Friday, 9 March 2012

Kony2012's Invisible Millions and Top-Down Populism

The leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, Joseph Kony.

Invisible Children's #Kony2012 campaign has been made 'famous' overnight and won praise, but it does it signal an uncomfortable change to the way political interests are championed online. #StopKony is being hailed by some as a continuation of the movement started by the crowds in Tahrir Square, citizen reporters in the streets of the Homs and the Occupy activists; that is, utilisation of the Internet via social media to circumvent the traditionally inaccessible or oppressively restricted political discourse.

An important distinction should be made when it comes to the origin of the Kony Campaign. Progenitor movements have been born of shared adversity and have relied on grass-roots users to collaboratively develop a message; Invisible Children, however, defined a target issue, created a polished marketing campaign to generate awareness and feeling, and developed a (literally) pre-packaged response for people to employ. This 'top-down' method creates a precedent for a populist approach to future issues that is open to corruption and cynical misuse.

The Knowledge Gap

Despite a proliferation of sources available in the last decade, and several foreign conflicts in which Western nations have been involved, public understanding of foreign issues remains superficial. Where much of people's knowledge of international issues come from short TV news stories, or a 3 page 'World' section in the tabloids, there is undoubted virtue in efforts to bring light to sometimes neglected issues, including the actions of the Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).

Joseph Kony has been active in Central Africa since 1987 in a conflict border-hopping between the Central African Republic, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan. The ease with which he traverses these borders has gone some way to ensuring that he has not been pursued and conclusively defeated. The number of atrocities is well documented, and beyond the victims, and the brutalised and traumatised child soldiers, there is a more broad-reaching humanitarian crisis. In the DRC, since 2008, more than 280.000 people have been displaced by the conflict with many seeking refuge in UNHCR camps. With the Kony2012 video receiving dozens of millions of views and the resultant commentary in the media, there is at least an awareness now of some of the horrors occurring in Central Africa.

One of the criticisms of the Kony2012 video is the oversimplification of this conflict. It does not, for example, describe the conflict in the DRC between 1998-2003 during which 5.4 million people died, mostly from disease or starvation. The import of this conflict become apparent when one considers that among the belligerents in this conflict are Kony's four 'home countries'. Nor does the video volunteer that during the conflict, the Sudan supported the LRA among other militia groups active in Uganda in retaliation for Ugandan encouragement of the Sudan People's Liberation Army.

The stated aim of Invisible Children is to re-arm and upgrade the technology of the Ugandan army. It should be noted that when the Ugandan military last crossed the Sudanese border in pursuit of Kony, it was accused of killing and kidnapping civilians. The idea of unevenly arming one national military in a destabilised region to pursue a target that frequently crosses the border into surrounding, and still wary, neighbours should raise concerns.

For its part, Invisible Children acknowledges that their video cannot give a full account of decades-long  conflict in 30 minutes, but in answering its critiques it writes, 'the film is a first entry point to this conflict for many', and offers links for further information. In an age of dwindling attention spans, it is reasonable to ask how many people will keep reading more into the issue once they've re-tweeted, or clicked 'Like'.

Charity or Lobby Group, or both?

Towards the end of its emotional and uplifting video, Invisible Children implores people to donate a 'few dollars'. One would assume from the flavour of the video that this would flow back to aid projects in Africa. Invisible Children has come under criticism for the distribution of its charitably collected donations. Specifically, that only about one third is actually spent on aid programmes in Central Africa. By contrast, UNICEF managed 90.3% on programme services. The remainder of Invisible Children's funds are spent on awareness programmes, 'awareness products' like bracelets and graffiti aids, and media and management.

There is a suggestion of a false premise emerging from their viral video campaign. Of course, charities need to compete for donations with advertising and well constructed media campaigns, particularly in the current economic climate; and the Kony2012 campaign will no doubt enter the pantheon of marketing triumphs.   Certainly, this organisation conducts good works, but the majority of its revenue is spent on lobbying and awareness products and this is not made explicitly clear in the video.

Donating to a lobbying group has a different connotation to donating to a charity, and before millions of potential donors part with their funds, this should be made more evident. The idea of making money from people's charitable urges is not new, but this is on an unprecedented scale and opens the door for future abuse.

"Crowd-sourcing Intervention"

Jack McDonald in a blog from King's College London, argues well for resisting the urge to 'crowd-source intervention'. If the Kony2012 campaign is successful and there is continued US mentoring of the Ugandan military leading ultimately to the killing or capture of Joseph Kony, what lessons will the world learn?

A cynic may think that irrespective of Invisible Children's efforts, it may have already been in the US interest to develop a presence in Central Africa. It is established that a redux of 1890s Neo-imperialism in Africa is developing, with competing US and Chinese efforts to increase their spheres of influence. A small, but meaningful US military presence in the mineral rich part of Africa is probably not without its benefits geopolitically.  Perhaps not in this case, but campaigns such as these could be well used in the future to develop a 'crusade of convenience' for nations seeking popular support for foreign interventions.

The conduct of foreign affairs, perhaps more than in other areas, is a subtle and nuanced game.  Often conducted in quiet rooms away from the glare of media and public observation, it is often a difficult balance of competing interests and usually guided by the practice of restraint. It is not well served by those driven by purely populist intentions using 'megaphone diplomacy'. By the nature of this campaign, a complex issue has been simplified into a 30 minute presentation, and further still into hashtags and 'Like' clicks.

The concern is that a riled-up and compassionate, though under-informed, public could push an electorally weak government into pursuing a populist aim for political ends. If campaigns like this catch on, we may all be re-tweeting our way to a fresh military intervention.

1 comment:

  1. Good read Tom. I am impressed with how much exposure the campaign has gotten and think that if it presented facts rather than emotion, people wouldn't have watched the 30 min video and we wouldn't be talking about it now.

    I personally prefer this viral campaign more: