Cross-posted from the NY Times eXaminer.
As anyone who regularly utilizes the mixed blessing that is social media now knows, an internet campaign to “#stopkony” has exploded in popularity within the last few days. The target in question is the infamous (now more than ever) Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, which haunts East-Central Africa.
Today’s New York Times picked up on the phenomenon in a front page article and in a piece at The Lede blog on the paper’s website titled “How the Kony Video Went Viral.” Both articles note some of the criticism directed at the campaign, included the failure of the organizers, namely those in a neophyte group by the name of Invisible Children, to mention the brutality of the Ugandan military, which the campaign seeks to support as a means to capturing Kony.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this story lies in how it demonstrates that social media can be incorporated, with novel features, into a propaganda model of the traditional media. Let’s return to the Times’ question: how did the video go viral in just a few days? (The post at the Lede has a graph which demonstrates the meteoric rise of the trending topic nicely.)
In answer, the Times notes, “Mr. Russell explains the social media strategy, which includes getting people to enlist celebrities on Twitter.”
When Kim Kardashian, with her 13 million ‘followers,’ joins in, exclaiming “#Kony2012 Wow just watched! What a powerful video! Stop Kony!!!,” we may acknowledge their success at raising awareness. But then, a propaganda poster from World War I also raised awareness – about the fearsome Huns – whether it does more good than harm is another matter.
The Times’ ‘celebrity Twitter’ explanation for the topic’s sudden popularity is fine, so far as it goes. However, why should this story be the one to blow up big? Why the LRA and not lawless drone strikes on a growing number of countries, or any number of other issues? Do the idealists at Invisible Children simply have unusual marketing savvy? To ask the question is to know the answer.
Celebrities, in the main, will only promote social media campaigns which are safe for their image, a desideratum of which is that they cannot conflict with the geopolitical interests of Washington. A “#stopdrones” Tweet will do nothing for Justin Bieber’s career and, if he were to keep it up, could well do it serious damage. Nor will a campaign hashtag for Washington to end its alliance with Meles Zenawi’s regime in Ethiopia likely be ReTweeted by brand Oprah Winfrey. Thus, no exponential rise in ‘awareness’ about the topic will occur – at least not with the help of most Twitter celebrities.
While we’re on the topic, it should be noted that the problem with the ‘stop Kony’ campaign is not really one of oversimplification. As if the limits of messaging ensure inevitable distortions. It is perfectly possible to reduce complexity to some simple messages without doing violence to reality.
The problem is rather with how the initial messaging is simplified, particularly in its target and solutions. The target, much as in the Save Darfur campaign, is poorly chosen because leverage over the situation is remote for Western publics. Unless one resorts to the dangerous fantasy that Western militaries are merely the armed wings of Amnesty International. Instead, how about a call for Washington to stop supporting the Museveni government, target of brave and brilliant democracy protests last year?
If we nonetheless accept the target of Kony, we must still acknowledge the terrible violence unleashed upon civilians as a result of Operation Lightening Thunder, the previous U.S.-Ugandan military alliance, which must surely be judged a failure if the purpose was truly to chase down the LRA. That’s right – the military route has been tried before. The barest respect for recent history forces us to reject the solution proffered by Invisible Children. Rather, why not support and amplify the goals of those activists and civil society campaigners in the region who have established strategies for obtaining peace?
Returning to the Times coverage, both pieces fail to observe the Invisible Children campaign’s neat parallel with Washington’s military adventures in the area. To little publicity, in the last few months the Obama administration has deployed Special Forces to Uganda, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo in a “shadowy” mission ostensibly designed primarily for the purpose of catching Kony. Just over two weeks ago, on Feb. 23rd, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Africa briefed reporters at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. The timing of the ‘stop Kony’ trend in social media is certainly convenient.
The Times’ front page print article merely limits itself to commenting that, “The surge of awareness [about Kony] is even more remarkable considering that President Obama, under pressure from Congress, announced in October that he had authorized the deployment of about 100 American military advisers to help African nations working toward ‘the removal of Joseph Kony from the battlefield,’ a major step in American foreign policy in Africa.” Surely, ‘remarkable’ is not the first adjective that comes to mind when promotional campaigns happen to track military expeditions. ‘Predictable’ might be a better word choice.
Already, observers have warned of the likelihood that this campaign could reinforce the U.S. military presence in the region.