This is the story of two internet activism campaigns. Both were launched on March 5. Both sought to gain attention and action for victims of human rights abuses in Africa little known around the world. One got more than 100 million online views in six days. The other got little more than 1,000.
Why has one gone viral and the other not? Why did one story get the attention of the world and why -- so far at least -- has the other been largely ignored?
First, the story that's become known to millions. The message of the "Kony 2012" video is clear and simple: There have been horrific crimes in Northern Uganda -- murder, rape, kidnapping, and the creation of child soldiers. There are clear victims -- the children and people of Northern Uganda. There is a clear perpetrator -- Joseph Kony. And it's up to us -- the viewers -- to stop Kony and his bloody Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).
Some of the success of "Kony 2012" can be attributed to the clarity and simplicity of this message. Some to its ability to stir the emotions and idealism of viewers -- especially young viewers -- to help save children. Some can be attributed to years of organizing and to an extremely effective and well-funded social media campaign.
At the same time, some of the video's success has to be about its identification of a bad guy. As a "Star Wars" reference suggests, "Kony 2012" gives us a Darth Vader. It gives us a villain in the form of Kony. As posters in the video show, the filmmakers place the LRA's leader in a pantheon of bad guys from Hitler to Bin Laden to Kony.
Now the second story. This campaign was launched by human rights activists demanding justice for the Chagossians, a small people of African and Indian ancestry who once lived in the Indian Ocean's Chagos Archipelago. The Chagossians no longer live in the Chagos islands because they were exiled from their homeland four decades ago. Between 1968 and 1973, the Chagossians were displaced and deported 1,200 miles away to the western Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius and the Seychelles. Some were barred from returning to their homes while in Mauritius vacationing or receiving medical treatment. Others were forced onto overcrowded cargo ships and shipped to Mauritius and the Seychelles alongside horses and piles of dried coconut flesh. As the Chagossians awaited deportation, many watched as their pet dogs were gassed and burned before their eyes.
Arriving in Mauritius and the Seychelles, the Chagossians were literally left on the docks. They were homeless, jobless, and had little money. They received no resettlement assistance (years later, they received small amounts of compensation). In exile, the Chagossians quickly found themselves living in what a Washington Post reporter called "abject poverty."
Like the story of those suffering in Northern Uganda, the Chagossians' story is heartbreaking. In this case, however, there is no bad guy like Kony. In this story, I'm afraid, the bad guy is us.
The bad guy is "us" at least if you happen to be a U.S. or British citizen. For the Chagossians were exiled from their homeland when the U.S. government decided to create a military base on the people's largest island, British-controlled Diego Garcia. The Chagossians were exiled because U.S. officials wanted Diego Garcia "cleansed" and "sanitized," "without local inhabitants." And the U.S. government made $14 million in secret payments to Britain to make it happen.
Despite their impoverishment, the Chagossians have struggled tirelessly to win the right to return to their islands and proper compensation. While they have won some great (if incomplete) victories in British courts, U.S. courts and successive U.S. administrations have ignored them completely.
There were great hopes that this might change with President Obama. Unfortunately, every attempt to establish a dialogue with his administration has been rebuffed (as have efforts like those of "Kony 2012" to get, for example, Oprah, members of the Congressional Black Caucus, or Nobel Prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz to speak on the people's behalf).
Now, Chagossians and their supporters have -- especially compared to "Kony 2012" -- a modest goal: 25,000 signatures. Twenty-five thousand signatures on a petition to the White House, whose current policy says that reaching 25,000 will ensure the Obama administration examines the petition and issues an official response.
Compared to 100 million views, 25,000 probably sounds like nothing. But if you think about other petitions, you realize just how difficult the goal is -- especially with a White House website that, coincidentally or not, makes it difficult for even the most dedicated supporters to log a signature.
I'm under no illusion that 25,000 signatures would mean the Chagossians could finally return home and find justice. It wouldn't. But it would be an important step in a long struggle that they have been waging.
For all the troubling aspects of "Kony 2012" that others have identified -- the call for U.S. military action after more than a decade of bloody U.S. wars, the "white man's burden" overtones -- the Invisible Children activists are to be commended for bringing a horrific crime to the world's attention.
While the Kony story is more complicated than the video suggests and while "we" may be more involved in its history than most care to admit, I have faith that upon hearing the Chagossians' story, people will want to help.
When presented with the story's simple facts, few are not moved. In fact, almost no one -- not even the British government -- defends what the U.S. and British governments did 40 years ago.
As an educator, I especially have faith that young people can and will respond to a more complicated story in which many of them are implicated. I have faith that they and others will be spurred to act, that they and others will help the Chagossians find justice -- even, and perhaps especially, when the bad guy is us.
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