A KONY 2012 Post-Mortem?

Viral Time

What was your reaction to KONY 2012?  Do you remember it?  Did you have a reaction?  Did it serve as fodder for an anthropologically grounded treatise in one of your classes or a conversation in the spring of 2012 during it’s viral time?  Did it launch you into instant empathy and social action as the filmmakers intended? Or, did you create a condescending Willy Wonka or Skeptical African Kid meme to mock it? To recap briefly: The group Invisible Children and filmmaker Jason Russell launched a video on March 5, 2012 to bring awareness to the war criminal Joseph Kony.  As of early August 2012 the video has been viewed over 104 million times with the majority of that number coming within 24 hours of it’s initial posting making it the most successful launch of a social media campaign in the history of these movements.  The premiere of the video preceded a planned ‘Cover the Night’ campaign that encouraged individuals, mostly college age youth, to cover cities with Shepard Fairie like posters of KONY 2012 globally.  The failure of the postering campaign, the very public mental breakdown of the filmmaker, and questions about the organization and it’s intentions on numerous blog posts led to an almost simultaneous dismissal of the movement.  As The Atlantic’s Megan Garber noted, “The end game of the Kony 2012 video — the most successful viral video campaign of all time — was supposed to be a physical world awash with the graffiti of digital empathy.  The consensus, though? The thing was a flop. Hardly anyone came out” (Garber 2012).

The video, and unfortunately, the good intentions of the organization and filmmaker were dismissed as quickly as an unknowing undergraduate dropping an anthropological theory course.  There are a number of obvious reasons for the rapid decline of the KONY movement including the supposed nonexistent attention span of the target age demographic, the unfortunate linkage of the film to the travails of the filmmaker, and the problematic narrative within the video itself.  Many saw the viral video’s attempt to be relatable by linking Joseph Kony to one of his victims and the filmmaker himself as the latest embodiment of the ‘White Savior Industrial Complex’. (Cole 2012)  In addition, citizens of Uganda protested the content of the video as well.  And, the once empathetic audience of Invisible Children almost instantaneously dismissed the KONY 2012 campaign quickly turning it into a drinking game amongst other mocking imagery.  So why did the generation that is so readily available to the impact of social media, create an instant backlash to this campaign?  I was amazed at the speed at which the same students who I have seen impacted by Invisible Children quickly contextualize and dismiss the KONY 2012 social media campaign when it was introduced.  That was easy to negotiate in class. 

But, it was the follow-up question by my students that has kept me thinking about this the last several months.  “Well, Dr. D you are always talking about neoliberalism and human rights issues and all that stuff over in Africa.  You make videos, why don’t people know about the people you work with as much as the KONY filmmakers have made people think about what’s going on there?”  Hmmmm.  The instant diatribe response that the professional anthropological audience is drumming up as you read this was not going to fly.  This student audience did not want to hear about academic integrity, fieldwork methods, pesky ethics or the inability of visual anthropologists to produce anything aesthetically pleasing.  The gauntlet was thrown down by this media savvy contingent of digital indigene pushing back.  So, what would anthropologists do differently?  Is academic trepidation stifling a much-needed contribution to the public discourse?  Not only in print, but also particularly in visual media?  Where are the public anthropologists that work in an immediate public space?  Paul Stoller is doing an incredible job through a series of op-eds at Huffington Post.  The number of anthropology bloggers continues to expand but remains somewhat insular.  It all leads to the question, (and I include myself here) are we making the social impact that anthropology, and particularly anthropologically intended media could be doing?

The Video

I have seen the entire KONY 2012 documentary.  Invisible Children screening advertisements have been chalked onto my campus sidewalks for years.  As students have done in several papers in my media courses, one can also map the last several years of developments in social media technologies alongside this human rights effort.  And, you have to respect any effort to try to move a western audience from sympathy or empathy with the plight of different human rights atrocities to more of a pragmatic solidarity.  So, the anthropological audience needs to respect what they do.  Right?  Any organization that can bring glaring human rights issues into the public domain with media should garner some critical attention and praise.  Individuals unbridled from institutions have been providing this media for years now.  The encouragement of this practice is based on a common-sense position I have articulated in previous writings that the visual image brings an immediacy to human rights issues more than any other medium could hope for (Durington 2008).  As far as KONY 2012 goes, the interviews with Russell’s colleague Jacob in the video are compelling to say the least.  The 7:15 mark in the video seemed to elicit the most tears when viewed in class.

