I was invited to weigh in this morning on WNYC's The Takeaway
about the ongoing backlash against KONY2012, the cause video from San Diego-based Invisible Children that went crazy-viral this past week. The 30-minute video, about African warlord Joseph Kony and his crimes against children, has been watched and shared by more than 100 million people worldwide in just six days and set a Web record for speed-sharing. Directed and narrated by IC cofounder Jason Russell, the video is many things, but chiefly a call to arms for a new generation of would-be activists, and an experiment in social media strategy aimed at raising global awareness of Kony and bringing him to justice.
As a cause marketing video, KONY2012
is really, really
good. (There. I said it.) It has been deeply engaging for the viewers it targets. And it's an emotionally captivating piece of personalized storytelling, well-written and clear in focus. Its effort to bring a global story home and make it personal, for its donors, is laudable. (We don't see enough of that in the aid sector.) And the KONY2012 campaign makes it easy for anyone, anywhere to participate.
Yet unlike most other cause videos being shared on the Web these days, the KONY2012 campaign
has deeply riled the nation's aid sector establishment, which is both envious of IC's global reach, and, among other things, is alarmed by its chutzpah
. Critics also have serious problems with the content. Included on the aid establishment's elongating list of Kony2012 criticisms
are assertions that the video oversimplifies the story of its central figure, Joseph Kony (it does, but it is a cause primer for teens, not foreign policy journalism); that its young-white-San-Diego-filmmaker-pursues-black-bad-guy-in-Africa conceit smacks of American paternalism (among other things), and that the nonprofit funding the film, Invisible Children, has spent too much money
on social media and technology
(including high-quality video production) to track Kony's movements -- and not nearly enough to help the victims of Kony's terrorist army. There are more criticisms --some valid, and others not so much.
And now, as the blowback against this media-savvy, cutting-edge cause campaign enters its second week, critics have leveled their biggest salvo yet. They're calling KONY2012 an example of slacktivism -- suggesting that the KONY2012 video, the public protest of Kony's movements inside and outside Uganda planned for April 20th in cities around the globe, the fundraising "action" kits and celebrity-policymaker "influencer" networks curated to help galvanize the viral campaign are not important and ultimately, won't likely lead to much. The assertion is that the people supporting and leading KONY2012 are uncommitted actors who won't do much, ultimately, beyond frenzied video-sharing, to help IC achieve its mission.Slacktivism
? Really? It sounds oh-so-2008. Our world's communication landscape in 2012 has become denser, more complex and more participatory, with more opportunities to engage in public speech and undertake collective action.
Isn't it time the establishment aid sector stop crying "slacktivism" each time a tech-savvy nonprofit starts making waves across the Internet? Might it be wiser to ask, instead, how our maturing social networks -- serving us, increasingly, as forums for collective action -- are providing new actors an important way to participate in civic action and politics, and, in many ways, are forcing a much-needed reshaping of the advocacy sector at large?
* The concept of slacktivism is outdated, misinformed and condescending.
It is a term that many in the establishment aid sector have started to use to dismiss the importance of new actors in the sector -- people not previously allowed in before the Internet and before social media lowered the barriers to participation. The youth targeted in the KONY2012 campaign are new actors. They are not slacking, nor are they philanthropy's traditional target group of High Net Worth individuals looking for a meaningful tax writeoff. Invisible Children's stakeholders are mostly young people, born digital. Like most of us, they don't want simply to watch videos about awful things. They want a world in which there is a way to engage, and social media give them that opportunity
to get involved, signal disagreement, and advocate for behavioral and social norms.
* The concept of slacktivism dismisses the role of social networks as important signals of public preference and intent. People who are barely committed to a cause will never be able to click their way to a better world. But that does not mean that committed people cannot use social media effectively. As we've seen with recent, ad-hoc groups forming quickly on line to protest the Komen Foundation's attempt to cut off funds to Planned Parenthood, or to speak out against Rush Limbaugh's incendiary comments about a Georgetown University student, or to support the Stop SOPA movement to preserve Internet freedom, committed actors -- everyday people with access to influential social networks -- can use social media effectively, not as a replacement for real-world action but as a way to coordinate it.
* Online groups that use social media to achieve a goal can be effective. An Internet firestorm, in just three days, was able to force Limbaugh to apologize -- twice -- to the woman he'd called "a slut" during his incendiary broadcast and he has lost nearly 100 advertisers. The anti-Komen protest swarm that was organized online to protest the breast cancer charity's decision to cut off funds to Planned Parenthood forced a reversal of that decision and led the woman behind the brouhaha to resign. The Stop SOPA campaign was able to delay a vote on legislation to diminish Internet freedom, at least for now. This isn't Slacktivism. This is new form of activism that has used social media to coordinate swift action around a specific goal.
* Organized social networks don't need permission to act. Invisible Children has been launching videos and mass demonstrations around its mission to stop Kony since 2006. Russell and cofounders Laren Poole and Bobby Bailey made Invisible Children, a 2004 documentary film about Kony and his child soldiers that first screened in June 2004 in San Diego. The following year, the trio founded Invisible Children as a nonprofit and on April 28, 2006, it staged a massive demonstration called Global Night Commute across 126 U.S. cities, in which more than 80,000 people walked to their city centers and slept in the streets to make a visual call to end night commuting in northern Uganda. The following year, in April 2007, IC hosted its second nationwide event, during which more than 68,000 people gathered in 15 U.S. cities to experience, for one night, what it was like to be displaced. Last April, 91,355 supporters went silent for 24 hours and in doing so raised close to $2 million to help Invisible Children build radio towers to help protect remote villages inside and outside Uganda from Kony-led violence. There is little to suggest that KONY2012 will fail to again mobilize young people in April and raise more funds for the African victims of Kony's army. With KONY2012, IC is seeking to globally scale its social media strategy for organizing public demonstrations and broad-scale fundraising drives.
The bottom line here? Thanks to social media, the aid sector establishment is no longer able to control the conversation, nor say who gets to be at the table. What really makes KONY2012 so provocative and, frankly, so unsettling to so many, has less to do with Invisible Children and its latest video and much more to do with the ability of new players in the advocacy sector to work collectively -- and successfully -- outside the sector's long-established structures to identify alternative goals.
The Internet is rebalancing power and reshaping the status quo throughout society, and the transformation within the cause sector is just getting started. That is the big story to watch. KONY2012 is just another wake-up call.
-- Marcia Stepanek
(Illustration, above: Invisible Children's Facebook page)
Labels: cause video, digital swarms, invisible children, jason russell, kony2012, marcia stepanek, slacktivism