Why We Should Take Heart From the Backlash Against Kony2012

The video's spread was disturbing, but it provided a chance for long-simmering critiques of Western aid to reach a new audience.


The incredible virality of the Kony2012 campaign presents a problem for those who hope that the ability to spread information online will lead to better policies and practices offline. Within days, a slickly produced campaign video whose substance was criticized as simplistic, condescending, and self-serving, garnered more than 50 million views. (For those not familiar with the critiques, I direct you two these two Atlantic pieces from yesterday.)

What does this rapid spread say about the web's nose for quality? If production value, resonance, and ersatz empowerment can catapult a troubling campaign into the limelight (front page of today's New York Times), is online activism a hazard?

MIT Media Lab's always-thoughtful Ethan Zuckerman sketches out this concern in a post about the troubles with Kony2012. He writes:

As someone who believes that the ability to create and share media is an important form of power, the Invisible Children story presents a difficult paradox. If we want people to pay attention to the issues we care about, do we need to oversimplify them? And if we do, do our simplistic framings do more unintentional harm than intentional good? Or is the wave of pushback against this campaign from Invisible Children evidence that we're learning to read and write complex narratives online, and that a college student with doubts about a campaign's value and validity can find an audience?

Zuckerman gets right at the dilemma's heart. But his last question hints at the place where the web may find redemption: Ultimately, the story of Kony2012 is not only about a video, it's about the waves and waves of pushback from scholars like Zuckerman; journalists on sites like Foreign Policy, The Guardian, and this one, writers such as Teju Cole, and activists and other stakeholders in the West and in Uganda. On many of these sites, the critical posts have been the most-viewed work over the past two days. Cole's tweets were widely retweeted and storified. Visible Children, a Tumblr critical of the campaign, received 2.2 million views and the author has had requests for interviews from major media outlets such as Al Jazeera, the BBC, and NBC. The Kony2012 campaign itself may do more harm than good, as my colleague Max Fisher has argued, but that damage is at least in part mitigated by the widespread backlash.

More to the point, that backlash is a credit to the features of the Internet that allow fast and deep responses. Bad ideas in the guise of sleek media projects have had purchase in our discourse long before the rise of the Internet. But it's online where the Tumblr posts, tweets, and videos from more critical voices can add up and become a wave of dissent. Yes, the Internet may spread bad ideas, but it also opens up new avenues for good ones, dissenting ones, from those (like Zuckerman) with an MIT appointment and from those with no fame and little influence.

Now, if you could total up the pageviews from every corner of the Internet where Kony2012 has come under fire, would it match the 50 million views the video has received? No, but that's not the only metric that matters. Criticisms of the "White Savior Industrial Complex," as Cole called it in a tweet yesterday, have been percolating in academic, activist, and other interested circles for decades now, but outside of those parties it is far from the dominant narrative. The older ways of thinking about Africa still persists. In the response to the Kony2012 campaign, these ideas reached beyond their normal haunts and into the mainstream. If they don't reach 50 million people in two days, fine, but over time they will infect the discourse and reshape how Americans and others in the West understand the politics and pitfalls of aid and development around the world.

One final catch: It is important to criticize the Kony2012 campaign and others like it for their misguided approach to "helping" people in need. But it is also important to be careful in that critique. Anecdotal accounts and preliminary data indicate that this video's audience was dominated by teenagers, helped in part by tweets from Justin Bieber and other celebrities. It would be a terrible outcome, if those who initially pushed the video along were discouraged by this experience from further engagement, overlearning the lesson and believing there is no positive way for Americans to engage in the world abroad. I have seen too many very smart people throw up their hands in frustration, swearing off activism in the belief that anything they do is too fraught with the histories of colonialism and slavery. This only leaves the work open to people who are less bothered by those complexities.

In the end, the people (teenagers) who spread this video were motivated by a desire to help, no matter how misguided and problematic the organization behind it. It is easy to be cynical, but the desire to do good by your fellow person is widespread. The video's virality demonstrates that. May the Kony 2012 backlash result in informing that desire, so that it is humbler, smarter, and can recognize a no-good campaign the next time one comes around.

Image: KONY 2012/YouTube.