Advocacy, Audience and Agency in Kony 2012: Moving from Critique to Action

By Sam Gregory, Program Director at WITNESS

This is an excerpt from a blog post originally published on WITNESS’ blog. Read the full post here.

Looking at the meta-debate that's emerged in the days since “Kony 2012″ was launched (see notes from a SXSW session I organized here), in this blog I propose two key questions that can help us turn critique into action:

  1. Simplification is necessary for some audiences. But when does it go too far?
  2. Ethics, representation and framing matter. How do we amplify the dignity, agency and voices of the people most affected even in the context of mass audience videos like Kony 2012?

We’ve got to be able to have this discussion without heaping blame on Invisible Children, or lampooning the attention spans or commitment of people who watched “Kony 2012.” It is amazing and positive to see more than a 100 million people engage with a human rights issue, including many youth who have never been engaged by traditional human rights movements.

In fact, we should want to see this happen again and again – how about Syria, Guantanamo, the global water crisis, or any number of other issues where people need to mobilize cross-borders to stop injustice? (Avaaz has certainly made a start on this).

When does storytelling for an audience make simple too simple?

One major complaint about the IC's Kony 2012 campaign is that it oversimplifies the situation in northern Uganda.

Many commentators point out that the film proposes simple solutions that are not a priority today and that don't tackle systemic dynamics that will continue to create human rights abuses (for example, by backing the Museveni government and focusing on further militarization, rather than the rehabilitation needs of survivors of LRA violence or reconstruction in the North).

Writing about this in an early blog on the Kony 2012 video, Ethan Zuckerman of the MIT Center for Civic Media (and a founder of Global Voices) poses a bigger question the human rights movement must ask itself.

I’m starting to wonder if this is a fundamental limit to attention-based advocacy. If we need simple narratives so people can amplify and spread them, are we forced to engage only with the simplest of problems? Or to propose only the simplest of solutions?

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? Will Invisible Children’s campaign continue unchanged, or will it engage with critics and design a more complex and nuanced response?”

Let me build out from Ethan on the question of simplicity by posing some suggestions on when ‘simple is too simple’. Here I am not saying that Kony 2012 is all of these things – rather I am suggesting how we need to think about this discussion moving forward in all our work in presenting situations and solutions. In that light, I'd welcome suggestions of videos and campaigns that demonstrate both these potential pitfalls and innovative responses.

  • Simple is too simple when oversimplifying the problem leads to modeling the wrong solutions or to counter-productive impacts for the people who are directly affected.
  • Simple is too simple if the initial action participants are asked to take is not followed by a next step in a ladder of engagement (and I would note that Invisible Children explicitly notes the video is a ‘first entry point’ to engagement).
  • Simple is too simple when it models a solution that misdirects an audience's understanding of the systemic causes of an issue (two analyses here of this in the context of Kony 2012 are presented by Ethan again, and Conor Cavanagh).
  • Simple is too simple when a simple entry point does not allow viewers/participants to easily drill down and engage with more complexity (see Lana Swartz's working paper on this potential for ‘drillability’ in transmedia campaigns)
  • Simple is too simple when it perpetuates stereotypes (for example, a ‘rescue’ approach) or reinforces the lack of agency in situations where agency has already been assaulted by the human rights violations themselves. At the root of human rights work is human dignity.
  • Simple is too simple for a single human rights video when it misstates facts, uses footage or interviews out of context, or when it breaches ethical ideas on representation, particularly when that compromises people’s dignity and safety.

All these are important if we are to make clearer distinctions between ethical advocacy work and advertising or propaganda.

Elsewhere we’ve blogged on some key principles on using social media to engage with human rights, and discussed extensively how to think about questions of dignity, safety and consent in human rights video. We also have some internal guidelines that we will be sharing in an upcoming blog post. Sparked by the discussion around Kony 2012, Katrin Verclas from Mobileactive has also shared a draft code of online advocacy conduct that speaks to the broader realm of advocacy.

How can big picture storytelling better amplify local voices but still connect to broader bases of people?

One key element of storytelling that’s missing from Kony 2012 is the voice and agency of the hundreds and thousands of Ugandans living with the legacy of the LRA, or advocating and mobilizing to confront that legacy. Also missing are the voices of people living with the threat of LRA violence now in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Southern Sudan.