The issues surrounding the Lord’s Resistance Army and many of the socioeconomic issues that have been going on in Uganda and surrounding nation states is problematic to say the least.  A well-informed audience knows this.  Perhaps one of the most alarming problems in Uganda is the persecution of homosexuals through some very troubling legislative attempts in that country and ties to one particular American faith-based organization.  As any respectable anthropologist will dictate, an explanation of current human rights issues is over simplified if it does not look at the historical trends that inform contemporary problems.  Many westerners look at former colonial states and want to place blame for what is happening solely on the shoulders of Africans today.  One has to realize that colonial history and continued neocolonialism fed by a global neoliberalism influence current problems in places like Uganda and elsewhere.  One would be ignorant to not realize that these forces feed events like the Rwandan genocide and enable someone like Joseph Kony to flourish in former African colonial states.  In many ways, KONY 2012 continues the dominant representational regime about Africa that places the continent and it’s people in framing devices of disease, warfare, strife, etc…  Numerous critics have pointed this out thus far.  Could the filmmakers have provided more context?  Absolutely. But how is that going to be done in a viral video?  How is the necessary anthropological context going to be provided in a hot medium like internet viral videos?  The new temporal construct of media ‘viral time’ enabled by time and space compression and internet technologies does not mesh particularly well with anthropological analysis either.

Some college students are drawn into the KONY 2012 movement in the same way that they were with Invisible Children.  What the filmmakers have run into this time though is an audience that is already aware of KONY 2012 and in some ways has moved on because of the speed of media and the concomitant dismissal of anything considered popular. Social media has created new networks and collaborations heretofore unimaginable even a decade ago.  With that comes never before imagined pitfalls as well.  Just because an individual has exposure to problematic global issues like never before does not mean that it creates direct action.  In fact, it can have the opposite effect.  As others have stated, ‘liking’ or ‘sharing’ is solidarity, but not necessarily pragmatic in its outcomes.  It would be great if students who want to do something driven by the consciousness they get from watching KONY 2012 would also consider doing something pragmatically about the innumerable human rights abuses occurring globally, even in immediate proximity to Uganda. Media saturation leads people to believe that ‘someone else is taking care of it’ in a more profound and troubling way.  But, it would be ignorant to state that social media has not influenced conversations.  Folks actually know what is going on in a way they never did before.  You only have to witness the Arab Spring to recognize this.  Perhaps anthropologists in their writing and teaching can harness the immediate knowledge of human rights issues brought by media viral time more expeditiously.  Many already do so.

One also has to applaud KONY 2012 in some capacity for trying.  If you are not able to do this, perhaps you have moved into a realm of cynicism that is troubling.  Americans are a unique group.  We contribute to charities that provide international assistance more than any other population in the world.  The United States both as a government and as a population is involved in humanitarian efforts globally in a profound way.  The ethos is that if you can help, you should despite calls by many to halt international aid.  This latter sentiment is supported by the knowledge that there is nothing more tragic than humanitarian aid and assistance that does not really do what it is supposed to because it is not what is actually needed in many locales.  Numerous anthropologists have brought attention to that dilemma.  If development entities would actually involve local populations in decision making processes and, dare I say, listen to anthropologists who often have very specialized knowledge and can broker that understanding, we might be even that much more instrumental in the help we give.  What if those same anthropologists were actually producing media to document and encourage these efforts? 

So, the question I want to ask using the KONY 2012 straw man is what would media anthropologists do differently? As a networked anthropology, what would we do differently?  Would KONY 2012 have been better served in something akin to what we are calling a networked anthropology (Collins and Durington 2012) where metadata, tags and smaller social networks would create inertia in much the same way as Invisible Children did? What would it look like if an anthropologist produced it, or could we?  Does the endeavor produce too many ethical quandaries, or, perhaps too much aesthetic value?  Despite labeling the KONY 2012 effort as a flop, it appears that the campaign is making an impact.  Human Rights Watch and an envoy for the African Union have praised the filmmakers for continuing to bring attention to the issue that has spurred action by the United Nations Security Council and the United States House of Representatives (Rainey 2012).  When is the last time an anthropologist with local knowledge and media documentation elicited that kind of attention? 

Matthew Durington is theMedia Editor at Anthropology Now 

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