Archive for April, 2012

Clicktivism, slacktivism and the alternatives

Posted in activism, celebrities and advocacy with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 24 April, 2012 by Virgil

Kony 2012 poster in Australia. Photo by David Ward

The recent Kony 2012 campaign led by US-based advocacy group Invisible Children to draw attention to Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony, was supposed to have culminated in an event held on 20 April to ‘cover the night’ – an event that aimed to “blanket every street in every city” with Kony 2012 posters and messages.

On the whole, it appears the event fizzled. A handful of news outlets noted the failure of the Cover the Night campaign to bring people in any numbers to the streets or to leave much of a mark, but perhaps more significantly, most major news outlets did not report the events at all. Invisible Children’s own website reported the participation of “thousands of people”. It was a far cry from the more than one hundred million people who watched the initial Kony 2012 video designed to promote the event, and the more than three million people who pledged to “stop at nothing” to get Kony.

In all fairness, this was largely inevitable. The act of watching a video (assuming those who began watching it actually finished it) or clicking on a pledge, however powerful, was never going to translate into a comparable level of real-world action. And the fact that the campaign did manage to attract such levels of attention and the participation of thousands of people in response to a conflict in central Africa was certainly an impressive feat. But the drop was quite pronounced nonetheless. This cannot simply be attributed to the barrage of criticism the video attracted, or the public meltdown of the group’s founder and video’s ‘star’, Jason Russell, although these certainly played a large part.

More importantly, it was inevitable because the very factors that made the campaign work so well as a piece of propaganda, were also its undoing. Invisible Children was well aware of the limited breadth (in global terms) and length of the attention span of the youth it was targeting, as well as the need for grandiose spectacle to attract that attention, and they developed their campaign accordingly. The campaign broke everything down into a simple and urgent ‘get the bad guy Kony this year’ message, called for what looked like a clandestine and rebellious (read cool) poster campaign, and in a very self-aggrandising manner, spoke of a ‘Facebook world’ changing ‘everything’, of revolution, of changing history. It was designed to be cool and give youth a sense of empowerment. Although it claimed to be “turning the system upside-down”, the campaign essentially worked within the ‘system’ of fleeting interest in grand spectacle and cool clicktivism. It was a fad of sorts, and fads inevitably fade away.

It is also important to note that the arrest of Joseph Kony, when/if it happens, will not in itself be something revolutionary. While the video claimed, presumably for dramatic effect, that “arresting Kony will prove that the world we live in has new rules”, examples of this clearly already exist. Thomas Lubanga, another warlord formerly active in the DRC also responsible for mass atrocities and forcibly recruiting child soldiers, for example, had already been arrested in 2006 under a warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC), and interestingly, was convicted of war crimes (after a lengthy trial) less than ten days after the release of the Kony 2012 video.

The Thomas Lubanga case was an important moment, not just because it marked the first time someone was convicted by the ICC, but because, for all the shortcomings of the process, it happened without massive and passionate pressure from the masses (and largely without their knowledge). The ICC itself, which is becoming an increasingly important tool in deterring war crimes and crimes against humanity, was developed and brought to life not only in the absence of large-scale public outcry, but also in the face of vehement opposition from the powerful US government. It is a systemic attempt to reduce and prevent conflict and conflict-related suffering, and it was made possible not by uninformed (or suddenly informed) passions, but by years of hard work by large numbers of people who were very well informed and were measured and realistic in their approach.

Newborn emotive pressure from the masses tends to be an unwieldy instrument, and unfortunately does not form the basis for a system capable of addressing the world’s many injustices and problems. It can, in the short term, serve as a form of pressure for policymakers to ‘do something’ (primarily to relieve the political pressure) – but not necessarily ‘the right thing’ or ‘the most effective thing’. If it ‘works’, the Kony 2012 campaign, for example, will boost the level of military action against the LRA, but will this do more harm than good? If the answer is yes (and there certainly are precedents), then are we not confronted with the uncomfortable possibility that doing nothing may have been better than doing ‘something’? Does not the existence of such a possibility then suggest the need for great care when generating and wielding this type of emotive pressure, particularly when there will be large-scale life and death consequences in a complex and volatile environment such as that in the DRC?

Some form of engagement from the rich and powerful actors/sectors of the world is certainly one of the necessary components in bringing peace and stability to this region. But this engagement needs to be very carefully planned and implemented. Would it not be better to have thousands of well-informed and dedicated people able to contribute to focused debate and serve as a political force in effectively promoting the necessary long-term comprehensive policies, than millions of people with loud voices calling for simplistic and instantaneous solutions? I would say yes. Will the rousing of millions of voices eventually boil down to these thousands of well-informed voices? Possibly. But at what cost? Will the millions of voices already have contributed to hasty decisions that may make things worse? And will the disillusionment felt by many of the millions when confronted with the complex and harsh realities on the ground serve to damage future activist efforts? Only time will tell. Is there a better way to build up these thousands of well-informed voices? This may be a good time to seriously start considering how.

