“Kony 2012“ is now the most rapidly disseminated human rights video ever. In six days it reached an aggregate 100 million views – faster than other pop culture phenomena like Susan Boyle (9 days), Rebecca Black (45 days) and ‘Charlie Bit My Finger’ (445 days).
Because of this enormous reach Kony 2012 (the video and associated campaign) has been a lightning rod for celebration and critique, both around dimensions that are specific to the video and campaign themselves, as well as viewing them as proxies for whole genres of contemporary activism. These debates range across: specific advocacy choices, finances, accuracy, slacktivism and clicktivism, organizing, communications strategy, the failings of traditional NGOS, and the ethics of representation and voice.
In this blog I will look at Kony 2012 through the prism of two core video advocacy principles that guide our work here at WITNESS (do also look at an earlier post by my colleagues Rose and Matisse with initial reactions to “Kony 2012″ as a video advocacy example):
Principle 1: Video should be part of a campaign, complementing other forms of activism.
Principle 2: Storytelling should be audience-oriented and should provide a clear space for action.
Then, looking at the meta-debate that’s emerged in the 12 days since the video was launched (see notes from a SXSW session I organized here) I propose two key questions that can help us turn critique into action:
1) Simplification is necessary for some audiences. But when does it go too far?
2) Ethics, representation and framing matter. How do we amplify the dignity, agency and voices of the people most affected even in the context of mass audience videos like Kony 2012?
We’ve got to be able to have this discussion without heaping blame on Invisible Children, or lampooning the attention spans or commitment of people who watched “Kony 2012.” It is amazing and positive to see more than a 100 million people engage with a human rights issue, including many youth who have never been engaged by traditional human rights movements.
In fact, we should want to see this happen again and again – how about Syria, Guantanamo, the global water crisis, or any number of other issues where people need to mobilize cross-borders to stop injustice? (Avaaz has certainly made a start on this).
Principle 1: Video should be part of a campaign, complementing other forms of activism
Much of the initial criticism of Kony 2012 occurred in the absence of discussion about the organization behind it, Invisible Children (IC for short in this blog post) and the organizing work they do. I’ve followed IC’s work for a number of years. It has succeeded in creating a broad, committed community of student activists in the US focused on one of the less discussed issues in central Africa. They have brought documentaries on northern Uganda to over 10,000 schools in eight years, mobilized student organizing teams across the US, and supported grassroots communications and policy-maker advocacy via innovative projects like the LRA CrisisTracker, a community radio response project that also maps atrocities.
In past campaigns, IC built up a following by releasing roughly one major film project a year, holding screenings in which students would attend and then getting them to participate big public actions (which they would then see reflected back to them in future productions). There are certainly critiques of this form of spectacle-based action – Melissa Brough has written on the commodification of activism and the deployment of spectacle (in IC’s work, heavily manifested through sales of bracelets, action packs, and big choreographed events as well as films that didn’t always directly reference Uganda or the LRA) but it has been effective in building a strong core base of support among high school and college students.
The IC team didn’t expect Kony 2012 to be such a success (see comments from IC’s COO
Chris Carver at SXSW). In fact, they had aimed for the video to build up to their April 20th action and get a total of 500,000 views in 2012, not 100 million in ten days.
In this sense, IC has been too successful, too early with this campaign, and has also jumped rapidly outside of their core audience because of the spread of the video online. Because of this, the online component overshadowed the offline organizing and in-person screenings that usually characterize the launch of their advocacy. As Ben Keesey, their CEO, said to The New York Times:
What we are working on now is to speed up the pivot of the campaign from awareness into action. We thought the awareness piece would take until at least April 20. Now, with this huge viewership, we are trying to translate all this excitement into action.
One important lesson that I take away from this is the importance of building momentum though in-person screenings, even in the age of the viral video. In-person screenings build strong collective nodes of activism, allow responsiveness to the questions that come up about choices of advocacy and dialogue, and build the types of communities of activism in places like Birmingham, Alabama, which kick-started the online push this time around (see this informative analysis by Gilad Lotan, which also explains the online strategy, including celebrity engagement, in more depth).
Like Invisible Children, at WITNESS, we believe in video as part of a campaign (and train people how to do this – for example with our Video Advocacy Toolkit and other training tools highlighted below). Video complements other forms of organizing, mobilizing and advocacy – people taking to the streets, lobbying their elected representatives, using ‘boomerang’ strategies to engage distant publics to action, collating and mobilizing powerful evidence for justice.
