In a matter of days more than 77 million people have watched Kony 2012, a 30 minute video about the crimes against humanity committed by Joseph Kony in Uganda. There's been a lot of controversy surrounding the video and the organization that made it, but one thing no one can doubt: more people now know more about the horrors endured by children in Uganda than ever before, thanks to the miracle of social media, and especially Facebook where it had huge viral distribution.
The controversy it has stirred up seems to derive from four basic criticisms:
- The video was more self-promotion and self-enriching than it was informative;
- The video offers a superficial and somewhat insulting take on Africa, Uganda and the LRA;
- The video had factual errors, old information, and thereby provided an inaccurate education to those who don't know any differently;
- The video's oversimplification and vilification of one man makes it harder for real reconciliation among those in country to take place.
These are all troubling, and especially the last one, because it posits a major setback in the tough peace-building slog that is ultimately so vital to progress and stability in the region. But we won't know if this is going to occur for some time -- just as we don't know if the attention and pressure on public officials that the Kony 2012 campaign has generated might help in his capture once and for all.
In the meantime, we have millions of people, especially young people in high school, asking questions they don't usually ask about a subject they knew little or nothing about a week ago. And many of them are even putting up money for the boxes and bracelets Invisible Children is selling. Will this constitute just a fleeting fancy for them, before they put the headphones back on and fire-up some Facebook selfies? Or will this be the start of a lasting interest in activism and positive social change?
I'd like to see the discussion move beyond the controversy surrounding the video, to how we can ensure that the answer to this latter question is a resounding yes. It has almost become a cliché to speak of "teachable moments" but this phenomenon has served up one on a silver platter.
Rather than disparage the video and its makers, as if we'd like it to disappear as breathtakingly fast as it appeared, I hope teachers in classrooms and families at dinner tables will take this opportunity to discuss these issues about which most of us are woefully ignorant -- from the abuse and suffering of children in war to the role of the West in Africa's tortured history.
There is nothing new in the use of video to manipulate people's emotions. What is new here is in the speed with which Kony 2012 traversed the globe and entered popular culture via Facebook and social media at first, and then via traditional media like the nightly news broadcasts. But can we repeat this phenomenon? Could we harness this intersection of social media and social change to find new solutions to the abiding tension between the West and so many in the Muslim World? Can we use it to sway Russian and Chinese officials to end the killing in Syria, where every day we see homemade cell phone videos on YouTube and the evening news capturing what happens when a regime is willing to go beyond switching off the Internet to obliterating those who use it? Could we repeat this phenomenon to mobilize our own citizenry to demand a break in the insidious deadlock between the left and the right in domestic politics?
No, not yet. But Kony 2012 reminds us that we mustn't stop trying. And, that is the real story to emerge from the Kony 2012 phenomenon.
For the first time in human history we all have this power to make media - take pictures, publish information - and send them around the world with the push of a button for little or no cost. It is no surprise, therefore, that we still have so much to learn about how to harness this awesome new capability.
Our wonder surrounding Kony 2012 echoes our wonder a year ago around the use of social media to bring down dictators in the Arab Spring. Both of these momentous events show us how little we know about this brave new world -- where we are all media makers for a global audience -- and the new potential we possess for driving positive and peaceful social change.
Follow Sheldon Himelfarb on Twitter: www.twitter.com/shimelfarb