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


The Age of Revolution

This article was originally published in Impact Magazine in May 2011. Visit http://www.impactnottingham.com for more details.

On 17th December 2010, in the small rural town of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, a street vendor set fire to himself. It was an act of defiance and despair at his poverty, his government’s corruption, his humiliation at the hands of the municipal police and his daily struggle in life, and was to become the catalyst for what is already known as the Arab Revolution. After generations of oppressive and autocratic governments in the Middle East and beyond, and years of apathy and helpless cynicism at the Recession and incompetent governments in the West, we are finally entering a new era: an age of revolution.
 After Bouazizi’s act, protests erupted all over Tunisia, and after weeks of unrest and pressure, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country with his family on 14th January 2011, after 23 years in power. The Tunisians rejoiced and the world was stunned: the people had fought the government, and the people had won. Elsewhere in North Africa, other nations under despotic governments were stirred and inspired, while the despots themselves shifted warily in their thrones. In Egypt, dissent was growing at the President of 30 years, Hosni Mubarak, as well as at the high rate of unemployment, lack of freedom of speech, corruption, inflation, police brutality and countless other social and political problems. Protests organized through Facebook and Twitter snowballed into revolts, and on 11th February, Mubarak officially stepped down.

Suddenly, in a matter of weeks, the Arab world was ablaze with revolution and its people were fighting for democracy. World leaders, media organizations and ordinary people from all four corners of the globe watched on in wonder at the progression of events that unfolded daily. The people’s revolution spread almost virally, from Jordan, whose King Abdullah II has sworn in a new cabinet and replaced his prime minister after violent clashes between protesters on 18th Feb, to Yemen, whose President of 32 years Ali Abdullah Saleh announced on 2nd February that he would not seek another term in office, after violent protests and deaths. There have also been protests in countries right across the Middle East and North Africa including Saudi Arabia, Syria, Oman, Bahrain and Algeria, and there is no indication of when they will abate.

Libya’s protests have so far been the most bloody because its infamous dictator, Col. Gaddafi, refuses to step down, despite international pressure, and says he will “fight to the last man and woman”. At the time of writing, there are over a thousand dead and countless injured since the protests began on 16th February, after Gaddafi has used troops, tanks, bombs and even air strikes on his own people. Nevertheless, whatever the outcome of the Libya Revolt, the people have achieved the unachievable, and Dr. Adam Morton, from the University’s School of Politics and IR, notes that ‘the so-called “state of the masses”, or al-Jamahiriya, as Libya has been eulogistically termed under Colonel Gaddafi’s rule is now, after 40 years, experiencing a social uprising by the Libyan people over whom the state once ruled with no regard for human rights’.

                The Arab Revolts are clearly historical, but how have they been so successful and why have they arisen now? All of the aforementioned country’s rulers, regardless of their individual political ideologies, are inherently corrupt, and nepotism is rife. These leaders are all harming their citizens in various ways and in varying degrees, whether economically, through greed, as in Tunisia; whether through lack of free speech in the heavy censuring of media as in Saudi Arabia, or through violence and torture to create a ‘barrier of fear’ as in Libya.

This ‘barrier of fear’ is what the Arabic despots relied on for so long to keep their people in check: if the public are scared, then they will never collectively be able to rise up against oppression. Ignorance of the public also plays a critical role in a despot’s power, controlled through insufficient education, a state-run media and minimal contact with the rest of the world. The reason why the revolutions are occurring now is because of the seismic shift in the demographics of the Arab world, which has completely transformed both the barrier of fear and the ignorance of a nation.

The Arab Human Development Report of 2009 (a UN project) reports that out of the 360 million Arabs in the world, the median age is 22, nearly 60% live in urban areas and 65m Arabs live below the poverty line( >$2 a day). However, the literacy rate in the majority of the countries experiencing unrest is in the 70-90% bracket, with some countries, such as Jordan, boasting a 92% literacy rating. What we have here then is a generation of people across the North Africa and Middle East region who are young, urbanized, poor and intelligent, and as their despots grow older and richer, the public are getting younger, more numerous, poorer, more globalized and more angry, which is surely what created this ticking  time-bomb of revolution.

Obviously, in the U.K., thanks to the democratic society in which we live, we don’t have the need to oust entire governments through marches and revolutions, but I do, however, feel that the 2010 student protests against the tuition-fee rise was revolutionary because it marked an end to student apathy and a new era of activism.

The 10/11/10 protests in which 50,000 people marched through London was the largest student protest since 1998, and marked the beginning of a series of protests, rallies and occupations held throughout the rest of 2010 in various locations around the country. Throughout Europe there has been growing dissent and protests about government’s austerity measures, especially in countries such as Ireland, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Portugal and notoriously France, which ground to a halt after a series of strikes and protests about pension reform. Just as Tunisia’s revolution had a domino effect throughout its region, in Europe, various nationalities are emulating one another in protesting for change.

None of the recent protests would have occurred had it not been for the very real and literal technological revolution of the past two decades. The Egyptian, Tunisian, and British student protests and many others were all organized on Facebook and other social networking sites, and the internet has ‘revolutionized the revolution’. Social media has made the organization and mobilization of large groups of people infinitely easier than in the pre-internet era, and real-time media such as Twitter sustains momentum and media attention. This new technological revolution has already seen power shift from conventional authorities to individual people who possess technological knowledge, the most relevant example being the Wikileaks exposure of the U.S. government cables.

Does protesting work? Obviously, the answers are yes and no. Here in the UK, the politicians did not meet the demands of the tuition-fee rise opposition (of which students are bitterly aware), but the protesters were exercising their freedom of speech, and ultimately, the once-apathetic and disenchanted generation has finally found its voice. In the Middle East and North Africa, however, the protests have led to land-mark revolutions and a new era of democracy.

We are in an unprecedented age where, for the first time, the ‘little guys’ can take the power, whether this be a few internet whizzes debilitating a whole government, students putting immense pressure on their leaders for political reform, or citizens of whole nations breaking a long-imposed barrier of fear. The underdogs are striking out, and David is trumping Goliath. This age of revolution is a result of a new, globalized, technologically savvy generation of people- people who care about the world in which they live and believe they can change it.