Welcome to a new Huffington Post platform called “Change My Mind.” In this forum, we will match two bloggers against each other with the aim of changing readers' minds.
In this case, we're asking the question "Does the 'Kony 2012' campaign do enough to create effective social change?" There's no denying 'Kony 2012' has made a dent in the world of activism. But what kind of lasting effect does this campaign have?
Jenna Arnold, who owns a social change media company, and Mikaela Luttrell-Rowland, from Clark University's Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, speak their piece in our first debate installment.
Check out what each of these Impact bloggers has to say, and weigh in below.
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Alright. I've had it. I'm baffled by the amount of negative press surfacing from Invisible Children's #Kony2012 campaign. The film, directed by Jason Russell, parallels the trials of raising his son in an imperfect world juxtaposed with the horrors faced by other four-year olds in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.
The campaign, set out to "Make Kony Famous," succeeded with flying colors. If my aunts in the suburbs are texting me in the middle of night telling me to watch the video, then Mission Accomplished!
What was not expected was the negative backlash of people scrutinizing Invisible Children's motives or strategies. If you're reading this post than you've likely already heard Invisible Children's defense to the low Charity Navigator score (they were short one board member) or their failure to voluntarily let Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance analyze their finances to be a reflection of their lack of transparency. I support such organizations and their desire to monitor the NGO community, filled with plenty of fraud. However, quibbling over these minor matters loses sight of the much more important message behind Invisible Children's efforts: This campaign simply wants to tell more people about the realities of life with the LRA. That's it. What's most disappointing is that it took the controversy around a film like Kony2012 to force the media to cover Joseph Kony's story. For 26 years, this personification of evil has been skipping from country to country in Africa, committing crimes that should only be left to the imagination.
Invisible Children, like many other organizations, started by young kids who stumbled upon a problem, pulled up their boot straps and committed their lives to finding an answer. They have already moved a mountain -- you all know who Kony is -- or more importantly, all those that think Africa is a country now know who Kony is. Find me another organization, film-maker or politician who has successfully educated and motivated untouched constituents around an issue as quickly as Kony 2012 has. No organization, no business, no company, no person is perfect -- but those who are out there to make the world a bit better should be supported and when appropriate, nudged to improve. So fine, now they'll get a fifth board member, and their annual reports are on-line, so their financials couldn't be more transparent.
Invisible Children is an advocacy organization; therefore, a large portion of their programming budget should be spent on producing content to tell the world about the LRA, which they have succeeded at, time and time again. Any organization that effectively educates audiences about global issues represents a noble and justifiable mission.
And please people, their average donation is 17 dollars -- it's not like they are gallivanting around the world with the rich and famous collecting six figure checks. Yes, they have a few of those large donations, but most of their resources are coming from the average teenager who wants to be a part of something larger than themselves. And, when brilliant artists build a narrative that says: Here is X problem and X guy is to blame and we have X amount of months to catch him... or else, well every single person who ever played a video game or watched a James Bond movie is ready to throw down.
Additionally, Invisible Children isn't suggesting that the current conflict is simple. But a full length documentary that outlines the entirety of the problem has been done before (many times) and nobody's watched it. They're also not suggesting that the work is done once Kony is in custody; they're suggesting it's the first step in a long process of rehabilitation. If I recall correctly, I believe our own county just recently targeted two evil men as being the first step in ending brutal dictatorships. Remove the villain so we can start the process of healing deep wounds.
This has single handedly been one of the most successful campaign ever launched -- mesmerizing completely untapped audiences. In fact, it has shifted all the rules around social marketing completely -- a 30 minute documentary with 80 million + views: Who knew? What Invisible Children has done is redefining the game of activism. Just "knowing" and "forwarding" is a simple and attainable ask. Those who call social-media "slacktivism" must not remember the recent events in Tahrir or Tehran. Educating people is an act of activism. Period.
High five Russell and team. You've accomplished what no other journalist or expert has been able to do in 26 years.
What's the morale of the story for organizations looking to make change? Build colorful campaigns with powerful content that engages viewers at a human level; build an initiative that has an end date to create a sense of urgency; anticipate that negative press will surface regardless of your intent -- and that's a good thing; and lastly, if you're going to throw down Invisible Children's style, then you must dream bigger.
The Kony 2012 campaign does not do enough to deliver effective social change.
How could it?
The film depends on a simplistic story line, which the filmmakers claim has been key to the video's success. Most of the young fans of the Kony 2012 video have no idea of life on the ground in Uganda or the long history of mass violence in the region. And the video does nothing to fill in that blank spot. For the most part, the passionate interest in and discussions surrounding the video are trigged by just that: passion; emotional responses. Few facts. No sophisticated analyses. The campaign rallies to turn "awareness into action," but "action" means buying their gimmicks.
There are two key issues here.
First, evidently fearing that the situation is too complicated to explain, the video keeps the story simple--and provides misinformation. For example, the video and campaign make it seem as though the search for Kony can be contained to Uganda. Joseph Kony has not been living in Uganda for several years. It grips viewers with claims that Kony has trained 30,000 children soldiers. But this number covers a 30-year span. And the figure actually refers to the number of children abducted, not who were forced to soldier. The filmmakers definitely live in a time warp. They collapse past and present.
Atrocities that happened in northern Uganda years ago are presented as if they are happening right now.
Most worrying of all, the video avoids the ways that the Ugandan government and military are involved in many of the same atrocities that the filmmakers ascribe to Kony and his militia. And it is silent --dead mum-- about how the U.S. has been implicated, and how natural resources are key. The basic plea of the campaign is to send money to its foundation, Invisible Children, and to keep American army "advisors" in Uganda to train the military with weapons and strategy to find Joseph Kony. Alas: uninformed policy prescriptions make bad situations worse. Quite possibly, this hunt for Kony will simply foment more senseless violence.
Is that the change young people should be spurred to demand?
Further: when those who supported action on the basis of the misinformation learn the facts (as they inevitably will through the same viral media that has promoted the video), they will grow jaded, cynical, and utterly disengaged from political activism. Correctly feeling that they were fooled into action, they will refuse to invest energy again.
That's one problem. The second and greater problem is that this campaign is largely about consumption, not social activism. It is about buying a poster or bracelet, or sending a donation to Invisible Children. It is about purchasing and acquiring a product rather than tackling complexity. And let us be clear: just because a situation is complex does not mean there are no answers. But those answers come with education, context, and critical questioning. Not with passing fads.
The on-going violence in Uganda and neighboring states isn't a sound bite issue. We must not let ourselves off the hook by thinking that watching a 29-minute video is the same as participating in real social action. Nor is buying a $30 action kit. Young people need to learn about the issues, and schools and universities need to be invested in teaching about them.
Thanks to this campaign, millions of people who had never heard of Kony now know his name. But, misinformed by the video and encouraged to believe that supporting this campaign is all they need to do to spur fruitful change, viewers do not know enough to recognize what they are demanding. Knowledge is power. Americans, young or old, need to be informed in order to be critical. We need to hold the Kony 2012 campaign, and ourselves, to high standards in order to be thoughtful about the actual end goal.
A video gone viral is a dangerous substitute for informed activism.
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