I would suggest that, while working to dazzle and emotively rouse people into immediate action has its place, much more effort needs to be put into reforming the systems of day-to-day newsgathering and transmission as well as education, to provide a more solid basis for informing and educating larger numbers of people and getting them involved in some form in the development and implementation of effective measures to bring conflict and conflict-related suffering to a lasting halt.

(This article was originally posted on the recently established Southern African Peace and Security Blog. It is just starting to take off but is well worth a visit).

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Why Zimbabwe?

Posted in dictators, Zimbabwe with tags , , , , , , , , , on 21 April, 2012 by Virgil

President Robert Mugabe. Photo by Gregg Carlstrom under a CC Licence

Africa may well be a continent that is routinely marginalized by most of the media in the outside world, but Zimbabwe is one of the few exceptions to the rule. Isolated murmurs in the Western media about democratic shortcomings in the 1990s gave way to much more substantive coverage in 2000 when President Robert Mugabe began pursuing aggressive land reforms that saw white farmers ejected from their land (a number were killed). Media interest in Zimbabwe continued to grow beyond this point, with coverage focusing largely on political turmoil and oppression, peaking (for the time being) with the controversial elections of 2008. On balance, few countries in Africa (perhaps only South Africa and Egypt) can match the levels of media coverage in Western countries devoted to Zimbabwe. But why the interest?

Coverage is, of course, to a large degree, a reflection of policy interest. The existence of a ‘free’ press notwithstanding, the media tend to take many of their cues on how to look at (and whether to look at) foreign policy issues from the policymakers in their ‘home’ countries. Zimbabwe is certainly not found wanting in this regard. It was the only African mention on Condoleeza Rice’s ‘outposts of tyranny’ list, and while red carpets are regularly rolled out for leaders with arguably worse democratic and human rights records than Zimbabwe, Mugabe is treated as a pariah. He is banned from travelling to the EU, for example, and the UK’s Prince Charles and former foreign secretary, Jack Straw, have both found themselves in deep public relations trouble for shaking hands with Robert Mugabe, and were forced to make excuses (Prince Charles was ‘taken by surprise’ while Jack Straw claimed it was too dark to see with whom he was shaking hands). Zimbabwe appears to occupy a unique place in Western consciousness – a place reserved for those reviled as the ‘world’s worst dictators’.

Indeed, much has been made of Zimbabwe’s democratic shortcomings – the suppression of dissent, the intimidation of political opponents, and the rigging of elections. While these are certainly valid criticisms, the selectiveness with which countries are held to certain democratic standards naturally calls into question the motives of those making the assertions. The actions of regimes with considerably worse democratic records tend to be swept under the rug, or result in little more than a mild expression of criticism.

North Africa was a case in point (at least until the wave of the so-called ‘Arab spring’), but such double-standards are equally apparent in much of sub-Saharan Africa as well. Deaths associated with election-related violence have far outnumbered Zimbabwe in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire and Togo, and yet none of these cases could compare with Zimbabwe in terms of levels of media concern and indignation. The same can be said in cases where ruling party control over the electoral process remains arguably tighter than that in Zimbabwe, such as Eritrea, Angola, Chad and Rwanda. For all of the intimidation and alleged rigging, in Zimbabwe’s 2008 elections, there was at least a sufficient degree of ‘freedom’ to allow the incumbent to lose the first round of the voting.

So then what are the real reasons behind the media interest? Western strategic and economic interests do not serve as particularly convincing explanations, considering that, relatively speaking, Zimbabwe does not appear to have a great deal to offer in this regard. It does have some diamonds and was once known as the breadbasket of southern Africa, but in terms of size, population, geostrategic significance, resources and ease of access, for example, a country such as Nigeria – a regional power that accounts for as much as 20 percent of US oil imports – could be expected to attract considerably more attention. Yet in the first ten years of the new millennium, the amount of coverage the New York Times devoted to Zimbabwe was more than double the amount it devoted to Nigeria.

A much more credible explanation can be found in Mugabe’s refusal to play ball with powerful Western governments. His impassioned railings against the West, in perfect English, undoubtedly designed to help shore up support within Zimbabwe, certainly raise his ‘public enemy’ credentials in Western countries. It is also interesting that it took the expulsion and killing of white farmers (rather than the political oppression of the black population) for Zimbabwe to begin to take a prominent place on Western media agendas, this was a key trigger event for attention.

Zimbabwe is hardly a geostrategic threat to the West, but Mugabe’s badmouthing and attempts to whip up opposition to Western policies threaten to tarnish the image of certain Western countries. This cannot be ignored, and thus enhanced punitive measures focusing on ‘human rights’ and ‘democracy’ are typically employed. Mugabe remains one of the most popular ‘bad guys’ on the continent (despite Joseph Kony’s star rising) – a leader that people love to hate.

(This article was originally posted on the recently established Southern African Peace and Security Blog. It is just starting to take off, but is well worth a visit).

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