I am sure I am not the only person who has watched with fascination as the ‘KONY 2012’ debates have played out in cyberspac. Since the video about Ugandan rebel group leader Joseph Kony and his army of child soldiers went viral, the discussion seems to have polarised into two camps. One the one side we have the idealists, who post the video on Facebook and Twitter with comments like: “Everyone must watch this”, “If this doesn’t inspire you to take action I don’t think anything could”, and “Words can’t describe how amazing this is!” On the other we have the cynics, who point out: “Hmm only 31% goes to what you think it goes to…”
A year or so after the onset of the Arab Spring, the internet’s role in political activism has come into the spotlight once again. Like the early days of the Arab Spring, the power of social media is being celebrated for its amazing ability to cut across geographical, social and political boundaries to expose shocking atrocities, name and shame the perpetrators and attract millions of online supporters at lightning speed.
…it can be simultaneously productive and counterproductive.
While all of this is undeniably impressive, a more nuanced analysis of the role of social media to galvanise activism suggests it can be simultaneously productive and counterproductive.
Today, the 29 minute video has been viewed more than 80 million times on YouTube. For these 80 million viewers, is their newly acquired knowledge about this dreadful problem in Uganda going to translate to real political action on the ground? Are they going to buy the fashionable red bracelet, or attend the local street parties in April for an evening of cyber approved mayhem? Are they going to write to one of the 20 “culturemakers” or “policymakers” identified in the video? Even if they do, it is a little unclear how Justin Beiber, Taylor Swift or George Bush Senior will reform the International Criminal Court or set a precedent for international justice; KONY 2012’s stated aim.
…they are committing a political act by “liking” or tweeting something…
There is mounting evidence to suggest that in the online universe many people are happy to support the need for action for a particular cause in theory, but end up doing little or nothing concrete about that cause. For many, sharing or “liking” the page on their Facebook wall may well be both the beginning and the end of their “activism”. Multiple theories have been advanced to account for this phenomenon, one being that people feel like they are committing a political act by “liking” or tweeting something, so as soon as they have done that they have ticked their internal good deed box and feel no further compulsion to take further action.
And long before the Arab Spring kick started social media’s role in effecting political change, sociologists have been challenging the assumption that that access to knowledge, particularly the masses of information we are exposed to thanks to the Internet, inspires action. Leading academics such as Birkbeck University’s Dr Seu, who have conducted empirical studies on the human reaction to information about atrocities and human rights violations, conclude that people are actually more likely to shy away from or become desensitised to troubling information they are overexposed to than to be inspired to take real action.
…KONY 2012 can fulfil its objective…
I am not saying that it is a bad thing to bring the problem of Kony’s child soldiers into the global public consciousness. Often times doing something is often better than sitting back and doing nothing. But whether KONY 2012 can fulfil its objective of “turning the world upside down” through its internet campaign remains to be seen.