The pushback from Kony 2012 indicates a hybrid path that we need to follow. A path that finds ways to understand how simpler messaging for new mass audiences can be informed by (and combined with) the richness of knowledge, solutions and voices that exist but aren't being amplified. TMS Ruge has noted that the discussion has given the opportunity for Ugandans to take the mic – from individual bloggers like Rosebell Kagumire to more systematic efforts such as Al-Jazeera's promotion of Ugandan voices in response to Kony2012 via its #UgandaSpeaks campaign. Other groups like Resolve (partners with IC on the LRA Crisis Tracker) have aggregated responses to the film from communities in areas currently affected by LRA violence.

What would a Kony 2012-like campaign fully grounded in local voices look like?

It would start from debate with local activists on solutions, and then tap into powerful storytelling to communicate with its core audience in ethical and direct ways that reinforce the agency of those local activists. That storytelling might be led by people on the ground or by a filmmaker, but there would be a purposeful effort to make sure those stories were part of the narrative from the beginning – within single films and within the flow of content that surrounds high-profile media items. It would ensure that just as much as the campaign was ‘spreadable’, it would also be ‘drillable’ (meaning that a person can dig down and understand easily beyond the core message and narrative) and have a depth of voice and context (for more on this see a recent Henry Jenkins blog). It would also create spaces for those stories from video bloggers, video activists and citizen witnesses to be created, amplified, curated and added to: a number of models exist for doing this well from training programs of SmallWorldNews, WITNESS and many others to the edited communities of Global Voices to the curation and aggregation spaces of Crowdmap and Crowdvoice, and the pages on Facebook that act as nodes for mulitple voices like ‘We Are All Khaled Said‘.

So what comes next?

On a campaign level, it’s early days with Kony 2012. There can and will be legitimate disagreements on their approach to justice and reconstruction in Central Africa. I hope that Invisible Children will be open to dialogue with others about their next steps and how they use their bully pulpit. Either way, this increased attention on LRA crimes presents an amazing opportunity to think out how to secure justice and recovery in Central and East Africa.

Beyond critiques, the human rights community needs to work out how to provide the activists who engage with IC with a gateway to other human rights issues. We need to build better, non-proprietary pipelines for engaging each others’ supporters and networks. And we need to help them engage with local voices and opinions from the places where their advocacy and awareness will have a real-world impact.

IC have highlighted (in their response video) their interest in answering people’s questions on their approach and strategies, and being transparent. Ben Keesey, their CEO, asks people to tweet @Invisible with #AskICAnything, and they’ve started to respond to some of those questions here, here and here.

Is the incredible reach and debate that Kony 2012 has generated a good or a bad thing? There are no simple answers here. And I cannot speak for the range and diversity of voices in Uganda, East Africa and Central Africa, as well as humanitarian, human rights, and policy professionals who could argue for alternative solutions to that advocated by the video. The consensus on the political solution initially presented in the video does appear to be: too simple and too military-focused. IC needs to work out how to convey that there is more nuance to what they seek behind the banner headlines. But irrespective, attention may translate to concrete options for change that will generate a lasting peace.

In addition, the video has engaged 100 million people, it has given a chance for people in the region to say why they object to it (or appreciate it) and to have their voices amplified (albeit accidentally) and it's enabling us now to have a conversation on some of the bigger questions. Let's leverage that part. Lets have a constructive discussion on the difficult balance between advocacy, audience and agency, and around ethics, simplification and local voice.


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  • Aofi

    The problem with our society, and mankind in general, is that we are often too wrapped up in the details and fail to take any action at all. Here we had some effective propaganda, the intent of which was to help the poor and unfortunate people in Africa who are being terrorized. But bloggers, critics and everyday people put so much thought and effort into finding fault with Kony 2012 that the message behind it is all but lost. Will making better propaganda fix that, or will people always find or manufacture flaws in any successful campaign? Everyone agrees this guy is evil and I think most would like something to be done about it, yet they squabble over the details.

    It is important to have a good plan and process in place to resolve these sorts of situations, and as many have pointed out the problems in Uganda and the rest of Africa are very complex and need complex solutions. Solutions that cannot be expressed through a 30 minute video, solutions that would probably bore the hell out of anyone who had to sit down and listen to them. IMO it is not societies role to actively engage in solving these problems, its responsibility lies in demanding that something is done and maybe providing the extra financial support needed to make it happen. Our respective governments have the power, knowledge and resources to tackle these challenges, all that is needed is for the constituency to demand action.

  • […] But viral news leaves us little time to consider and reflect before we help spread the news. In this sense, it is essential to see social media as selectively […]

  • […] But viral news leaves us little time to consider and reflect before we help spread the news. In this sense, it is essential to see social media as selectively […]

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