Kony 2012 (and some thoughts on Inactive Activism)

If you’re like me, you probably woke up yesterday to find your Facebook, Twitter and other social feeds flooded with links to a video called “Kony 2012“.

Most people posting it didn’t have much more info than that so I didn’t watch it right away – partly because its length (half an hour) and partly because it wasn’t clear if it was just another viral video from some corporation or, given the title, some sort of campaign video or what exactly the big deal was.

But after seeing it posted repeatedly, often with comments along the lines of how this video could “change the world” or “YouHaveToSeeThis!!!!”, I decided I better give it a boo.

It *is* a campaign video but like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

In the video, a young filmmaker lays out his plan to bring awareness and infamy to one of the world’s worst warlords on a single day in April which will hopefully lead to his arrest and the freeing of the tens of thousands of child soldiers under his control in Uganda.

A notable goal, brilliantly packaged and executed.

I didn’t re-post but instead, began crafting a post for the chosen date – April 20 – as a reminder that our collective Internet action could bring down a dictator!  After all it worked in Egypt (okay, people will argue about what the role of social media was), why not do it again?

As I was crafting my post, I went to my go-to source for good quality analysis on the net, Metafilter, to see what the folks there thought.

And for the most part, the comments were not kind exposing many many problems with the Invisible Children NGO, often quite humorously.

The people behind the video were blatant self-promoters.  They mis-represented many facts including how many child soliders were involved and the location of Kony (not even in Uganda anymore.)  They over-simplified the geopolitics of the region and over-glorified their influence on everyone from George Clooney to Barack Obama.  They were neo-colonizers – “white rich kids solving the problems of black Africa.”  The NGO they run pays its top people *very* well and has never had its books externally audited among other non-traditional practices for a charity. They were either fundamentalist Christians and/or mainly appealed to fundamentalist Christians.  They happily posed with the weapons of a different rebel army like a bunch of kids playing Rambo (although that part of the story has layers too).  And so on

Even reading the mounting evidence against these guys, I still wanted to believe.  I mean, that video is damn powerful and incredibly well put together.  And getting rid of someone who’s #1 on the International Criminal Court’s list of baddies *has* to be a good thing, right?

Of course I don’t claim to understand the geo-politics of the region but can anyone, even someone who’s been doing NGO work in Uganda for twenty years, know exactly what would happen if the guy was removed?  Maybe someone would spring up to take his place, maybe the group would disband, maybe something else unforeseen entirely?

But anyhow, after doing quite a bit of follow-up reading, I’ve turned around and modified the post I originally drafted into the one you’re seeing today instead of April 20 (when I suspect much of the viral “nowness” of the video will have passed anyhow, even without the backlash which has already begun – a backlash which has led to a rebuttal from Invisible Children addressing the most common criticisms their campaign is receiving.)

All of this made me think of a concept I call “Inactive Activism”.  “Inactive Activism” is a phrase I use to describe how I think of many people’s approach (including myself) with regards to how we go about trying to change the world for the better.  This is an objective I obviously believe in but am not always the most engaged with.

So what do I mean by that slightly tongue-in-cheek phrase?

[Edit: in response to some Facebook comments, I want to clarify that I see “Inactive Activism” as one step up from the similar concept of “slacktivism” .  To me, the Inactive Activist is a bit more aware, a bit more targeted in their approach.  On the other hand, I see “slacktivists” as people who are clicking “like” on everything that comes across their news feed, signing every online petition, and changing their profile picture on a weekly basis for the cause du jour.]

Probably like the majority of people, I’m fairly comfortable taking small steps to improve the world but resist doing the bigger gestures because they’re too much work or too expensive or too scary or whatever.

I can throw a dribble of money at charities and other causes I believe in but I don’t give away a set percentage of my income every year.  I can recycle but I don’t make nearly enough of an effort to reduce the amount of “stuff” I consume in the first place.  I’ve never handwritten a letter to a politician but I’ve happily clicked on many online petitions.

That’s why a video like this is so entrancing and can get 8 million views (and counting) in a couple days.

Although the main message of the video is about removing Kony, there’s also a strong underlying message about how the power pyramid has inverted and you don’t need to go to Africa or be a professional filmmaker or be a millionaire to be able to change the world anymore.

The majority of us can now easily be “inactive activists” by taking a few simple steps – “signing” online petitions and sharing ideas with friends across our countries and around the world via blogs, Twitter, Facebook and other methods.

But that also means we can be “Lazy Activists” and simply pass along things without our own critical analysis and reflection (or reading same of others.)  As I said, this “lazy activist” approach was something I was very close to doing.  And as much as I wish it was, it wasn’t even my natural skepticism that stopped me from re-posting but more my innate need to hear a few other sources beyond my own social circle. Thanks MetaFilter!)

I still think that it’s great that, in our inter-connected, social media age, people working together to share ideas and information can change the world.  But I think it also means we need to be more skeptical than ever as well – no matter how well put together a video is or much it appeals to our emotions.

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