With close to 30 million viewers on YouTube, multiple days trending on twitter, domination of Facebook newsfeeds, and captivation of the national (global) imagination the “Stop Kony 2012” campaign is a lesson in the potential and pitfalls of new media activism.
Others have already offered valuable critiques concerning factual problems presented in the video, the economic practices of “Invisible Children,” the erasure of Ugandan voices, and the overall simplicity of its presented story, one that paints it as a struggle between good and evil. It is a story straight from Hollywood, with (White) Western heroes and a disgusting enemy in the form of Kony whose defeat will purportedly lead to harmony and peace irrespective of persistent poverty, AIDS, and a myriad of other problems.
Yet, what is striking here is not simply the recycling of “White saviors” and the pathologizing of Africans as either helpless/invisible victims or evil murders, but how new media fosters apolitical consumption. The “Stop Kony” viral video is an example of an emergent strain of social justice activism rampant in the United States and throughout the Western world. Described as click-through activism (“clicktivism”), cyber activism, and essentially based on apathy, limited knowledge and overall disengagement with social/political issues, the Kony campaign is a telling example of the ways new media technology can undermine struggles for justice. Urban Dictionary, usually not a source of theoretical insights, nails it in its definition of “Facebook activism”:
The illusion of dedication to a cause through no-commitment awareness groups. Specifically in reference to Facebook groups centered around political issues.
Dave: Man, this genocide in Darfur is terrible. I sure wish I could make a difference.
Jenna: Well, I made a Facebook group about it. We have almost one million members!
Dave: That's great! Are you all going to donate money to refugees or something?
Jenna: No, but now those murderers will really know how sad we are!
Dave: Sounds like you're really into your Facebook activism!
With Kony, although part of its agenda clearly is getting people to donate to the Invisible Children organization or to buy their “tool kit” (for 30 dollars), the video frames the issue as one of awareness where global pressure will lead to justice. In other words, merely “sharing” the video on Facebook, via Twitter or tumblr, will bring about change. Chris Csikzentmihalyi, co-director of the Center of Future Media at MIT, compares “click-through activism” to “dispensations that Catholic Church used to give.” Whether posting the video online, donating to the organization, or raising funds or awareness, participation in the Kony campaign becomes absolution for a history of wrongdoing and even any potential complicity in the problems facing the world. That is since people are “doing good,” by demanding justice, by raising awareness about Kony, war crimes, or any number of issues, they are absolved from responsibility; they are absolved from taking action in the real world.
According to Csikzentmihalyi, this leads to questions “to what extent are you removing just enough pressure that they’re not going to carry on the spark” in the world in which experience violence daily. Its absolution and redemption of self without correction, without any accountability and without any need to evaluate the policies and conditions that give rise to the Konys of the world and the consequences of U.S. support policies on the health and welfare of people around the globe.
Writing about the famed (RED) campaign, Margaret Sarna-Wojicki argues that Gap’s efforts embody a broader trend of “causumerism” which “is portrayed as a voicing of radicalism and dissent, yet to a degree the ‘activism’ is limited to the shopping mall.” The Kony campaign is no different although the “activism” takes place in the home disconnected from the voices, struggles, and organizations already engaged in fights for justice and empowerment in Uganda and throughout Africa. In an effort to help the silenced, Kony perpetuates the silencing, embracing as noted by Sarna-Wojicki “distinctions of ‘self’ and ‘other’ that draw a strict line between empowered ‘first world consumers’ and Africans.” A movement based in/on new media allows for this process with great ease and comfort.
Clicktavism reaffirms the power of the White middle-class Western identity to not only purchase and consume but to use that power and privilege to help the poor other. When “awareness” comes in a vehicle that says more about “us” than “them,” about affirming our exceptionalism and benevolence, we are left with little more than a vanity project. “If ‘awareness’ is the payoff for paternalistic, imperialist, ‘white man’s burden’ NGO campaigns, I don’t want it,” writes a blogger for The Sojourner Project. “Just the name ‘Invisible Children’ denies and co-opts the agency of Ugandans- many of whom have organized to protect child soldiers…. if you’re more comfortable talking about Africans than you are talking to an African person, you really should not be in the business of representing Africa.”
David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He is author of AfterArtest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press, spring 2012).