Where we diverge from IC is on our emphasis away from the viral video (instead our videos target more specific audiences, sometimes a single person, and recognize that in an age of information overload we can’t all compete for huge audiences and may not need to) and emphasis on understanding the voice of local human rights activists. This means local voice and local decision-making determines what is needed in a video campaign. In the same region as IC, we are currently working with women’s activists to tell their stories from the eastern Congo, the Central African Republic, and northern Uganda.
Principle 2: Storytelling should be audience-oriented and should provide a space for action
Invisible Children’s core audience is youth in the USA. A consistent thread through their work has been the representation of the situation in Northern Uganda through the lens of how the founders first encountered it, and developed their passion for action. They traveled as individual filmmakers to Uganda, and encountered a problem they had never heard of – the LRA abuses towards children.
Every substantive documentary (and indeed related action – such as sending youth to Uganda) since has retained this narrative frame, this analysis of the problem and translated it for youth audiences in the US. Each substantive film is about this discovery and coming together in solidarity. The youngest ‘discoverer’ is Jason Russell’s five-year-old son. Because of this, the prominent voices and narrative framers in the videos are, for the most part, white American leaders of IC. And though they do have many Ugandan staff, their leadership remains largely American.
As Neta Kligler-Vilenchik notes of an earlier, also much-watched IC film, “The main strength of the movie to most IC members is the feeling of identification with the protagonists – the three filmmakers and future IC founders, young people not much older than themselves, who go out to Uganda, encounter a social issue and launch a movement.” Beth, an IC intern interviewed for a USC research project, notes: ”The movie is just very raw, and it’s, even though they were older than me they were kids, and you see these kids just go, they see something, they run into a problem and they’re like, OK, now we have to fix this problem.”
Alongside the IC founders, the agents of change in Kony 2012 are the youth who have and will act in solidarity with the campaign. From a movement-building perspective in the US this makes perfect sense. Research by USC scholars reveals IC members share a strong sense of community and purpose (see more of Kligler-Vilenchik’s research in ‘Why youth are drawn to Invisible Children’). This research also suggests strongly that – for all the criticism of the viral reach of the “Kony 2012” online video as clicktivism or slacktivism – the core audience of IC is far from cursory in its engagement.
However, this storytelling frame, which emphasizes US youth’s agency above all else, can be criticized on a practical and analytical level. Writer Dinaw Mengestu, captures this best: “In the world of Kony 2012, Joseph Kony has evaded arrest for one dominant reason: Those of us living in the western world haven’t known about him, and because we haven’t known about him, no one has been able to stop him.” In what Leshu Torchin relates back to a concept of the ‘narcissism of pity’, every struggle relates back to the experience of the advocates, not the victims or survivors. Responding to this, Ugandan diaspora activist TMS Ruge noted in a recent panel: “We need to be at the center of our own rescue” not part of a savior complex. As a thought experiment, we could consider for example, how the story could have been told with Jacob (the young man whom IC’s founders met in Gulu), as the leading actor, and Jason Russell as the supporting actor rather than the current configuration.
IC makes a direct argument for their approach to storytelling to this audience. Jedidiah Jenkins, one of their directors noted: ‘Our films weren’t made to be scrutinized by the Guardian.’ COO
Chris Carver said that they are always thinking about their materials being seen by students on iPads with short attention spans, “thinking about a class, a girl, a guy.”
This audience-driven approach to advocacy is actually very similar to how WITNESS approaches its work (albeit we are more focused on training and supporting local human rights advocates to use video themselves). Find an audience that has an influence on a needed change in human rights policy or practice, and pair an ethical and compelling narrative and effective distribution strategy directed at them. Though we rarely support mass movement building on a single issue like IC, that audience-centered approach has been key to our successes in settings as diverse as pushing for ICC action on child soldiers in the Congo to mobilizing elder voices to lobby for elderly rights here in the US.
Creating A Space for Audience Action
Invisible Children also advocate that each film must propose a manageable solution. Here’s Jedidiah again:
There are a lot of good documentaries out there that paint a well-told story about something that’s wrong with the world. But (…)they rarely presume to propose an answer; they just beautifully articulate the problem. And we hate that. You’re left going, “Ok, yes, I hate fracking. Now what am I supposed to do about it?”
