cover the night: #kony2012 and the challenge of activism
Disclaimer: The views expressed on this blog are my own and do not reflect the opinions or policies of any group or organisation, including my employers, unless otherwise stated.
As with my original post about #Kony2012, I write this post with a fair amount of trepidation since I learned from that episode just how emotional this topic can be. My aim here is merely to reflect on what we can learn from the ‘Cover the Night‘ event, not to criticise it, and I will attempt to be as sensitive as I can. For this reason I will not be commenting on the content of the Kony campaign; in any case I have done that previously.
These expectations included that half a million people would watch Kony 2012. However given that the video became the most successful social media campaign to date, with over 100 million views, the results embodied in Cover the Night were quite disappointing. In my hometown of Sydney 19,000 people clicked on ‘attending’ for the Cover the Night Facebook event, though one report claims only 25 or so people were present at Martin Place, the event’s main centre.
That is not to say it’s all over. The campaign has not ended just because IC’s main event has passed by; there is still the opportunity for further advocacy. However judging by the take-up rate of Cover the Night this seems unlikely.
This is not a reflection of Invisible Children so much as the current state of popular activism; Invisible Children is merely the most publicised instance of the difficulty in translating social media popularity to on-the-ground work. Indeed, many I know who shared the Kony video and criticised those offering a critique stayed home on Saturday night… This is not a problem with IC, but the state of young generations (of which I am part).
So what have we learned from this episode?
One of the clearest lessons is that awareness does not guarantee action, much less change. Literally tens of millions of people watched Kony 2012. It is possible that over a billion people at least heard the name Kony during the height of the campaign. Yet cities across North America, Europe and Australia remain poignantly unplastered with Kony posters. A routine by comedian Aamer Rahman has illustrated well the point, though in a reasonably harsh way, that intentions are not enough.
We have also learned that social media is young, and that we do not yet understand it. In saying this most charities have learned by now that energy on social media does not necessarily translate to energy off social media – the leap from Internet to the streets is a long one. Again a fairly harsh YouTube clip serves as a good illustration. It should be clear that clicking a button does not make one an activist. Indeed, we should go further – clicking a button does not even demonstrate care for a cause; that conviction is reserved for sacrificial action in real life.
Causes come and go – what matters is that people live entire lives characterised by justice and goodness. Activism is just as much about the mundane moments of life as it is about campaigns and events. So-called “clicktivism” or “slacktivism” is simply another form of status-seeking and consumerism that reverses the course of real justice in the world. For us young people: the challenge is set.
An honest observer must acknowledge in this episode the implosion of the oft-uttered sentiment that it is good that young people are finally interesting in a cause beyond themselves. As it turns out many of those same young people weren’t that interested. The ascendancy of motivation as the primary locus of goodness or justice is either a fantasy or idolatry, or both. Let the fruits bear witness to the tree; we can say that young people are finally interested in something bigger than themselves when their real life actions, and not their Like-happy index fingers, suggest so.
In the case of Kony 2012 it turns out that being too popular can be a bad thing. Having been bombarded by Kony 2012 it seems that people became fatigued. There is a case to be made for more organic campaigns that rely less on explosive attention and more on a committed minority:
Students of social change tell us that it is better to aim at consensus within a strategic minority rather than to waste time and breath at soliciting the conformity of the majority. Since a movement for change involves vision and sacrifice it is not possible to start with the many. Very few people can see ten steps ahead of them. Most are too enclosed in the realities of the present to be able to imagine an alternative future. It takes a lot of imagination to believe that with the coming of Christ, a new order has come into being. (Melba Padilla Maggay)
Related to this is that celebrity-driven campaigns are questionable because of the framework for social change that they promote, namely top-down. Certainly social change can come top-down, but what is unclear is whether such change leads to flourishing for all people, particularly those on the bottom. What is far more likely to bring meaningful and sustainable change is grassroots campaigns. That is not to say that social media cannot play a part; on the contrary the Arab Spring uprisings relied heavily on social media for communication. However the Arab Spring was also a movement of the people. The equivalent in the case of the LRA issue is Ugandan people, and not Westerners, taking action (which they have been doing for years).
There are many lessons for us to learn from Kony 2012 and Cover the Night and I know I’ve only scratched the tiniest surface. All of us involved with social change, in whatever capacity, owe a debt of gratitude to Invisible Children for paving the way in the social media sphere, and making important mistakes from which we can all learn. This is not a veiled criticism since all organisations make mistakes. As noted, social media is in its infancy and there is still much that we do not understand about it.
We must also remain healthily critical about these issues of social justice, since we can do harm whilst massaging our guilt and Facebook ‘Like’ buttons. In the end I pray people will take up the challenge of holistic, all-of-life activism.
Posted on April 23, 2012, in Advocacy, Current Events, Development and tagged Activism, April 20, Clicktivism, Cover the Night, Hacktivism, Invisible Children, Kony 2012, Kony2012, Slacktivism. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.