When it comes to the social media, I’ve been, well, anti-social. Yes, I’m on Facebook; Twitter, too. I resisted both and was slow to learn. I’m still in the back of the class, waiting for another lesson from my daughter or grandchildren in the hope that I might move to the middle and graduate with what used to be called a “gentleman’s C,” back in the day when that concept meant something.
It’s not that I’m against new media or new technologies. Far from it. I lost my iPad Nano last week and was bereft until my nephew surprised me with a new one that arrived today. It’s almost embarrassing to acknowledge the satisfaction I get from such a small, clever object with earbuds that counts my steps and reads to me while I walk. Moreover, I covet an iPhone. It just looks so cool, and you can actually talk to it and get a response, which takes me back to my early days in Romania when if I picked up the receiver in my hotel room nothing happened, nothing at all, no matter how hard I jiggled the phone. But if I left the receiver on the hook and just talked calmly but firmly to the telephone, the operator quickly responded. Maybe they were working on a beta version of Siri. In any case, the magical qualities of Romanian telephones will be the topic of another post, perhaps, because I’m rambling far from my intended subject. (And I didn’t even get to my lust for the iPad.)
The subject I’ve been circling around is the lesson I got this week in the power, the stupendous power, of the social media, which, like the water quietly building behind a hydroelectric dam, when released, surges forth in an overwhelming, irresistible wave. The lesson was provided by the video "Kony 2012" that went on line last Monday. Tuesday evening, just three days from the time I am writing, the novelist Julianna Baggott posted on Facebook that her 15-year-old son told her there was a video on YouTube that she had to watch. She posted a link. I went to YouTube and watched it. “Kony 2012” is not a ninety-second amateur quickie; it lasts thirty minutes and is very skillfully done, media-wise, as they say. I must be misremembering, to borrow a word from the Bush II lexicon, but I think when I first watched it, “Kony 2012” had had nine thousand views. When I checked Friday night, almost exactly three days later, it was very close to seventy-five million views on Vimeo and YouTube together.
That is a new kind of power and it is awesome in the “shock and awe” sense. The film has made Joseph Kony and his children’s army known around the world, when only last week few outside of Africa and those who follow human rights issues would have recognized either. It has also become the subject of heated controversy, as the New York Times reported Friday. Kony’s army started in northern Uganda in 1987, and operated there on an increasing scale of terror until the Uganda military, not particularly known for its attention to the niceties of human rights, pushed them out in 2006. Since then, his ragtag, murderous army, mostly children and now reduced to a few hundred, has been operating in extremely remote areas of central Africa—in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic. Since its beginning, however, the Lord’s Resistance Army has terrorized, mutilated, maimed, killed, and kidnapped, forcing thousands of terrified children into his LRA to commit their own atrocities in turn. They are thus both victims and perpetrators, as Mark Kirsten notes in one of the two or three most perceptive critiques of the film that I’ve seen. Kirsten is a doctoral student at the London School of Economics, focusing on Uganda and Libya.
The depravity is unimaginable. Kony is a truly bad and vicious man, a monster on a years-long rampage. I think everyone agrees on that. There can also be no question that this very sophisticated, professional video, in addition to making Kony virtually a household name, is filling the bank accounts of Invisible Children, the human rights organization that produced the film. (The video asks for a thirty-dollar donation.) In January the group won a million dollars in the Chase Community Giving contest on Facebook, which is another indication of the power of the social media and of this group’s ability to harness it.
Naturally, such large amounts of money give rise to envy, resentment, and controversy, and “Kony 2012” and the Invisible Children organization have given rise to all of that. What started out as a feel-bad weeper film has in the last three days turned into an accusatory free-for-all. The film does present a simplified and not entirely accurate picture of a complex situation, but it certainly is an effective fund-raising vehicle. Would you give thirty dollars to prevent a child’s throat from being slit? There must have been a run on Kleenex this week. And really, how much nuance and complexity can you squeeze into a thirty-minute film while keeping viewers’ eyes and wallets open?
Michael Wilkerson, who has lived in and reported from Uganda and is a guest blogger on Foreign Policy's ”Passport,” makes the objections clear, as does the disillusioned Edmund Inglis, who was heavily involved with Invisible Children for four years. I myself have a complaint. I resent the time I’ve spent over the last two or three days trying to distinguish the disputable from the indisputable. That’s a lot of searching, reading, and googling, with—I admit it—an occasional aside to make a comment in the fierce arguments raging on Facebook.
It is indisputable that Jason Russell, the man behind the organization and the film, devoted nine years of his life, from the time he graduated university at 24, to exposing the unspeakable horrors perpetrated by Kony and his grossly misnamed Lord’s Resistance Army. That is no small thing. His immediate goal, the message of “Kony 2012,” is to capture Kony this year. It is Lisa Shannon’s goal, too.
Shannon has spent considerable time in the areas devastated by the LRA and has been involved in central Africa for many years. She writes in Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times blog "On the Ground": “While [the debate about the film and the organization] has stirred questions about the role of westerners advocating to end mass atrocities in Africa, as well as useful dialogue on non-profit fiscal management, the debate has obscured the key point. Joseph Kony’s immediate capture and delivery to the International Criminal Court (ICC) would be an unambiguous victory for humanity. It is the solution for which affected Africans have desperately, unanimously pleaded.”
And then? I believe both Russell and Shannon would say, “First things first.” In the absence of a better plan, this seems like the right one to me.