Archive for the celebrities and advocacy Category

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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Africa and the news on Yahoo Japan

Posted in Africa, celebrities and advocacy, Japan, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 7 November, 2011 by Virgil

Photo by Jason Wong under a CC Licence

This post aims to cast light on the state of the mass media in Japan. As in many other wealthy countries, news consumption in Japan is increasingly moving to the internet. This does not necessarily mean, however, that the sources of news are changing, or becoming more global. The bulk of the news that people access online is coming from news aggregators, and their sources are the traditional newspaper and television companies. In any case, looking at the content of such news aggregators is a good way to see the type of news that people are being fed.

Below are some of the results of a recently completed study of all (20,233) news stories provided by Yahoo! Japan (in Japanese) for the year 2010. As can be expected, the news was dominated by ‘national’ news stories. International news stories made up just 10 percent of the total (and many of those were about issues related to Japan or Japanese people in the world, rather than the world per se). Entertainment stories (celebrity news and gossip) made up 15 percent of the news and sports news made up 22 percent – 37 percent of the news was of the ‘soft’ variety.

As seen in the traditional media, the African continent was thoroughly marginalized on the Yahoo! Japan news website. Of the 10 percent of the total number of articles devoted to international news, just 2.4 percent (or 49 articles) were focused on Africa. Let’s see how this compared to some other important objects of media interest:

While this is hardly an exhaustive search, it is clear that the leading figures in many sports were each able to garner far more coverage than all of Africa’s countries combined (even the women’s curling team didn’t do badly in terms of coverage). The same can be said for other celebrities embroiled in a scandal of some sort. Part of the coverage of the Kabuki actor Ebizo Ichikawa was because of his wedding to a famous newscaster, but the bulk of it came after he was injured in a fight while out drinking. Coverage of Manabu Oshio centred on his trial for his failure to help a woman who died of an overdose of ecstasy in 2009 (they were taking the drug together). Coverage of Erika Sawajiri was largely related to the question of whether or not she was going to get a divorce, and on her possible return to acting/singing. The rapid rise of globalization notwithstanding, infotainment at the national level is going strong.

Of all the stories devoted to Africa, 28 percent were related to the 2010 FIFA World Cup (soccer) hosted by South Africa. These were stories in the international news section, not the sports section, and were articles not about the action on the field, but about the state of crime in South Africa (particularly foreign victims), the vuvuzela (plastic horn used by supporters at games) and other related stories. Only three articles about South Africa were not related to the World Cup.

If we exclude South Africa’s World Cup related stories, the most covered African country was Sudan, with six stories in total – about developments in Darfur and a man who was fined for wearing make-up. Post-election violence and the rarity of two candidates claiming the title of president put Cote d’Ivoire at second with five stories, while Nigeria and Libya were at third place with four stories each.

It is interesting to note that (with the exception of South Africa and its World Cup news) no African country could attract as much coverage on Yahoo! Japan as could US celebrity Paris Hilton (nine articles), or Paul the Octopus in Germany, the aquarium attraction that appeared to correctly predict the winner of several World Cup matches (eight articles).

As in most countries, media coverage of the world in Japan is in a sad and sorry state, and Africa is perhaps the greatest victim.

(This article was originally posted on the Stealth Conflicts Forum website – contributions of your own material there are most welcome)

Lindsay Lohan in prison

Posted in Africa, celebrities and advocacy, comedy, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 1 August, 2010 by Virgil

As we all well know, US celebrity Lindsay Lohan is behind bars, locked up for a violation of the terms of her release in a charge in connection with driving under the influence of alcohol. It is important for us as members of the public endowed with a ‘right to know’ to keep abreast of the critical developments of this important story, and to engage in dialogue with our fellow citizens about the finer points of the story and its implications for the international community as a whole.

I am well aware that both the mainstream and tabloid media, along with the blogosphere and other informal arenas of information exchange are already well on top of the situation – all are overflowing with valuable information and analysis from a variety of viewpoints. Unable, however, to contain my own volatile emotional mix of human concern, curious fascination, voyeuristic urges and slight satisfaction at the downfall of an individual enjoying excess fame and fortune, I have decided to join the masses and devote this blog post to the plight of Lindsay Lohan.

And let’s face it, with such an eventless past week or so, journalistically speaking, where would we be without Lindsay Lohan? Nothing much else worthy of reporting has been happening in the world.

Oh yes, there was the 15th Summit of the African Union (AU) in Kampala Uganda, coming just two weeks after the terrorist bombings that claimed 76 lives in the same city and that marked the first foreign attack by Al Shabaab (based in Somalia). And yes, numerous heads of state, including the leaders South Africa (Zuma), Nigeria (Jonathan), Senegal (Wade), Kenya (Kibaki), Ethiopia (Meles) and Libya (Gaddafi), were in attendance at the three-day Summit. 

OK, so they did do a bit of talking about measures to bring the conflict in Somalia under control, and may have made some decisions about boosting the size of the AU force in that country. Anti-terror measures were also high on the agenda. And there was a lot of talk about how to deal with the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for Sudanese President Al Bashir (who did not attend the Summit) on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and recently, genocide. The AU is against the indictment and warrant for his arrest, thinking that these will have a negative impact on the achievement of peace in Darfur.

