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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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What can I do?

Posted in activism, Africa, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 24 July, 2010 by Virgil

In this blog I continue to write about the problem of the world’s largest conflicts being consistently ignored, by the media, the policymakers, the public/civil society, and academia. I was recently asked what the ‘little people’ can do to help change this situation. I guess the short answer would be that the ‘little people’ have to come together so that they can become ‘big people’.

When I talk to people about the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), for instance, about how it is hands-down the deadliest conflict of our times and how the conflict is connected to minerals used in our electronic devices, people tend to react with lines like: ‘I had no idea about this problem, I’ll read and find out more’, ‘I’m going to donate to an aid organization working there’, ‘I think I should recycle my old mobile phone’, ‘I’m going to make sure I buy fair trade goods from now on’, and ‘I’ll make sure I vote for someone responsible at the next elections’.

These are all important and valuable reactions. By the same token, we are not getting to the bottom of the core problem – the power structures that keep all this disproportion in place and allow such horrible suffering to go on. To make an impact at this macro level, we need to make a message that is bigger and more visible than the separate actions of lone individuals. If I tell you as an individual about a problem, you may do something, but if I can get a newspaper to print something about a problem, then I have surely made a much bigger impact. Getting something in the news can mean getting the attention of the public at large, but also that of policymakers, aid organizations and academia.

Now getting through to the media and trying to change the shocking levels of disproportion is no easy task, but I think it is worth a try. And the media are not necessarily unresponsive. As I recently noted, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) put up on their website a special report on Africa to coincide with the World Cup being held in South Africa. The title was ‘Africa 2010: A continent’s moment on the world stage’. I wrote a comment on the page lamenting how it was such a fitting title, because ‘a moment’ was all the continent was going to get – as soon as the World Cup ended, it would back to business as usual – a continent ignored by the media. Within a few days, the subtitle ‘mysteriously’ disappeared from the website, leaving just the main title: ‘Africa 2010’. Had I made a difference and shamed the subtitle off the site?

So I begin by suggesting that people put up comments on news websites demanding more coverage on conflicts that are consistently ignored. But such work is likely to be much more effective if it is coordinated. At this point I always recall the stories of supporters of Israel and supporters of Palestine who organize large-scale ‘flak’ campaigns against news corporations that they feel have written unfair articles. An article that is critical of Israel, for example, can come out in a newspaper and the following day the journalist will find 3,000 protest emails in his/her inbox. Newspapers cannot ignore this kind of pressure, and I think those of us with other causes can learn from such movements.

It is in this light that I have recently started a campaign in Japan (through my Japanese blog) to try to get more coverage for the African continent in the news media. Japan’s largest newspaper, the Yomiuri, for example, devoted just 3 percent of its tiny international news section to African news. It is a mailing list campaign called ‘Africa is part of the world too’. I take up one major piece of news from the continent that has been unreported, write an article about it and send it out to all the members on the mailing list. Having read the article, the members are invited to follow the link to the readers’ comment section in a particular newspaper and demand coverage of the issue. It remains to be seen how successful it will be, but I intend to keep chipping away.

The internet can be an incredibly effective tool in this sense, because it is so easy to get messages to a large number of people, and because it bypasses the traditional media systems/gatekeepers.

Due to time constraints, I don’t have any plans at the moment to start up a similar campaign targeting English media, but it may be in the cards, and anyone out there reading this is most welcome to try to get something like this going. In the meantime, I can perhaps suggest taking any issue that I put up on this blog, or anywhere else you see that major conflicts are being ignored by the media, and letting the media know that you are unhappy and expect better. Most media corporations provide spaces on their websites for comments by the readers/viewers, so why not give it a try? A few strokes of the keyboard and a few clicks of the mouse are all that are required!

Here’s something else that can be done. Do something for Congo Week in October this year. It can be anything big or small (just switching off your mobile phone for an hour, for example) that contributes to raising awareness about the dire situation in the DRC. Click on the poster for more details.

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