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Viral Fever: Kony & Slacktivism

Kony 2012 — the most “viral” video ever — was applauded & criticised in equal measure. This week they released a sequel. Chaya Babu looks at how the Net is shaping activism.

CHAYA BABU  8th Apr 2012

Illustration by Dev Kabir Malik

he Kony hoopla had just barely died down when Part II dropped on April 4. Not surprisingly, the torrent of censure sparked by the original month-old campaign propelled Invisible Children to respond with a sequel. Kony 2012: Part II – Beyond Famous aims to address what the first did not by depicting a more complete reality of the LRA situation and its context. More voices from the affected region are heard, previous local efforts to find peaceful resolutions are described, and the need for action versus awareness alone is emphasised.

But the follow-up is hardly able to make up for the harshest criticism, mainly the Americentric approach to global problem-solving, the organisation's shady finances, and the fact that the campaign encouraged youth 'slacktivism.' As possible proof that clicking for a cause is based on a transient motivation rather than a deep desire to mobilise for change, widespread interest in Kony has waned: the new video racked up fewer than 500,000 views in the first 24 hours, a sharp fall from its predecessor, the most viral video ever.

Invisible Children is an NGO started by a group of Americans that has now adopted the mission of capturing Joseph Kony, an African warlord whose list of offenses include abducting, raping, and murdering children in central and western Africa for the purpose of building his rebel force, the Lord's Resistance Army. On March 5, the American organisation released a 30-minute documentary that tells viewers about these horrors and how they can stop him, uploaded it to YouTube, and then deployed its vast network of young digerati to share the bloody hell out of it.

The video has its allure. It is sentimental, sexy, and provides the high that comes with the possibility of righting the world's wrongs. It garnered over 100 million views in less than a week. Yet it is misinformed in its reporting, misguided in its strategies, and mistakenly implies that real change is easy if only you have the heart – and an Internet connection. The backlash was swift and uproarious. News, politics, and culture writers flooded the media, analyzing everything from white paternalism and ignorance to foreign policy blunders-turned-catastrophes and the film's reductionist portrayal of complex international issues.

"One of the things I immediately saw was the oversimplification: telling the audience, American high school kids, that you just need to kill one man and that's it," said Rosebell Kugamire, a Ugandan journalist who watched the first film just hours after it was posted. "Because of the Invisible Children, this is how the world will view this war and it will not bring him to justice. It's deceptive."

She pointed to just a few of the factual errors. "We all know that our own government indirectly supported Kony, that it was highly corrupt and spent a lot of money that benefited his war," Kugamire said. "The narrative avoids geopolitical issues and the fact that Sudan was a major player in this conflict. It obscured facts that would make a difference." Others echoed this, warning of the dangers of misrepresenting a complicated truth, such as loss of more innocent lives in a sudden publicised hunt and increased militarisation. The litany of voices has since created a more profound sustained dialogue about how America's desire to bring aid quickly to conflict-ridden terrain is steeped in a history of imperialism, frequently doing more harm than good.

It's been nearly impossible to not pay attention to all of this. According to Social Flow, a social media optimisation company that measures the real-time value of content, the 100 million views added up in just six days, and at its peak, the hashtag #StopKony had 12,000 tweets every ten minutes. The majority of those who watched were Americans, but the aftermath had global presence and relevance, and even some Indian newspapers like The Times of India and The Indian Express have covered the controversy. Rupa Subramanya, who writes an economics column for The Wall Street Journal India, said related links dominated her Facebook and Twitter feed for days after the first video circulated the web, but it seems that few others in India were even aware of the matter. With so much going on here – the elections, the budget, and of course Bollywood gossip – Kony and his related hashtags were not the trending topics.

Because of the Invisible Children, this is how the world will view this war and it will not bring him to justice. It’s deceptive.

Nilofar Ansher, who works at the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society, said that Indians did indeed see the film and the conversation around it, but it was written off as a gimmicky PR stunt that warranted little serious debate in the public sphere. "We didn't care a damn about this Kony thing; we treated it as an Internet phenomenon," she said. "The campaign asked us to get out there, wear bracelets and t-shirts, and engage in guerilla tactics for an issue that had nothing to do with us directly."

Apparently those who did watch saw right through the Invisible Children, not buying into a marketing ploy that promises to deliver peace to a poor country laden with violence. "In India, we are so inured to war, corruption, fraud, poverty, disease that in terms of eliciting an emotional response from us, it left us dry," Ansher said. "And in terms of audience, the Kony video's target was young white Americans. He didn't specifically make an effort to be inclusive by involving people of colour, the middle aged or older public."

This idea of whether Indians identify as 'people of color' is significant. Perhaps it is a flawed assumption to think this media circus even entered the Indian consciousness. However, considering the nation's background of colonialism, it seemed natural that the whole White Saviour Industrial Complex thing might strike a chord. It did not.

The dismissal of such a widely disseminated and discussed set of issues may highlight India's evolving social and economic place in a changing global arena. "The earlier very clear-cut distinction between the colonisers and the colonised, the Western world versus Africa and Asia, that picture today has become far more complex," said Dr. Anjali Monteiro, Professor and Chair of the Centre for Media and Cultural Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. "The kinds of alliances, which are also quite transitory, are about each country trying to do the best for itself." A cultural connection based solely on the outdated labeling of nations as 'Third World' is not one that Indians will necessarily forge.

Still, Dr. Monteiro believes that Indians are equally sensitive to the prospect of being treated like helpless victims, their agency appropriated by white saviors. From Born into Brothels and Slumdog Millionaire to this year's highly acclaimed Behind the Beautiful Forevers, it's clear that the question of whose right it is to frame the suffering of a less privileged other hits home here.Image 2nd

"No matter what our problems are, Indians don't like people on our shores to 'civilise' us or help us out," Subramanya said. "We've already been through that. In a horrific way."

Rarely is such a heated and prolonged discourse merely worthless banter. Douglas Kellner, who researches how 'media spectacles' reflect culture and society, agrees. "A lot of people in the 1990s trivialised the O.J. Simpson trial, saying 'we shouldn't be talking about this,' but there were serious issues in there about race, celebrity, the role of the media, our legal system, etc. that generated a productive debate," he said. "I think we should continue to focus on [Kony] because there are so many different issues in there, including the power of social media."

Kellner's upcoming book Media Spectacle and Insurrection, 2011: From the Arab Uprisings to Occupy Everywhere! details the significant role played by online communities in the revolutionary movements of the past year. Despite its glaring missteps, Invisible Children is evidence that the way we participate in political activism has changed dramatically. But, Kellner added, "It's important for young people to understand the limitations of social media when it comes to making impact on the ground."

Ansher's work with the Centre for Internet & Society's project called Digital Natives for a Cause shows that Indians use Facebook and Twitter for advocacy as well, specifically having organised behind campaigns for Anna Hazare, SlutWalk, Blank Noise, Vote India and other local movements. They are heavily invested in events that have direct implications here, but are not so likely to see past India's borders, even online. "The trickle-down effect of globalisation will take another decade or so before we fully engage with issues that find international resonance," Ansher said.

So while many may indeed keep hashing out Kony 2012, there are other pressing concerns at home. "Indians tend to be quite India-centric in their consumption of news," Dr. Monteiro said. "When Kolaveri Di went viral, that was all over broadcast stations as well as the papers."

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