Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Slacktivism Card

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?

Here are some other points about slacktivism, from WNYC's Is Slacktivism the New Activism? segment this morning. (Disclosure: I teach social media strategy at NYU and am the author of a forthcoming book, Swarms: The Rise of the Digital Anti-Establishment, about the increasing use of social networks as tools of civic engagement):

* 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)

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Anonymous Tim France said...

Well, you totally nailed it with this post Marcia, and I could not agree with you more on just about every point you make. I hope you get 100 million readers too!

It might be worth adding a bit of differentiation into your catch-all "aid establishment" because I think we can split the naysayers into at least three groups:

1. The development aid 'usual suspects':
Organizations such as UNICEF, Oxfam and the like, have been fairly 'neutral' in their KONY2012 responses. When you have 100 million people watching and commenting on a video about child abduction, organisations like this have to say something for sure, but mostly they have stuck to safe ground. UNICEF USA released a couple of me-too videos explaining some of the global dimensions of child abduction and trafficking and they pulled in a whopping 7500 views on YouTube. Whooppeee!

My question to them is: If you could see these b-i-g global issues all along, how come you never made something like the KONY2012 video from your perspective before?

2. The academic anti-aid anti-colonialists:
Out of the woodwork appeared a group of fairly well-informed 'commentators' who have stepped into the spotlight to pontificate on the 'white man's burden' of development. Ironic that most of them sit behind computer screens in rich countries, telling the world how bad white people have been in history and how crap all development work is now. Seems like they have a pretty heavy burden to carry themselves.

My question to them would be: What were you concretely doing before social media and networked NGOs gave you a spotlight to step into?

3. The 'Africans can do it for themselves' spokespeople:
While the principles and ideals are truly laudable and shared by most observers, they are also only aspirational. My fear is that, like many other parts of the world and specific communities, many problems faced by African countries and populations are complex, long-term and intransigent. Just as I don't believe Indonesia can tackle its bird flu problem alone, North Korea its food crisis, the USA will not stop choking our skies, and Brazil cannot stop the devastation of the Amazon alone, Africa needs all the help it can get to tackle many of its problems. Sometimes that may be in the form of expertise, or resources or moral support, and sometimes that is about making sure the issue is understood globally and translated into political pressure.
These self-appointed crusaders for African self-determination run the risk of turning their back on essential forms of mutual help that the globalized world can offer all countries, not just Africa ones.

My questions to this group would be: What do you think is going to happen when the global financial support for single disease programmes in Africa runs dry in the next couple of years? Do you seriously think African leaders will suddenly step forward to tackle the collective burdens of malaria, HIV and tuberculosis? They haven't in the past 50 years, so why would they now? But would you prefer to let millions die rather than pushing now for continued funds and expertise from the nations you see only white post-colonialists?

Second question: What if invisible Children was set up and run by people of India, but made the same 'mistakes' as the current campaign? Would that make it OK because they were also previously colonized by white imperialists?

There are probably more groups within the KONY2012 finger-pointers, but these are the ones who caught my attention this past week. They each stepped into the spotlight created by KONY2012 - crucially NOT by their own innovation or ingenuity - with a different set of motivations, agendas and currencies. In the end, what brings them all together is they are all jumping on the bangwagon created by the Invisible Children 'movement', otherwise we would have heard from them before.

Kudos to Invisible Children for shaking the jar in this complacency-ridden sector.

March 13, 2012 at 11:53 PM  
Blogger Marcia Stepanek said...

Thanks, Tim, for your thoughtful commentary. Terrific points.

March 14, 2012 at 9:12 AM  
Anonymous kj@blueskycreates.us said...

I must second TIM FRANCE's comments! ... Kudos to Invisible Children for shaking worldwide emotions and with it, the jar of need!

And yes, Marcia Stepanek's latest post deserves a 100 million reader response on this one. Thank you!!

March 14, 2012 at 11:46 AM  
Anonymous Stacy McCoy said...

I disagree and I actually published an article on this today on my own blog. I think Slacktivism by definition is the type of activism that is sharing in and of itself - sharing for the purpose of feeling good - sharing that does not result in real activism. There are plenty of instances of Slacktivism more recent than 2008. One of the biggest examples of Slacktivism that I have seen is in 2010 on Facebook when people were asked to change their Facebook profile picture to a cartoon character to show that they were against Violence Against Children. This went viral. But I don't remember many of my Facebook friends discussing the issue at all. They simply changed their Facebook profile picture and that was that. What the hell did that do to stop child abuse? That is Slacktivism.

I don't see the Kony 2012 campaign as pure slacktivism. I see it as a mix of slacktivism and poor activism. A good chunk of the 100+ million people who viewed the video are sharing for sharing's sake. They don't want to look like the people who don't care about children getting abducted, mutilated, and killed. But they wouldn't have raised some $5+ million is it was pure slacktivism. And I guess we'll see on April 20 how many of the viewers are now activists.

I think the biggest problem with Kony 2012 is that it is both slacktivism and poor activism. The narrative in the video was pretty awful. It set the development community back a few decades. And it was wildly oversimplified providing misleading information. Not to mention, the issue is much more nuanced than the call to action makes it seem. Having the US sweep in with military aid / intervention is not necessarily the best approach. The last time that happened in 2009, a lot of innocent blood was shed in retaliation. IC's programs are much much better than the video makes it seem. The LRA Crisis Tracker? That's pretty awesome. As are their other programs on the ground. But the video itself just fell flat from a development standpoint.

The issue with Slacktivism is that you need a good simple story vs. a real complex story. Kony 2012 went viral because it was so oversimplified. Because it pulled at you heart strings. Because it dumbed it down. But as a result it does a huge disservice to the cause on the ground. Because 100+ million are not going to do the research and take the time to understand how complex of an issue this really is. They are under the impression that US military aid / intervention is the best approach. And it's an election year. That kind of thing can be dangerous.

It isn't just jealousy that is making the development community upset. It's the fact that it set the community back a few decades. A handful of decades ago, most international development initiatives did more harm than good. It has taken a long time to undo the mistakes of the past. And so people are hyper sensitive about making sure this time around we get it right. Yes, "aid porn' is a necessary evil. It's the only way to get donors. But most reputable development agencies try and go about it as respectfully as possible. The Kony 2012 video was far from that and it's frustrating because it seems like they sacrificed a lot for the virality of the film. And I think a lot of people in the development community think that cost outweighed the benefit.

Social media is still a great tool to have in the activist tool set. It's a phenomenal organizing tool. The Arab Spring is the best example. But for social media to work, there needs to be a way to take online offline. If it just stays online, that's where you get the slacktivism term from. If you harness what happened online and take it offline then it turns into real activism. You see both happening in the Kony 2012 campaign.

March 14, 2012 at 11:54 AM  
Blogger Marcia Stepanek said...

Stacy - Thanks for your passionate and well-thought-out comments, and thanks for reading. Well said.

March 14, 2012 at 11:58 AM  

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