The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

Visible “Invisible Children”: Indicator of a tenuous link between social media activism and efficacy?

Posted in Internal Conflicts and Human Security by NTSblog on March 19, 2012

As of this writing, Kony 2012 has had 82 million views in YouTube. Dubbed the “most viral” video in history, it presents 26 years of atrocities committed by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)—which has been tagged by the United States as a “specially designated terrorist group”. Produced by Invisible Children (IC), Kony 2012 relies on striking imagery—of fear and deprivation experienced by Ugandan children, to elicit an emotional response.

Kony 2012’s domination of social media brought with it scathing critiques: the most recurring of which is the video’s purported oversimplification of the conflict and the LRA’s current inactivity in Uganda. Others claim that IC’s advocacy of further American intervention would only intensify conflict and prop up an abusive Ugandan armed forces. Nonetheless, what is clear is that Kony 2012 has succeeded in raising awareness about anissue that even known pundits have embarrassingly stumbled on. In short, Kony 2012 is a strong case of how to wage an effective viral marketing campaign.

What is unclear is whether the IC’s self-stated effort to “redefine propaganda” translates into political efficacy. While IC has helped create localized improvements in community security and well-being on the ground, its main value proposition is its Kony 2012 campaign. IC’s model of media, advocacy and development is too quick to point to its campaign as a causative factor in America’s decision to deploy military advisers to Uganda. Arguably, American involvement can be more readily explained as by a shift in geopolitical considerations in the region.

Of course, IC is not alone in ascribing tremendous efficacy to social media—which has often been cited as a critical enabler in the “Arab Spring”. But as post-uprising euphoria fades, it was clear that social media only played an ancillary role. International inaction over the current Syrian uprising shows the limits of social media (through portals such as the Syrian Media Center) in mobilizing international action. It is not as if there is a lack of gripping footage to evoke strong emotions.

Even if it can be proven that IC’s engagement of “culturemakers” and “policymakers” triggered American policy shift, would it not be thus disingenuous for the group to take the limelight? Would it not endanger the likelihood of success of other advocacy and pressure groups to utilize social media and viral marketing?

The appeal of any viral campaign is in its cultivation of an image of its bottom-up and crowd-sourced origins.   With the IC’s model all but laid out, it risks losing the degree of mystique and intentional obscurity a viral campaign needs. The direct linkage between the source and message saps the latter’s “virulence” and ultimately, its ability to propagate.

It must be stressed that the material aspects of conflict—of insecurity and deprivation, cannot be addressed simply by number of “likes” or Kony 2012 action kits sold. While wide-ranging atrocities can no longer remain invisible in this “Facebook age”, claims that there may never be another Rwanda are quite premature.

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