It seems like over the past few months, we’ve seen an increased pace of online activism, an onslaught of campaigns. There was the SOPA campaign, the Occupy Wall Street social media meme, and last year the Arab Spring. Recently, Rush Limbaugh has been feeling the heat of a social media campaign stemming from his inflammatory remarks about a woman.
But over the past 24 hours, the latest social media campaign to explode is called “Kony 2012.” The centerpiece is a 30-minute video posted by Jason Russell. The goal is to raise awareness, and create international pressure for the arrest of Joseph Kony:
Since 1987, Joseph Kony has abducted more than 30,000 children in Central Africa and forced them to be child soldiers in his Lord’s Resistance Army. The KONY 2012 campaign employs film, social media, street art, and face-to-face interaction to make the case that the arrest of Joseph Kony this year is one thing we can all agree on.
In the video, Russell says he intends to use the power of the Web, via this video, to create a groundswell for justice: “If we succeed, we change the course of human history…Its only goal is to stop the rebel group, the LRA, and its leader, Joseph Kony,” Russell says. “And I’m going to tell you how we’re going to do it.”
Russell records himself explaining to his son what he does in Africa, and who the “bad guys” are. In this case, Kony and LRA. But he ultimately can’t bring himself to detail all the horrors: abduction, rape, prostitution, kids being forced to mutilate each other and kill their parents.
It’s gripping and disturbing. “It’s obvious Kony should be stopped,” Russell said. “The problem is that 99.7 percent of the world doesn’t know who he is.”
Russell said he and some friends attempted to lobby the U.S. government to get involved, but the issue went nowhere at first. They were told it just wasn’t on the radar of the nation’s foreign policy. But eventually, President Obama acknowledged Kony and agreed to dispatch advisors to Uganda to help find him.
But Rusell is still worried it isn’t enough. He wants to spread Kony’s name so that it’s everywhere, convince thought leaders, celebrities and policymakers to ramp up pressure for his arrest. He wants to make sure the advisors are more than just a token effort, that they have the resources they need, and feel the public pressure to gets results. Make it a priority, until he’s captured.
The campaign also has an offline component. People are putting up yard signs, posters, and driving around vans with Kony’s name.
The culmination will be April 20, when there is a “Cover the Night” event designed to coordinate all the efforts around the world for one moment. The goal is to spend that entire night blanketing every street and yard with posters with Kony’s name.
And of course, he made the film. Watch it. It’s pretty extraordinary stuff.
But the real question is whether it can have sufficient impact to galvanize popular awareness and action. There’s an ongoing debate about the role the Internet and the Web can play in organizing people and creating movements. And already, the campaign has triggered a backlash, with critics saying that the group should be spending more on direct aid rather than staff; shouldn’t be advocating military action; and is grossly simplifying a complex situation by not highlighting government atrocities.
“Have manipulated facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders and emphasizing the LRA’s use of innocent children as soldiers, and portraying Kony — a brutal man, to be sure — as uniquely awful, a Kurtz-like embodiment of evil. They rarely refer to the Ugandan atrocities or those of Sudan’s People’s Liberation Army, such as attacks against civilians or looting of civilian homes and businesses, or the complicated regional politics fueling the conflict.”
This promises to be an interesting experiment that will, one way or the other, give us some insight into the relationship between the Web and popular movements. But it’s also likely to continue to inspire a robust debate about how the rest of us sort truth from propaganda when consuming digital media.