Kony2012: new media success story or cautionary tale?

If it isn’t the most viral social media effort in recent memory, the Kony2012 campaign — launched last week by Invisible Children to spotlight atrocities by Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony — has to be a close second: According to one estimate, a video created by the group and shared widely on Facebook and Twitter was viewed 80 million times in just five days. Some critics, however, say the Kony campaign is troubling for a number of reasons, including the fact that it is a glib and facile treatment of the systemic problems in Uganda and therefore encourages meaningless “slacktivism” instead of real action. Is Kony2012 a sign of how powerful social media can be as a news-distribution mechanism, a sign of how dangerous it can be or both?
For me, one sign of how different the Kony story was from a traditional news story was the way I found out about it: Much like journalism professor and author Jeff Jarvis, I heard about it first from my teenaged daughter, who not only shared and commented on the video on Facebook and Tumblr but also talked to us about the campaign and its message — the idea that Kony is “one of the world’s biggest criminals” (as she put it) and that he has been involved in abducting more than 30,000 children to serve as soldiers in his army. Both Jarvis and Emily Bell (the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University) commented on how this is becoming the way news works now:

Invisible Children clearly intended for news of the campaign to be spread by my daughter’s demographic group (she just turned 14). At almost 30 minutes in length, the video is much longer than the typical YouTube clip that goes viral on social networks, but as a writer at the Guardian noted, it is cleverly structured as a conversation between one of the group’s members and his five-year-old son about how bad a man Joseph Kony is and how he has to be stopped. It was also launched last week with a PR-heavy event involving top Hollywood talent agency Creative Artists and actress Kristen Bell (a personal friend of the filmmakers), and it was quickly picked up by Oprah and other celebrities such as Angelina Jolie.

Is some awareness of an important issue better than none at all?

But as millions of teenagers and others shared the video on Facebook and Twitter, clicked Like, or became a friend of the Invisible Children page on Facebook (which has close to 3 million fans), concerns were almost immediately raised about the validity of the campaign — and its long-term value. Among other things, several observers said the aid group had a questionable track record of spending the money it raised (Invisible Children later responded to some of the criticisms in a blog post). But on an even more serious note, others pointed out that many of the facts behind the campaign were questionable as well: For example, Joseph Kony is reportedly no longer active in Uganda, and his Lord’s Resistance Army is said to be a much smaller force than it used to be.

While there’s no question that Kony is a force for evil in the region — and has been for more than two decades — many have argued that the campaign could actually do more harm than good, by getting people to focus on a single individual (and one whose influence appears to be on the wane) instead of the much larger and more complicated issues involved in Uganda and other neighboring countries in Africa, as Ethan Zuckerman of Global Voices noted. Some who have been involved with the region criticized the campaign for encouraging a typical kind of racist agenda, in which Westerners are seen as the only source of solutions for African problems, and others such as Timothy Burke — a professor of African history at Swarthmore College — said the video encourages a simplistic view of the region’s issues that could ultimately be dangerous.
At the same time, however, others — including online veteran and former Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow — have argued that any awareness of the issues involved in Uganda is worthwhile and that even if they are flawed, campaigns such as the Invisible Children video can be a useful trigger for discussions about those topics, a point that sociologist Zeynep Tufekci also made in a New York Times op-ed. Unfortunately, this perspective assumes that some proportion of the people who saw or Liked the video or the Facebook page actually investigated the deeper issues and tried to figure out the real story or read the dozens of blog posts from people like Zuckerman and Tim Burke. But did they? Or was a click enough? Is this a triumph of emotion over facts?
Research seems to show that Twitter is much better at distributing errors than it is at distributing corrections to those errors, and even the creator of one of the most viral new-media entities in existence, Huffington Post creator Arianna Huffington, wrote recently about the dangers of digital media as a social force, saying it can encourage a focus on shallow or ephemeral topics instead of substance. In the end — as more than one person noted when I raised the topic in a discussion on Twitter — the Kony campaign may be both an example of how powerful social media can be and at the same time a cautionary tale about the benefits of such tools when it comes to complicated issues.