On Tuesday, something happened that, depending upon your age group and online social media presence, was likely hard to ignore. If you have a pulse and a Facebook account, no doubt you saw it. An organization called Invisible Children released a 30-minute video about a Ugandan man named Joseph Kony and the many violent and heinous crimes he has committed against humanity as the leader of a group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army. This group has kidnapped, enslaved, and tortured thousands of children in Central Africa and has exerted its control using violent and tyrannical methods. The video assumes, and rightly so, that most of the world’s population is unaware of Kony or the crimes he has committed, despite that he is at or near the top of most lists of the world’s most wanted fugitives and war criminals. The United States has twice sent military forces into Uganda and the surrounding region to help capture him, once in 2008, and again just last year (the strategic forces deployed in 2011 are still there). When I watched this video on Wednesday, it had close to 4 million views on YouTube. Three hours later, it was up to 7.4 million views, and the clicks continued to multiply exponentially. The exploding exposure and outpouring of support that has followed the release of this video has made it the purest example of viral video that our culture has seen in a while.
And by being watched, the video is accomplishing its voiced purpose: to “make Joseph Kony famous.” The logic Invisible Children uses, as declared on their website, is that “if the world knows who Joseph Kony is, it will unite to stop him.” So Invisible Children has asked for a few things: they have asked for people who view the video to share it, and that has happened. They have asked people to support the movement financially, and no doubt that is happening. And the third thing they asked for is for people to take part in a scheduled movement they’re calling “Cover the Night” on April 20 of this year. If successful, and all signs point to it being so, this movement will feature thousands of people the world round going out on that evening and plastering walls, buildings, windows, or anything within eyesight of the general public with signs and stickers that draw attention to Kony and the movement against him. While far from over, it’s safe to say that the mission to make Joseph Kony famous has been accomplished in part, and all signs point towards more success in the coming weeks and months.
Admittedly I was hesitant to watch the video, and even since I have, part of me still feels what for lack of a better term I’ll call an “uh-oh feeling”. I pride myself on making every effort to find the appropriate words to express the truest sense of my feelings when writing for this blog (certainly hard to believe coming from someone who just used the phrase “uh-oh feeling”), and the conclusion I’ve drawn from thinking about this video and the events surrounding it is that I find it troubling. Let me preface the discussion that follows with this: I clearly recognize the need to stop Joseph Kony and bring him to justice, and am in full support of any effort that does so in a manner that is safe, strategic, and considerate of the issue’s inherent complexities. Yet I find Invisible Children’s methodology both intriguing and yes, troubling.
Let’s start with intriguing. Should this story end with the capture and arrest of Joseph Kony, I find it fascinating that social media could play such a pivotal role in its inciting incident. This is yet another example of the growing power of social networking, and how it can play a crucial role in enhancing democracy and the power of the individual voice. Though the assumption made by Invisible Children that many individual voices banded together for a common cause can affect genuine change is not a new one, it is a noble one. For all the pornography, mindless hero worship, and cat breading that the internet produces as an effort to prove to the world its uselessness, there are also moments like this one that demonstrate its capacity for producing seismic cultural shifts.
That being said, when I watched the video, I didn’t get the feeling that I was being made aware of something, I got the feeling I was being sold something. There is a difference. Regardless of what you believe about their cause, the Invisible Children experience is a trendy and fashionably-packaged one. If you’re one of the thousands who will purchase the $30 “Kony 2012 Action Kit” to help raise awareness of the issue, then according to the Invisible Children website, “People will think you’re an advocate of awesome.” There is an attitude that accompanies this whole movement (and phrases like “an advocate of awesome”), and it feels like the same attitude that always tries to convince me that who I am is a product of what I wear, eat, drink, or watch.
Above all else, what I take from this Kony phenomenon is a reassurance that in order to make any sort of waves in our digital culture, you have to be cool. Yet the needless slaughter of innocent children by a tyrannical war criminal is decidedly uncool. Invisible Children strives to bridge that gap. The mentality they appear to be using is the same one that made “Save Darfur” a phrase that reflects how hip and worldly you are just as much as it does your opinion on Sudanese politics.
According to their own financial statements, 31% of every dollar donated to Invisible Children goes toward supporting Central African children, their families, and the effort to stop Kony. That leaves 69% to cover operational costs which more than likely includes a hefty marketing budget. I hesitate to pass judgment on how Invisible Children spends its money, as I have never run a non-profit organization myself. My assumption is that Invisible Children spends so much on marketing because they believe they have to. It seems a natural conclusion that either 1) Invisible Children does not believe it can be effective in accomplishing its goal without the use of stylish packaging and gimmicky sentimentality or 2) the general public has such a moral deficiency that it takes social acceptance and “coolness” to make something right seem worthwhile or 3) both. I believe that if there is any blame to be laid on Invisible Children for their methodology in creating an over hyped or artificial uprising, it is a load that should be shared by a public who did exactly what the video was carefully and specifically designed to have them do.
The first words spoken by Jack Nicholson’s character in the film The Departed are “I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.” Is a super-awesome, George-Clooney-and-Justin-Bieber-sponsored revolution a product of a culture that demands it, or is our culture adapting because we’re being told what causes are cool to support? In a CNN article on the Kony hysteria, Invisible Children’s spokeswoman Noelle Jouglet responded to claims that the organization was oversimplifying the conflict by saying that “the group ‘had’ to ‘simplify’ events in the documentary to make it easier for the targeted audience – young people and the wider population – to pay attention and understand.” Is that true? To paraphrase Jack yet again, can we not handle the truth? Or is it just that if it wasn’t presented in such a manner, we wouldn’t be inspired to do anything about it? Because if that’s not true, then our response should be indignity – towards the tragedy the film portrays, to be certain, but also towards an organization that thinks so lowly of us that it felt required to stoop to such tactics in order to get our attention.