On Tuesday, right before the KONY video exploded on the mainstreams and went viral online, my 6th grade son came home from school and announced, “Did you know that there are more people on Facebook today compared to the number of people on the planet ten years ago? I immediately asked him how do you know that? What was your source? He answered, “KONY Youtube Video.” That was the first I heard of the video and immediately tracked it down to watch the 30 minute video. The storytelling was engaging and compelling.
Then I started to get emails from respected colleagues and a few hours later I saw references all over my friends Facebook newsfeeds and on Twitter. I shared the video on my personal profile and it prompted quite a heated discussion in the comments between my colleagues. The controversy on my Facebook wall boiled down to those who felt the emotional pull of the story and those who had an alternative view.
Evan Bailyn, an author who writes about what makes content go viral, said:
“I read the critical responses and found no convincing reasons to disregard the campaign. The Kony campaign is actually bigger than even its highly noble mission. It is about participating in social media to make a positive difference and doing so on a large scale. Most people did not get to partake in the Arab spring, for instance, but Kony is something everyone can take part in and feel like they are making a real difference. I donated and am frankly fascinated by what I see as a lurch forward in our society’s evolution towards a greater connectedness.”
Colleague, Lina Srivastava, noted researcher, consultant, and expert on transmedia activism responded:
Evan, no campaign should be bigger than its mission, or aim at participation for the sake of participation. Our increasing connectedness should be celebrated as an effective method of achieving change, not as the change itself. Most people didn’t “get to participate” in the Arab Spring because we didn’t have an effective role in regime change beyond global support and voice amplification (a crucial role, but not the change per se) and to think otherwise would be paternalistic. This campaign is just that, besides being deeply manipulative and factually incorrect, and perpetuates a stereotype of the outside DIY “activist” saving the Africans, without a clear path from their narrative to their methodology to their desired outcome of apprehending and prosecuting Kony. (“Buy a bracelet, we’ll hunt him down?” Is that that the story?) And where is the local community in all of this? Nowhere to be found in this video. As activists, professionals in social good, and as storytellers, we have to move beyond engaging the community to really parsing out what is the right change and the effective path to the solution.
And so the debate on my Facebook wall continued with very thoughtful comments. There is more analysis of the problems over simplification like this cogent analysis from Ethan Zuckerman.
The Kony story resonates because it’s the story of an identifible individual doing bodily harm to children. It’s a story with a simple solution, and it plays into existing narratives about the ungovernability of Africa, the power of US military and the need to bring hidden conflict to light.
Here’s the problem – these simple narratives can cause damage. By simplifying the DRC situation to a conflict about minerals, the numerous other causes – ethnic tensions, land disputes, the role of foreign militaries – are all minimized. The proposed solutions – a ban on the use of “conflict minerals” in mobile phones – sounds good on paper. In practice, it’s meant that mining of coltan is no longer possible for artisanal miners, who’ve lost their main source of financial support – instead, mining is now dominated by armed groups, who have the networks and resources to smuggle the minerals out of the country and conceal their origins. Similarly, the focus on rape as a weapon of war, Autesserre argues, has caused some armed groups to engage in mass rape as a technique to gain attention and a seat at the negotiating table. Finally, the focus on the Congolese state as a solution misses the point that the state has systematically abused power and that the country’s rulers have used power to rob their citizenry. A simple, easily disseminated narrative, Autesserre argues, has troublesome unintended consequences.
Mary Joyce points out that the film comes off as racist:
- Invisible Children has no Africans on its board of directors and collects money for itself rather than for Ugandan organizations. (source)
- The heroes of the film are white young people and adults from the US and Europe, particularly video narrator and campaigner Jason Russell.
- The victims are Ugandan children. Ugandan adults appear in the film to validate the work of Invisible Children, not to represent their own work.
- The video embodies the outdated idea of the “white man’s burden,” that white people improve the countries of the global south by intervening and enforcing their values, that the people who live in these countries cannot improve their countries alone.
The campaign prompted discussion online and here in the US about KONY, although hardly anyone in Uganda is talking about him. Africans are talking about the campaign – and you can see a roundup of posts from African bloggers responding to the hype.
The issue is complex. The KONY video simplified it, but left out important facts. Is that responsible social change? For responsible social change, you need transparency. As my colleague, Shonali Burke, pointed out there was a lack of it in the film. For example, it does not make the timeline/dates very clear – it mixes recent and older footage without date stamps. [If want the facts about dates, see this post by African blogger, journalist, and researcher, Angelo Op-Aiya Izama from Uganda.
KD Paine and I just submitted our final manuscript for “Measuring the Networked Nonprofit” edited by the fabulous Bill Paarlberg where we devoted a chapter to the practice of transparency and learning in public and how to measure it. We looked at the dimensions of transparency which include: accountability, disclosure, participation, and absence of secrecy and how to measure that. The last quality is relevant to this Kony Kerfuffle – absence of secrecy is when an organization doesn’t leave out important but potentially damaging (to its campaign) details or confuse the facts. For a nonprofit to be transparent means that it is open, accountable, and honest with its stakeholders and the public.
Has Invisible Children been transparent? Is this responsible social change? Or if the campaign is raising awareness about a horrid situation in another place in the world and other NGOs doing work there, does it matter?
If we step away from the controversy and ask if there are best practices to learn from about building movements around social causes? Here’s a Forbes post that sums up 12 lessons learned and another post from Netroots One thing that is important to point out is that built their network before they needed with years of offline organizing with young people.
- Simplicity and clarity of message
- Compelling and emotionally engaging storytelling/messaging
- Years of network building, offline organizing with young people
- Building relationships with online/offline influencers and getting them to be messengers for the cause
- Activating teens who share with their friends and even younger kids like my son to tell their parents
What have we learned from the KONY campaign that we can apply to our own efforts to build networks to solve complex social problems responsibly? The idealist folks asked a better question in their Facebook status update: “Do you think the KONY 2012 video is causing more harm than good, or more good than harm?”