Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Kony Effect

Everyone who had an internet connection in March was probably aware of the Kony2012 campaign going "viral". One day no one had heard of Invisible Children, Joseph Kony, or Jason Russell. Seemingly the next day everyone had watched and "liked" his short documentary somewhere on the internet, outraged that children were conscripted unwillingly as child soldiers.

Then, as we all know, the backlash happened. Within a day or two of the Kony2012 message going viral and thereby undoubtedly exceeding Russell's dreams of publicity, the critics wrote their critiques and basically destroyed Kony2012. They say there is no such thing as bad press, and at first you might be tempted to think that all the criticism simply furthered the cause of Invisible Children. But, the opposite is actually the case. In order to be successful in bringing Joseph Kony to justice, there needs to be sustained political pressure, not simply a 24-hour awareness by the Facebook generation and then a quick move on to watching the Oscars. By heavily criticizing Russell and the Kony2012 campaign, the majority of viewers seemed to switch off and move on. The political pressure never mounted, and Kony will almost certainly remain at large until he dies of some natural cause in a shack somewhere between Uganda and Tanzania.

Some of the criticisms were valid. It is possible or even probable that Invisible Children could be more financially responsible. It is likely that the West doesn't have all the answers to the problem of child soldiers, and if Kony were arrested then another man would likely pop up to replace him. But does that mean we should simply move on and forget about Kony? Absolutely not. Even if someone else does pop up and replace Kony, a message will be sent that eventually justice will be served. If we then go after then next war criminal, and the next, and the next, then I propose that we can change this world for the better.

Some of the criticisms were out to lunch. I read one critique in which the writer said he was tired of westerners thinking they have all the answers and tired of us coming in and splashing money around trying to solve complex problems. "Ugandans know what is best for Uganda", was a common criticism of the Kony2012 movement. Really? Then why are Ugandans allowing their children to be conscripted into being soldiers who then turn on their parents, sometimes being forced to murder them? I don't really see this as a debatable morality that is OK so long as Ugandans are OK with it.

Ultimately, the Kony2012 effect in early 2012 was an illustration of the instant hero / instant villian society we live in. Culture in the west is largely driven by media (increasingly by social media). Generations of westerners have been raised on television shows in which a handsome, likeable character turns out to be the despicable villian, all within 46 minutes (while they are also persuaded in the other 14 minutes of the hour that one gas-guzzler is actually more efficient than another). Life is not that simple. Not everyone is either a hero or a villian. We are all humans, complicated and full of both heroic and villainous traits. How many of us actually like to be judged by people in a few seconds? Would you like to be permanently written off as a villian just because you cut someone off in traffic once and it was caught on an iPhone and published to YouTube? Probably not. Would it be a fair analysis of your entire life and character? Definitely not.

Yet that is what happened to Russel and the Kony2012 campaign. Instant hero one day. Everyone on Facebook and Twitter and even in the mainstream media was all over him with praise for trying to make the world a better place. Then, seemingly hours later, the whole package was villified  and thrown out because it wasn't quite as shiny as originally percieved.

Welcome to the new world of instant judgement and hero/villian status. You better have your ducks in a row and make sure every one of them is squeaky clean before you ever go public with anything.

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