What we did was paint moral clarity and provide direct action steps. There are no credits or anything else. We presented the problem and then ended the film with three steps to help people make a change. That resonates with people. The third step was as simple as sharing the film. People can do that.
We also strongly believe in the need to use powerful storytelling to engage that audience, and to give the target audience ‘a space for action’ once they watch a video – viewers need to know that they can do something. Their realistic option to exercise agency should not just be an add-on action at the end of a video but a response that makes sense based on the narrative journey they’ve gone through while engaging with the media (for more on this in multiple contexts see Kat Cizek’s ‘Storytelling for Advocacy’ chapter in our Video for Change book). In this context, for example, the admonition to ‘Above all share this movie online’ at the end of Kony 2012 film makes perfect narrative sense as an action after the framing that has gone before about the power of online action.
The challenge of course is when a video either steps outside its original audience, distribution context or timing. This is something I frequently experience in our work at WITNESS – if you show a video made for evidentiary purposes at the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights to an audience of teenagers without a clear explanation of who the original audience was, they will be bemused and viceversa. Consider the puzzled reactions to the Invisible Children Global Night Commute Musical among people discovering Invisible Children for the first time here in the US. More seriously, look at the puzzled, angry reception of “Kony 2012” in at least one screening in Northern Uganda.
However, above and beyond that, what bounds should there be on the way an ethical advocacy video presents its topic and solutions – even to convince, persuade, shame or create empathy in its core audience?
When does storytelling for an audience make simple too simple?
One major complaint about the IC’s Kony 2012 campaign is that it oversimplifies the situation in northern Uganda.
Many commentators point out that the film proposes simple solutions that are not a priority today and that don’t tackle systemic dynamics that will continue to create human rights abuses (for example, by backing the Museveni government and focusing on further militarization, rather than the rehabilitation needs of survivors of LRA violence or reconstruction in the North).
Writing about this in an early blog on the Kony 2012 video, Ethan Zuckerman of the MIT Center for Civic Media (and a founder of Global Voices) poses a bigger question the human rights movement must ask itself.
“I’m starting to wonder if this is a fundamental limit to attention-based advocacy. If we need simple narratives so people can amplify and spread them, are we forced to engage only with the simplest of problems? Or to propose only the simplest of solutions?
As someone who believes that the ability to create and share media is an important form of power, the Invisible Children story presents a difficult paradox. If we want people to pay attention to the issues we care about, do we need to oversimplify them? And if we do, do our simplistic framings do more unintentional harm than intentional good? Or is the wave of pushback against this campaign from Invisible Children evidence that we’re learning to read and write complex narratives online, and that a college student with doubts about a campaign’s value and validity can find an audience? Will Invisible Children’s campaign continue unchanged, or will it engage with critics and design a more complex and nuanced response?”
Let me build out from Ethan on the question of simplicity by posing some suggestions on when ‘simple is too simple’. Here I am not saying that Kony 2012 is all of these things – rather I am suggesting how we need to think about this discussion moving forward in all our work in presenting situations and solutions. In that light, I’d welcome suggestions of videos and campaigns that demonstrate both these potential pitfalls and innovative responses.
- Simple is too simple when oversimplifying the problem leads to modeling the wrong solutions or to counter-productive impacts for the people who are directly affected.
- Simple is too simple if the initial action participants are asked to take is not followed by a next step in a ladder of engagement (and I would note that Invisible Children explicitly notes the video is a ‘first entry point’ to engagement).
- Simple is too simple when it models a solution that misdirects an audience’s understanding of the systemic causes of an issue (two analyses here of this in the context of Kony 2012 are presented by Ethan again, and Conor Cavanagh).
- Simple is too simple when a simple entry point does not allow viewers/participants to easily drill down and engage with more complexity (see Lana Swartz’s working paper on this potential for ‘drillability’ in transmedia campaigns)
- Simple is too simple when it perpetuates stereotypes (for example, a ‘rescue’ approach) or reinforces the lack of agency in situations where agency has already been assaulted by the human rights violations themselves. At the root of human rights work is human dignity.
- Simple is too simple for a single human rights video when it misstates facts, uses footage or interviews out of context, or when it breaches ethical ideas on representation, particularly when that compromises people’s dignity and safety.
