Liking Social Justice

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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
about the so-called “Twitter
” 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
” 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‘sNathan
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
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
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:, Christian
Science Monitor
, The
New Yorker
, Wired,
, Al
Jazeera English
, Huffington
, The
, The
, Net
, LA
Daily Beast
, Amnesty
, This
Is Africa

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