On other political issues, there was concern about delays in holding elections in places like Cote D’Ivoire and the Central African Republic, political instability in Madagascar, and the problems with the Ethiopian-Eritrean peace process.

The many leaders of Africa did also talk about the challenges and achievements associated with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and the poverty that is affecting millions of people on the continent. The theme of the Summit was, after all, maternal and infant health.

But in the scheme of things, this is all really inconsequential. The important questions facing the world that need to be asked include: just how preferential is Lindsay Lohan’s treatment in prison? Has she really been making demands for Ben and Jerry’s ice cream? Is she crying herself to sleep each night and keeping the other prisoners awake? How soon will she be released? As the publication L.A. Now points out, “There’s been much speculation about how Lindsay Lohan is being treated behind bars”.

And this is how the mass media have arranged their priorities. This trend is by no means limited to the media in Los Angeles or even the USA, or to the tabloid media, either. The UK’s Times and Japan’s Yomiuri are among the many major (supposedly non-tabloid) newspapers based outside the USA that have devoted more coverage to Lindsay Lohan’s plight than to the AU Summit.

Having said all this, we really shouldn’t get too carried away with the Lindsay Lohan situation and let it overshadow other important issues happening in the world. The wedding of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky has just taken place, and with the nuptials so shrouded in secrecy, we need to be even more diligent in acquiring information regarding this event. This wedding is indeed also quite deserving of the critical scrutiny of citizens aware of their civic duties. Thankfully, the media is doing its job here – as People magazine reports “The months of speculation on whom Chelsea Clinton would choose to design her wedding dress are finally over — and it’s Vera Wang!”

Praise is certainly due to the mass media, for fulfilling their responsibilities in addressing our right to know, and for their ever-vigilant stance on the important issues affecting the lives of humankind and the world as a whole.

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Gorillas and guerillas

Posted in activism, celebrities and advocacy, conflict, Congo, DRC, media coverage, natural resource exploitation, wildlife with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 21 January, 2009 by Virgil

In a previous post, I discussed how the apparent simplicity of a conflict can make the difference in whether it can attract and maintain attention or not – portraying a conflict as ‘chaos’ (instead of actually explaining its complexity) seems to be one sure way of telling people that they don’t need to direct their indignation towards the perpetrators or their sympathies towards the victims. A look at how outside observers see the animal victims of conflict (as opposed to the human victims) also helps us to see how important the ability to sympathize is in getting attention to a conflict.

 

In 2001 a lion in the Kabul zoo was left blinded and scarred by a hand grenade attack. The attacker’s cousin had been killed by the lion when he ventured into the lion’s den on a dare, and the grenade attack was an act of vengeance. The incident was covered in much of the Western press and sparked sympathy and donations to assist in the treatment for the lion. This was more than could be said for most of the human victims of the much broader conflict in Afghanistan. Conflict in that country up until the NATO attacks following September 11 was very much ‘off the radar’, with heavy fighting between the Taliban and Western-backed warlords routinely ignored by the media and other actors in much of the outside world.

 

But we can see the animal effect on sympathies perhaps most clearly in the case of the gorillas of the Great Lakes region, in the areas around the borders of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Uganda. With their numbers in decline, the continued existence of these mammals is in jeopardy, particularly because of conflict in the Great Lakes region. The extinction of a species of animals is clearly an issue of concern, but if we were to compare attention per capita, it is highly likely that we will find that the gorillas have managed to attract more attention (and almost certainly more sympathy) than the 6 million human victims of the conflict in the region.

 

Media corporations are quick to report the murder of gorillas (particularly babies) when it happens, and the victims will often be reported by name. But the same media corporations will more likely than not ignore massacres of humans in the DRC, babies or adult. How many of their names will ever be found in a newspaper?

 

While there has been a number of large-scale civil society campaigns organized in response to the more popular conflict in Darfur, there have very few in response to the much larger conflict in the DRC. But one campaign that was organized in response to this conflict, with some support from a number of Hollywood actors (including Leonardo di Caprio), was a campaign for “gorilla-friendly mobile phones”, referring to phones made without using the coltan mined in the DRC, which fuelled the conflict that threatened the gorillas. Admittedly, one campaign that was focused primarily on Belgium and Europe was a “no blood on my cell phone” campaign that aimed to draw attention to the link between coltan and the human victims of the conflict.

 

Often the message seems to be something along the lines of: ‘we will not be particularly concerned about the humans killed in Africa (especially while the details are not put in front of us – and we would rather they are not), but we care deeply about the lives of the gorillas, and will stand up to protect them’.