All these are important if we are to make clearer distinctions between ethical advocacy work and advertising or propaganda.
Elsewhere we’ve blogged on some key principles on using social media to engage with human rights, and discussed extensively how to think about questions of dignity, safety and consent in human rights video. We also have some internal guidelines that we will be sharing in an upcoming blog post. Sparked by the discussion around Kony 2012, Katrin Verclas from Mobileactive has also shared a draft code of online advocacy conduct that speaks to the broader realm of advocacy.
How can big picture storytelling better amplify local voices but still connect to broader bases of people?
One key element of storytelling that’s missing from Kony 2012 is the voice and agency of the hundreds and thousands of Ugandans living with the legacy of the LRA, or advocating and mobilizing to confront that legacy. Also missing are the voices of people living with the threat of LRA violence now in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Southern Sudan.
The pushback from Kony 2012 indicates a hybrid path that we need to follow. A path that finds ways to understand how simpler messaging for new mass audiences can be informed by (and combined with) the richness of knowledge, solutions and voices that exist but aren’t being amplified. TMS Ruge has noted that the discussion has given the opportunity for Ugandans to take the mic – from individual bloggers like Rosebell Kagumire to more systematic efforts such as Al-Jazeera’s promotion of Ugandan voices in response to Kony2012 via its #UgandaSpeaks campaign. Other groups like Resolve (partners with IC on the LRA Crisis Tracker) have aggregated responses to the film from communities in areas currently affected by LRA violence.
What would a Kony 2012-like campaign fully grounded in local voices look like?
It would start from debate with local activists on solutions, and then tap into powerful storytelling to communicate with its core audience in ethical and direct ways that reinforce the agency of those local activists. That storytelling might be led by people on the ground or by a filmmaker, but there would be a purposeful effort to make sure those stories were part of the narrative from the beginning – within single films and within the flow of content that surrounds high-profile media items. It would ensure that just as much as the campaign was ‘spreadable’, it would also be ‘drillable’ (meaning that a person can dig down and understand easily beyond the core message and narrative) and have a depth of voice and context (for more on this see a recent Henry Jenkins blog). It would also create spaces for those stories from video bloggers, video activists and citizen witnesses to be created, amplified, curated and added to: a number of models exist for doing this well from training programs of SmallWorldNews, WITNESS and many others to the edited communities of Global Voices to the curation and aggregation spaces of Crowdmap and Crowdvoice, and the pages on Facebook that act as nodes for mulitple voices like ‘We Are All Khaled Said‘.
So what comes next?
On a campaign level, it’s early days with Kony 2012. There can and will be legitimate disagreements on their approach to justice and reconstruction in Central Africa. I hope that Invisible Children will be open to dialogue with others about their next steps and how they use their bully pulpit. Either way, this increased attention on LRA crimes presents an amazing opportunity to think out how to secure justice and recovery in Central and East Africa.
Beyond critiques, the human rights community needs to work out how to provide the activists who engage with IC with a gateway to other human rights issues. We need to build better, non-proprietary pipelines for engaging each others’ supporters and networks. And we need to help them engage with local voices and opinions from the places where their advocacy and awareness will have a real-world impact.
IC have highlighted (in their response video) their interest in answering people’s questions on their approach and strategies, and being transparent. Ben Keesey, their CEO, asks people to tweet @Invisible with #AskICAnything, and they’ve started to respond to some of those questions here, here and here.
Is the incredible reach and debate that Kony 2012 has generated a good or a bad thing? There are no simple answers here. And I cannot speak for the range and diversity of voices in Uganda, East Africa and Central Africa, as well as humanitarian, human rights, and policy professionals who could argue for alternative solutions to that advocated by the video. The consensus on the political solution initially presented in the video does appear to be: too simple and too military-focused. IC needs to work out how to convey that there is more nuance to what they seek behind the banner headlines. But irrespective, attention may translate to concrete options for change that will generate a lasting peace.
In addition, the video has engaged 100 million people, it has given a chance for people in the region to say why they object to it (or appreciate it) and to have their voices amplified (albeit accidentally) and it’s enabling us now to have a conversation on some of the bigger questions. Let’s leverage that part. Lets have a constructive discussion on the difficult balance between advocacy, audience and agency, and around ethics, simplification and local voice.