Josh Bowman wonders if a viral video can change the world, or if it’s just brilliant marketing.
I remember watching the news in 1994. I had just started high school. I was so outraged about the lacklustre reaction from the international community. I read Romeo Dallaire’s book, “Shake Hands With the Devil”, and decried the United States’ failure to intervene. Bill Clinton considered his inaction on Rwanda to be his ‘biggest regret’ during his presidency, and I fully agree.
We didn’t have social media in 1994. We didn’t even have ICQ. We had email. I used a dial up connection, and it took forever for pictures to load, let alone videos. We all watched roughly the same news, and connected locally around causes we cared about. I felt powerless to make any real change, and all I could do was watch as an estimated 800,000 men, women, and children were murdered, and between 250,000 and 500,000 women and girls were raped.
We are in a different world in 2012. We are all connected through Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, and a variety of other online tools that allow us to connect instantly and share our opinions, stories, and of course, videos of cats. A petition can collect thousands of signatures in a few days. A video can get millions of views. We consume and dispose of media rabidly, which is both a blessing and a curse.
The Kony 2012 video was created by savvy young people who understand exactly how different our world is now. They have beautiful creative, a well-designed website, and a killer video with a compelling message. Invisible Children is like charity:water; a young, smart, social-media literate team with a clear message and killer online presence. They get the kind of online response that any charity would kill for. I know this, because I’ve worked for a fair number of grassroots charities. I’m usually just happy when a blog post gets any comments, or a poorly-made, self-shot video gets more than 500 views.
When I watch a video about thousands of children being forced into the military, I am appalled and disgusted. I think back to 1994, and I can’t believe this is still happening. But we all know that terrible things have been happening around the world since…well, forever. We know historically about blood diamonds, murder in Cambodia, the Darfur Conflict, and so many more conflicts around the world. Child soldiers are nothing new. Mass murder is nothing new. Drugs, prostitution, sex slavery, rape, poverty, AIDS; every day we are bombarded with messages about the horrible tragedies around the world. Every day, another NGO is pleading with us to make a donation to help educate young women, provide mosquito nets to prevent malaria, or help stop the use of child soldiers worldwide (a movement that started in the 1970s, by the way).
What is remarkable about Kony 2012 is how incredibly successful it has been in such a short amount of time. This project is a case study in brilliant viral marketing. An expensive and professional video with a simple, clear call to action. A promise to stop Kony (a promise made to a wide-eyed little boy, no less. Like a major league baseball player promising to hit a homerun for a kid in the hospital with a terminal illness. You keep those promises). A petition. An action kit. A Facebook campaign. Quick edits. Relatable content. Contemporary music (was that Mumford & Sons?).
Watching the Kony 2012 video, I feel as though I can do something. I can stop this terrible man (and, from all accounts, he is a terrible man). I can help these children. Maybe, in some way, I can do something. I can act, like I didn’t act in Rwanda. I can stop Kony, like I couldn’t stop a genocide.
Then again, from what I’ve read, it might not be that simple. Stopping Kony might not be enough. Many African voices have not been heard, and the issue might be over-simplified by the video. The LRA might be losing power (and certainly seem to be in Uganda). I’m far from an expert, and I can’t say I fully understand the LRA or Ugandan politics well enough to weigh in. I’m sceptical, because as much as I admire the sentiment behind the video, I can’t say I am fully sold on the message.
What I do believe, however, is that the tools used to create and market this video are important. The conversation around this social phenomenon is fascinating. We aren’t talking about a pregnant celebrity, or a wayward body part at a sporting event, or videos about cats. We’re talking about international development work, hegemony, paternalism, the military, and personal agency when it comes to global issues. Even if the issue itself is questionable, we have an opportunity to dissect it collectively and learn about it instantly.
I still haven’t done anything, or stopped anybody. I don’t really know that I have any more power than I did in 1994. I’m just able to talk about it now to a lot more people, and…I think…that’s a good thing.\