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    Liking Social Justice

    The whole Kony 2012
    debate has gotten me thinking about how activism has changed over the past few
    years, especially with the explosion of social media use. Back in 2010, Malcolm
    Gladwell wrote a much-read piece in The New
    Yorker
    about the so-called “Twitter
    Revolutions
    ” in Moldova and Iran the previous year. Many observers had
    jumped to the conclusion that social media had reinvented grassroots activism,
    that, of all things, Facebook and Twitter were now powerful tools for populist
    change. But as Gladwell argued, activists’ use of Twitter in both countries had
    been way overblown, and in fact, it
    was hard to see how social media could ever live up to claims like that
    .
    Historically, most social movements, like civil rights in the U.S., had been
    based on what sociologists call “strong ties”–activists were more likely to
    commit time, energy, and personal safety, if they belonged to a strong,
    cohesive group of like minded friends. By contrast, social media are based on “weak
    ties
    ” with very low personal commitment required of participants. Facebook
    users were more likely to belong to a “Save Darfur” online group than to make
    protest signs or risk arrest. If social media were having an impact on young
    people, it was not in terms of civic engagement.

    A lot of things have happened since then, most importantly
    the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement. Both made heavy
    use of social media
    to organize, communicate, and get the word out to a
    larger public. Facebook allowed activists in Tunisia to coordinate and plan
    demonstrations under
    the radar
    of a clueless and very 20th-century regime. A new
    smartphone app
    allowed activists in the U.S. to broadcast episodes of
    police brutality as they were happening. And, yes, Twitter let demonstrators
    communicate in mass numbers quickly and effectively (some state prosecutors
    have even subpoenaed
    Occupy protesters’ Twitter feeds
    in recent months).

    But, in spite of those developments, Gladwell’s argument
    still has a lot of validity today. The fact is that the basic elements of
    grassroots activism have not changed since the invention of Twitter. The role
    social media played in Zuccotti Park and Tahrir Square was to facilitate and
    streamline on-the-group organizing, not to take its place. The important
    flashpoints in those movements were still physical, and involved the same
    dynamics as previous grassroots struggles. And as The Atlantic‘sNathan
    Jurgenson has argued, Occupy
    was in many ways explicitly low-tech
    , from the (entirely print) People’s
    Library, to general assembly hand signs, to the iconic human microphone. While
    Occupy made use of new media to organize and coordinate with itself, once
    organized, it behaved much more traditionally.

    And yet there are many activists and groups that still seek
    to address very real issues entirely through social media. Over the past decade
    or so, Facebook has probably been the most notorious. Especially in the U.S.,
    issue-oriented Facebook groups have a history of being very popular, very good
    at raising awareness, but
    very bad at raising cash and affecting change
    , says Evgeny Morozov in Foreign Policy‘s Net Effect blog. Like Gladwell, Morozov points to a brand of
    activism that is low-risk and essentially unconnected with larger groups or
    experiences. A powerful illustration is the group a Danish psychologist started
    in 2009 to address a problem that didn’t actually exist (the group opposed a
    never-planned dismantling of a fountain in Copenhagen). Within a week, the
    group had 28,000 members. And interestingly, activists in the Global South seem
    to be much better at translating digital participation into physical action. An
    anti-FARC
    Facebook group
    in Colombia got hundreds of thousands of people to march
    against the guerilla force in almost 200 cities in 2008. This may be because while joining a political Facebook
    group from Bogota or Cairo can be a brave act of personal conscience, in the
    U.S., there is very little danger. And in a network of weak ties, low personal risk means low personal investment.

    This brings us to the now-ubiquitous Kony 2012 campaign, a
    movement that has generated quite a bit of awareness
    and controversy
    over the past few days. A viral video on the group’s
    website has already garnered tens of millions of views, but many observers have
    criticized the film’s overly
    simplistic portrayal
    of Ugandans and the larger conflict. Spending only a
    few of its thirty minutes on East Africa, the film’s moralistic message seems more
    akin to White Man’s Burden
    than humanitarianism–and many have criticized its
    commodification of the conflict, especially in light of Invisible Children’s allegedly
    shady finances
    . The group has certainly accomplished its stated goal of
    raising awareness about Kony, the LRA, and child soldiers in Africa, but it is
    hard for many to connect the film’s slick simplicity and the group’s
    consumerist message with facts on the ground.

    But more broadly, Invisible Children’s use of social media
    has much more in common with groups like “Save Darfur” than with genuinely
    grassroots battles like Occupy. In the film, the campaign’s founder Jason
    Russell talks about the need to “make Joseph Kony a household name.” To do
    this, they want to get the attention not only of the American public, but also
    of “20 culture makers” and “12 policymakers,” including Bill Gates, Lady Gaga,
    and Ban Ki-moon. While Russell urges ordinary people to call their
    representatives and poster their neighborhoods, it’s these 32 people that he
    believes will have the most impact. “We are making Kony world news by
    redefining the propaganda we see all day, everyday, that dictates who and what
    we pay attention to,” he says.

    But it’s hard to see how this redefinition plays out,
    especially as the campaign relies almost exclusively on the “weak ties” and
    low-risk participation that generally have very little social impact. If it’s
    our job to spread the video, buy
    the “Action Kit,”
    get the attention of celebrities, and not much else, what
    exactly are we redefining? In the film, Russell laments that “the few with the
    money and the power” tend to frame and address issues in their interests, but
    that’s exactly what Invisible Children is seeking to do. In encouraging young
    people to participate in clearly delineated ways for clearly delineated
    reasons, the group ignores the critical thinking and bottom-up organizing that
    made other movements so successful–with or without social media.  

    Of course, all this has to do with what Invisible Children
    hopes to accomplish. If their goal is to “make Joseph Kony a household name,”
    then they did a fine job. The popularity of the group’s film was unprecedented,
    and the
    speed with which it spread
    was astounding. As a result, tens of millions of
    people know more about Uganda and East Africa than ever before. However, if the
    group wants to work out some of the complicated questions that have surfaced
    over the past week about Uganda’s own
    poor human rights record
    , or the U.S.’s equally poor history of
    humanitarian intervention, or the neocolonial
    dimensions
    the campaign has assumed, then more bottom-up methods of
    organizing may be a good place to start. As Occupy and the Arab Spring have
    shown, young people have a lot more to offer than their money and their
    Facebook status.   

    Sources: Kony2012.com, Christian
    Science Monitor
    , The
    New Yorker
    , Wired,
    The
    Guardian
    , Al
    Jazeera English
    , Huffington
    Post
    , The
    Nation
    , The
    Atlantic
    , Net
    Effect
    , LA
    Times
    , siena-anstis.com,
    The
    Daily Beast
    , Amnesty
    International
    , This
    Is Africa
    .

    Published on Mar 12, 2012

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