-anstis.com, The Daily Beast, Amnesty International, This Is Africa.