 

Here are perhaps some of the thoughts that run through people’s minds in the Western world (whether consciously or not), thoughts that make a situation like this possible:

 

The people:

Are part of a ‘chaotic’ conflict (it is messy and there is nothing that can be done)

Are part of a ‘tribal’ conflict (which sounds primitive, violent and nasty: people are killing each other, and therefore they are not innocent)

Are different from me (black and poor)

Are far away from my home (hordes of refugees will not be arriving on my doorstep)

Are messing up the freedom and independence that we gave them

Are blowing all the aid that we, in our benevolence, always give them

 

On the other hand,

 

The animals:

Are cute

Are intelligent (this is also one factor that seems to give whales so much more sympathy than cows)

Are helpless

Are innocent and are just caught up in the cruel violence of humans

 

Among the many factors behind the sympathy for gorillas (but not for humans), it is perhaps their perceived innocence that is the most significant. As long as the conflict between the humans is seen being ‘chaotic’ and ‘tribal’, innocent victims are difficult to be identified, and thus sympathy will be difficult to come by. Sympathy is usually generated when victims are able to be seen as belonging to an easily identifiable ‘ethnic’ group, not as individual humans belonging to different ‘sides’.

 

Perhaps the final irony is that there is a large shadow hanging over the conservation industry that ostensibly works to protect the gorillas. In a toxic mix of politics and profit, there appear to be links between policymakers, media corporations and the for-profit ‘conservation’ industry, in which the parties appear to be taking advantage of sympathy for the gorillas to achieve political goals and make money. Details can be found here.

 

Ben Affleck and Gimme Shelter

Posted in activism, celebrities and advocacy with tags , , , , , , on 21 December, 2008 by Virgil

Ben Affleck has recently directed a short film on behalf of the UNHCR called “Gimme Shelter” (using the Rolling Stones song of the same title). The film is part of a campaign by the UNHCR to generate 23 million US dollars to support their activities in response to the renewed violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

 

The conflict in the DRC is hands down the deadliest conflict of our times, and it almost defies imagination that a conflict of this magnitude has managed to attract so little attention and response over the past ten years – it is truly a stealth conflict of epic proportions. With violence rising again in the DRC, and the beleaguered city of Goma again on the verge of being overrun, now is as good a time as any for an attempt to raise some attention to its plight. While the mechanisms of humanitarian aid gathering and delivery often give rise to ‘carnivals of charity’ that seem to come and go depending on the whims of goodwill (based on what is the ‘fashionable’ crisis at the time, rather than what the actual humanitarian needs are), and although celebrity interventions can be controversial, this campaign should be applauded.

 

Roughly 95 percent of the 5.4 million people who have died because of conflict in the DRC have died not because of the bullets and the bombs, but because of preventable disease and starvation. Even if we cannot stop the fighting itself, we can at least do something to help the victims of the fighting. The figures above tell us that we have failed miserably in this regard – people died for lack of food, clean water, medicine and/or shelter that could have been made available. This is often the critical difference between stealth conflicts and chosen conflicts – the proportion of such nonviolent deaths never reaches such a high level in the case of chosen or fashionable conflicts. There cannot be a starker example than that in the DRC of the results of apathy.

 

UNHCR)

People fleeing fighting in Eastern DRC (Photo: UNHCR)

 

Celebrities have the potential to use their fame to draw attention (and donations) to humanitarian crises and thereby boost the response. The jury is still out, however, on whether celebrities can go beyond boosting attention to crises (that are already on the radar), and can actually succeed in drawing attention to crises that are not yet on the radar. Celebrities such as George Clooney and Angelina Jolie, for example, have chosen to focus much of their efforts on the conflict in Darfur, despite the fact that both have been to the DRC, and are aware that the scale of the problem in the DRC is far worse than that in Darfur. The website for the Education Partnership for Children of Conflict (co-founded by Angelina Jolie), for example, tells us that there 5,290,000 out-of-school children in the DRC, but the organization has chosen to focus its attention on Darfur (2,405,000 out-of-school children in Sudan), Iraq (540,000 out-of-school children), Haiti (572,000 out-of-school children) and New Orleans (victims of Hurricane Katrina).

 

This is not to take away from the work that these celebrities are doing or the positive effects of this work, and working to boost attention where attention already exists may well help the chances of success of this kind of advocacy (perhaps thereby making it the shrewd choice). But the real challenge lies in a case such as the crisis in the DRC, where, despite its unparalleled scale, attention is sorely lacking from every direction. Ben Affleck has chosen to focus his attention on this conflict, and has conducted a number of exploratory visits (before the latest round of renewed violence). Mr. Affleck’s choice should be applauded – it is a brave one, and there will surely be major challenges ahead in generating attention. Complexity has a way of quickly putting a damper on enthusiasm, however large the problem, and facing this obstacle will be a key challenge (Darfur’s rise to prominence has a lot to do with it being framed with an ostensibly simple storyline of genocide by ‘Arabs’ against ‘blacks’). The DRC is far from being an ‘easy sell’. 

 

The film Gimme Shelter focuses not on the politics, but on the humanitarian issues. This is a fair choice. It is not the job of the UNHCR to stop the conflict and remove the underlying root causes. They are there to help relieve the suffering caused. In any case, it is the complexity of the political background to the conflict (no the conflict is not ‘chaotic’, it is complex) that has been responsible for generating so much apathy to date.

 

The campaign hopes to raise 23 million US dollars. Let’s hope they raise ten times that amount.

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