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

March 12, 2012

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.


Image is from the merely logic blog