Is it worse to be uninformed or misinformed? That is the question regarding Invisible Children's Kony 2012 video that went viral and ended up making Joseph Kony a household name in Hollywood and Middle America. It's been watched by over 70 million viewers. Not bad for a tiny NGO in a part of America better known for its beach culture.
The video had factual problems, of course, like the precise whereabouts of Kony, or the size of his ragtag army (not to mention dubious uses of the NGO's funding, reminiscent of Wyclef Jean's charity in Haiti). Yes, it reinforces this over-simplified narrative of Africans requiring a Western hero to swoon in and save the day. But had it not been made, nobody would be talking about this blighted pocket of Africa. Let's face it: foreign affairs barely matters to most Americans, and when it involves civil wars in Africa, it's topping nobody's priority list, especially presidential candidates. The only way to get Americans to take an interest in, say, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was to link the conflict to our Blackberries.
Which makes the Kony 2012 marketing campaign so interesting. They managed to reach a wide audience by telling a compelling tale with a slick 30-minute format, however problematic in some parts. For this, Invisible Children should be commended and coaching every communications department in every international NGO out there on how to craft a message and make audiences care. They succeeded brilliantly. My inbox groans with reports, memos, and sloppy-written briefs on far-off conflicts that are neglected by the outside world because those activists, academics, and think-tank wonks trying to grab my attention can't make me care. Either because they're not trained storytellers or because they resort to the mumbo jumbo of policy-wonk speech ("We need a comprehensive approach to X country..."). As Chris Blattman of Yale recently blogged: "For all its weaknesses, Invisible Children has been more effective than any of us at raising awareness, and they may get us closest to the least worst action we can take."
Of course in an ideal world, something put out there on the web should be triple-fact-checked and not meant to misinform the public. Of course, there are dozens of warlords probably more of a threat than Kony (also where was this video when he was doing the bulk of his butchering?). And of course, the kind of over-simplicity of events and the support of clicking on a "Like" button or wearing a dopy bracelet or sending $30 barely constitute meaningful engagement or risk-taking for the general public. It is a hollow kind of activism, a perfect example of what Malcolm Gladwell has mocked as activism with "weak ties." Not to mention that it could risk actually making peace efforts there worse, as the U.S. troop presence there has been largely in the shadows. Too much awareness could "[stir] the hornet's nest," J. Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council told USA Today.
But the mere fact that Americans are talking about this corner of Africa is, by itself, an impressive feat and one to be applauded. No it won't mean that Washington will move in several divisions into Central African Republic or the DRC, nor should it. The news that Obama sent a few hundred troops to Uganda last fall barely warranted a blip from the punditocracy or Republican opposition, beyond a front-page mention in the Wall Street Journal. Still, a citizenry that cares about conflict is arguably better off than one that tunes out. Had a video like this been made about Sri Lanka or Rwanda, tens of thousands of lives could have been saved. We are now witnessing a humanitarian catastrophe on a massive scale in Syria, and unedited homemade YouTube videos are our only eyes and ears to what's going on. Here the story does not lie or distort. Yet we see that sympathy does not translate into action or intervention.
With Kony 2012, we click on a video and watch, then resend to friends and family, and the process repeats itself until Kim Kardashian is tweeting about the Lord's Resistance Army between dating jocks. It goes to show the power of social media when you mix conflict and celebrity (consider the "Genocide Olympics" meme conjured up a few years back by Mia Farrow).
America is capable of paying attention to far-off conflicts. Consider the outpouring of aid pouring into Haiti after its earthquake. Or the outsized attention paid to Georgia in August 2008. Our attention spans to global crises are like a playlist on Pandora -- inconsistent and prone to drifting into wildernesses. Will it make a difference to U.S. foreign policy that awareness has been raised about this conflict? Probably not. But at least it proves that if the story is told right, we are capable of mobilizing ourselves to care about some distant African conflict.
In this regard, any level of interest, however superficial or fleeting, is better than no interest at all. Awareness of civil wars is a good thing -- let's raise more of it.