Invisible Children, The Kony 2012 Video and the Processes of Influence globally

A Video from a little-known charity, Invisible Children, becomes an astonishing on-line success. It draws attention to the actions over a period of years of Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army. The simple message of the video is the exploitation of children who become caught up in committing hideous war crimes. The influence forces at play require careful evaluation

Tudor Rickards, Editor Leader We Deserve

Two inter-related stories

There are two inter-related stories here to consider. The first concerns the actions attributed to a powerful and militant Ugandan leader and the monstrous methods deployed including rape as a military weapon, and the use of child soldiers. The second is to do with the nature and implications of messages that trigger change globally through the power of social media.

Kony 2012

The video, Kony 2012, turned into a global phenomenon last week [3rd -10th March 2012] reaching an estimated 70 million hits on YouTube. Subscriptions to support actions against Kony also mushroomed, and political awareness and actions may also have been triggered.

Going viral: a personal definition

The multiplicative effects of a trending message on social media are well illustrated. Twitter endorsement by celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey helped the process of explosive growth of an on-line message, which is my personal definition of going viral.

The New York Times critique

The New York Times offered an insightful critique which serves as an excellent examination of the story and its implications for global issues and leadership. The article is among things against reducing a complex argument to an over-simplistic message. Ironically, it is in the reduction of complexity to simplicity that seems an essential feature of the processes through which a story goes viral:

The grounds for objection to the video are many. Some critics begin and end with its deep misrepresentation of the current state of play, including the fact that Mr. Kony has largely been defeated and is in hiding. Others object to the reduction of a complex situation to the story of a single “bad guy” whose capture [implies that it ] would magically restore harmony to a conflict-scarred region. For some, the backlash becomes an opportunity to promote longstanding arguments. Evgeny Morozov, the author of “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom,” objects that the video is another example of a kind of low-impact concern he calls slacktivism. It can all evoke George Bernard Shaw’s insight that “all professions are conspiracies against the laity.” Yes, “Kony 2012” may be crude, simplistic and shallow, but can it really be counterproductive if it prompts young people to ask why a well-known warlord with 30 years of atrocities to his name has not been caught and prosecuted?

Other examples

The article selects as parallel examples the online protests against conditions at the factories in China that produce Apple products, and the Occupy Wall Street movement. It then suggests that the viral phenomenon will have unintended consequences.

Ethan Zuckerman, an expert on social networking and Africa, came down against the “Kony 2012” video [drawing on] research done by Séverine Autesserre, a political scientist. Mr. Zuckerman wrote that “the focus on rape as a weapon of war, Autesserre argues, has caused some armed groups to engage in mass rape as a technique to gain attention and a seat at the negotiating table.”

Already, some have credited efforts by Invisible Children before the video with spurring the United States government to send 100 advisers to help capture Mr. Kony. We are entering an age when the shallow political power of the public including those too young to vote will increasingly help shape our policy debates.
Navid Hassanpour, a researcher the Yale political science [commented] that by creating advocates for one side in an internal struggle in a foreign land, it could lead to more intervention by the United States and other Western powers. And that might be the biggest backlash of them all.

New wine, old bottles

Systems theorists will recognise the ‘backlash against a lash’ as one more example of how systems react against intrusive shocks. Actions still promote counteractions, although there is always the possibility of complete systems disruption (going into meltdown remains a 21st century possibility of the 20th century nightmare metaphor based on a nuclear reactor going critical). But systems thinkers also tell us that lash and backlash tend to be manifestations of turbulence rather than simple causal chains that can be judged good or bad. Which is the simple (and complex) message that I am getting from the New York Times article.

Acknowledgement

Image is from the merely logic blog

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5 Responses to Invisible Children, The Kony 2012 Video and the Processes of Influence globally

  1. Paul Hinks says:

    Hi Tudor –

    I came across this link in Dec 2011 highlighting some Social Media stats – it’s only a couple of mins long & worth viewing:

    http://tinyurl.com/3ta2fe5

    Increasingly social media is seen as a powerful method of influencing – Kone 2012 is another good example where social media has very quickly helped to create awareness.

    Radio 4 have a short appraisal of the Kone 2012 viral video available on the BBC website which I feel summarises the social media side of Koni 2012 very well:

    http://tinyurl.com/86g5rwk

    Kate Bussman’s assessment of the Kone 2012 is concise and to the point, highlighting the video takes the viewer through a range of emotions: upsetting, exciting (they’re building a campaign) – gaining momentum – until the viewer is finally offered the opportunity to do something about the cause.

    I’ve just watched the Kony 2012 video – I have to say, in terms of creating an emotional response the film works well. It’s difficult to ignore the horrible crimes that are highlighted in the short film.

  2. Paul Hinks sent his usual thoughful comments about this. They were blocked by my own (University) server and by wordpress as ‘unsuitable material’ . I was ambivalent about providing the link for the video (although so many million people managed to see it).

    I suspect the blocking is confirmation of the point being made in the NYT article.

    (Paul, if you resend your comments minus links, they will get published).

  3. Paul Hinks says:

    Hi Tudor –

    Just a few brief comments …

    I did watch the Kony 2012 video – I have to say, in terms of creating an emotional response the film works well, taking the viewer through a range of emotions: upsetting, exciting (they’re building a campaign) – gaining momentum – until the viewer is finally offered the opportunity to do something about the cause; it’s difficult to ignore the horrible crimes that are highlighted in the short film.

    Kony 2012 is another good example where social media has very quickly helped to create awareness for a particular subject matter – social media is increasingly seen as a powerful method for influencing the masses.

    I read a number of comments on the web speculating on the target audience the viral Kony 2012. The Guardian ran a story today (http://tinyurl.com/84egsnl) where Invisible Children’s director of communications Jedidiah Jenkins said many critics were missing the point. “Our films are made for high school children” – fair enough – however while those tagged as ‘digital natives’ are particularly receptive to communication through social media, once social media footage does go ‘viral’, traditional media coverage provides additional publicity for the latest viral phenomena, acting as a springboard to raise awareness of the subject matter even further.

  4. Thanks Paul,

    Think Jenkins makes a similar point to the one made in the NY Times piece.

    One 16 year old (a high school student) who alerted me to the video in the first place indeed seemed comfortable with its contents and its good intentions. So he contributed to the ‘going viral’ in a small way (like countless others).

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