Kony2012: The Controversy (Part II)

by Igor Ristić

Yesterday I critiqued the KONY2012 video from a Communication perspective to show you one of the reasons why it has become the most viral video in history thus far (yes, it’s even more popular than Susan Boyle). I did some math, and my daily web traffic went up 57% yesterday when compared to Monday. This exemplifies the strong saliency of the Kony2012 topic right now; people are interested in it and can’t seem to get enough! The post yesterday was actually a lot longer because I originally included a section about all of the controversy that has surrounded the video. Since not all of us are as skilled as Invisible Children at getting thirty minutes of continuous attention from the online audience (you), I decided to break that section off and make it into a separate entry today.

Polarization 

As is predictable in our increasingly polarized world, two main camps seem to have formed in response to the video. The opponents have passionately criticized Invisible Children for only spending 31% of the money they get on actual efforts on the ground in Africa, for commercializing a conflict for financial gain and simplifying it to the point of insult, for making the African people look weak and defenseless to help themselves, for making it seem as if the LRA is still in Uganda although they have been out since 2006, for encouraging “slacktivism” (lazy activism via the Internet), and for many other reasons.

The supporters of the campaign have argued it is worthwhile and beneficial because most people did not even know who Kony was until a few days ago, because even if a small percentage of the “slacktivists” take action, it will be worth it (also see this), and because the ultimate aim is to help children, despite the intentions of the filmmaker. Furthermore, Invisible Children has released a new video answering all of the questions that have been raised over the past few days and has created a detailed web page with the same aim as well.

So is the Kony2012 campaign patronizing, deceiving, oversimplifying, white-priveldge filled, self-promoting, and irresponsible, or is it altruistic, engaging, inspirational, potent, timely, and intelligent?

Does it Really Matter, at This Point?

While I like to think of myself as fairly knowledgeable of world events, I know there are exponentially more things I do not know than there are things I know. Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) was one of the many things I did not know about, until the Kony2012 campaign.

How do most of us know what we know about the world? There are two main sources of information for our knowledge of world events; personal experience and the mass media.

Personal experience is a big source of information because we will naturally seek out more information and be more aware of issues we have directly witnessed/experienced. For instance, I have been to Turkey the past three years, so I am somewhat aware of the ethnic and political tensions in Turkey, while most of my friends are not. For any student who studies abroad somewhere and for anyone who has traveled somewhere, you will have more knowledge of that region than most people who have not been there.

However, if we do not have personal experience related to other parts of the world, most of us will not voluntarily spend hours and hours in the library every evening researching the geopolitical history of every region on earth, and will not spend hours and hours on the Internet everyday voluntarily reading through the CIA World Factbook or Encyclopedia Britannica. So where do we get the information about the parts of the world we have no experience with?

The mass media.

The mass media (newspapers, news channels, the Internet, etc.) tell us what to think about on the global scale. They encourage us to look up certain topics and to be interested in certain topics. How many of you knew about the Taliban before September 11th, 2001? Unless you study history or a related field or have been to the area, I am guessing most of you had no idea who they were until they became a media topic after the attacks.

Communication scholars Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw introduced the Agenda Setting Theory in the 1970s, and stated that:

Here may lie the most important effect of mass communication, its ability to mentally order and organize our world for us. In short, the mass media may not be successful in telling us what to think, but they are stunningly successful in telling us what to think about. – 1977

The mass media are stunningly successful in telling us what to think about. Jason Russell and his colleagues are aware of this fact, and Mr. Russell went to college for film production, thus he knows a thing or two about how to make a persuasive video (see yesterday’s post for the video critique). It was their goal to create a video that would create a lot of online buzz, so that the traditional mass media would pick the story up.

And did they ever pick it up. Here, Jon Stewart makes fun of the mass media for how much they’ve been talking about Kony2012.

As a result of the video and the brilliant social media marketing campaign, millions and millions more people know who Kony and the LRA are. Many people, even the opponents of the video, have now done research on the topic that they would have NEVER done had it not been for the video. While some of the opponents’ arguments are actually legitimate, the fact that arguments even exist, the fact that this is even a topic, means that Invisible Children has succeeded in it’s campaign and that more people than ever before now have some idea of who Kony is (this blogger makes a similar argument).

This blog makes the argument that all of this knowledge and attention on Kony is bad because he has been largely defeated (the KONY2012 video does indeed exaggerate the current situation exponentially) and all of this attention will give him more power and infamy. That is a very pessimistic way of looking it.

The word is spreading in many ways. If you want to make your own Kony Cookies, click on this photo.

Call me an idealist, but I believe all this media attention, and the subsequent public attention on the LRA and Kony, will do more good than bad. Of course there will be some negative effects (anything this big will not be perfect), and of course the oversimplified nature of their description of the LRA and Kony will give some people misleading information. However, most people are not stupid and realize the video is simplified to make it easy to understand, and many will do their own research on the topic if they are really interested in it, and will thus help in their own way towards the ultimate goal of this campaign, to capture the most wanted man in the world, according to the International Criminal Court. The argument over whether or not the video was a good idea is getting gold; the video is a hit and as a result, we should start thinking about how to make the best of it, instead of debating about whether or not it should have been made in the first place.

What About The Money?

Invisible Children is honest about how much money it does, and does not, spend on the ground in Africa (see above link), so I don’t see why people are making a big issue of their expenditures. The fact that they spend a lot of money on video production and travel (to raise awareness) is not hidden or in any way misleading; they are honest about it and about their intentions of being an awareness and advocacy group, and not necessarily a group that does much work on the ground in Central Africa. For those who do not like how this organization spends their money, DO NOT give them your money, and let other people make that decision for themselves.