Kony 2012 and the Bandwagon Revolution

This post was originally published on Impactnottingham on 25th March 2012  http://www.impactnottingham.com/2012/03/kony-2012-and-the-bandwagon-revolution/ 

My first thought – and indeed my first Facebook status update – was ‘I sense a bandwagon’. Within 48 hours my wall had been polluted with people from across my friendship spectrum ‘sharing’ and ‘liking’ the same video and urging others to do the same. What really got my attention was the nature of the video – this wasn’t Angry Tram Lady or Teacher Beats Student in Rap Battle, this was a promotional video for a charity campaign.

With over 100 million hits in ten days, I probably don’t need to expand on the content of the Kony 2012 video. But I will expand on my opinions of it: how at first, it made me angry and how it then made me optimistic, and how it made me think about the changing faces of activism and apathy in 2012.

In a state of boredom I watched the video, and for at least the first half felt mildly nauseated. I found the video itself cheesy and overly earnest, with its opening ‘hard-hitting’ written statements in monochrome followed by the out-pan shots of the globe to highlight that we are all part of one planet! I disliked the resolutely sombre voice of the narrator explaining in the introduction (which reminded me uncannily of Lady Gaga’s opening speech in ‘Born this Way’) that ‘humanity’s greatest desire is to belong and to connect’, and I was irritated by the clichéd ‘yes-we-can’ scenes of the Kony crew doing good, and yes,enjoying it, punctuated by the uplifting ‘Roll Away Your Stone’ Mumford and Sons song, a seemingly mandatory soundtrack to any do-good moment. Most of all I was highly averse to the director Jason Russell’s cheap use of his adorable, butter-wouldn’t-melt toddler Gavin in saccharine scenes intended to highlight just how BAD Joseph Kony is: Russell explains to his son that Kony ‘forces [children] to do bad things’. Gavin, with his big brown eyes staring into the camera, replies, ‘that’s sad’, subsequently melting the hearts of millions of viewers and prompting the intended empathy.

It was these millions of viewers and sharers that I had a problem with, though. The intentions of Kony 2012 are wholly positive and should be applauded, but what I didn’t like were people’s sudden responses to what is, frankly, one horrifying problem in a sea of many in the world. If everyone cared that much, why didn’t they share information on Facebook about child soldiers before? What about the RUF’s Small Boys Unit of child soldiers in the Sierra Leone blood diamond civil war? What about the FNL’s army of child soldiers in Burundi in its thirteen-year long civil war? There are/have been child soldiers in Central African Republic, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Somalia, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe in Africa as well as in countless other countries worldwide- all in addition to those in Uganda which Kony 2012 draws attention to.

If half the people who claimed to feel so strongly about the issues in the Kony video actually did then I’m pretty sure they would have given some indication of this before the video came out. The Kony response to me smacked of false philanthropism, over-hype and viral craze, as well as the modern-day phenomenon of  people believing that clicking a button is equivalent to getting out there and actually doing something real to help a cause.

It was with these fairly cynical and admittedly vitriolic thoughts that I continued to watch the video. And then I changed my mind.

After watching the video I decided I was generally in favour of the campaign for several reasons. It seemed deliberately aware of how over-reaching it was, and the explicit references to Mercedes, Coca Cola and Dior made it seem specifically aware of what consumerist and materialist culture propagates: fame. The Western world is awash with media overload and the glorification of celebrities, but Kony 2012 intends for us to use this as a tool. Whether for better or for worse, we are good at making people famous, which is why it’s so clever of the campaign director to intend to ‘make Kony famous’- it has a zany twist to it which is far more appealing than ‘let’s stop Kony’ i.e. the imperative of virtually any other activism campaign.  I thought the ‘2012’ part of the campaign was very well thought out. Targeting twenty high-profile celebrities like Rihanna and George Clooney to Tweet and discuss the issue was bound to result in the video going viral, and it makes sense to target twelve top policy makers for action after the issue has been raised.

While following the Arab Spring for the past twelve or so months, I’ve been struck by how amazing it is that people of all ages are prepared to go out every day and literally risk their lives to fight for what they believe in, and I wonder what people in the West would do if faced with a situation like that in Syria. Most of us are arm-chair activists and button-clickers: we go about our day to day lives, and our equivalent of activism is sharing a link. It’s sad that in Syria the average nineteen year old right now is out on the street risking his life for democracy, while in the UK the average nineteen year old is probably on Facebook, but I think the Kony 2012 campaign understood contemporary youth and what activism in the internet era is. I know myself and many others would usually have bypassed the link on our wall, let alone have watched the entire thirty minute video (a light-year in the age of one-click gratification and minimised attention spans). But we did watch it, and something in it made us realise that we can do our very small part, even if it is just posting a link and sharing in order to raise awareness. One small step for the average Facebook user, one giant leap for 21st Century Western apathy.

If this Kony campaign works, who’s to say we can’t achieve the same results using the same strategy? While I disagree with some of Kony 2012’s means, and while I think there are hundreds of other causes deserving of equal attention, I feel excited at this new way of approaching global change for the better. So, I’m sharing the video. Not because I feel it’s more deserving than any other of the hundreds of campaigns we see (and aspects of the campaign are emerging as being deeply flawed), but because I’m excited at the prospect of being part of something different-something that might just work- to bring about global change. I’m excited to see what (if anything) will happen on 12.04.2012.

What I like most about the Kony campaign is that it intended for itself to be a Facebook bandwagon: something which blazes through cyberspace and creates a lot of attention in a short space of time before the fire dies out. This decade, this century, indeed this millennium (still so very young) has produced some mind-blowingly world-altering events in such a short space of time, and history is being written before our very eyes. The Arab Spring’s achievements are unprecedented. Who’s to say we can’t bring about similar change? It seems only natural that if a revolution in the West did occur, it would be through the media of social networking, mass-consumerism and celebrity culture, but if it works, it works.

Will Kony 2012 achieve its aim? Only time will tell. Is it a sound campaign? Debatable. But it’s shown a new and powerful method of globalized activism and pricked the consciences of many apathetic people worldwide.  Is Kony 2012 a bandwagon? Most certainly, but being a bandwagon is exactly its strength and the reason for its global popularity. The crux of the matter is how long people will stick with it. What we need is a bandwagon revolution, and not a revolution bandwagon.

Sian Boyle