There’s a tragic irony in the ease with which Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign turned supposedly intelligent humans into a mindless, stampeding herd of insta-activists. With one viral sweep, reason and sense was trampled underfoot the frantic race towards trendy humanitarianism and one-click activism. The ultimate lesson is not that the power of social media can suck the poison from this evil world, like the overly-dramatic film suggests, but that ‘awareness’ and ‘activism’ these days are no different than fashion – it can be as slick and profitable a business, and exposes the exact same human insecurities. Social media’s power isn’t in bringing justice and peace to the world, but a brilliant marketing channel to spread the word that spreading the word is cool.
We first-worlders are scared shitless of being ‘uninformed’. There’s a nice, warm wash of smugness that envelopes your body as you explain something to someone uninformed. It’s a gratifying feeling to not only know something before others, but become the trusted source to pass the information down, like some venerated tribal elder. Think about that lovely feeling when you tell your friends about a new TV show, or band they’ve never heard of. You become the advocate of knowledge, the breaker of news, the trendsetter. There’s of course nothing wrong with the sharing of knowledge, but when the motivation is not to educate and inform – but to keep with the crowd, or indeed try and bustle ahead of the crowd – it’s very selfish and a bit tragic really.
The film is a 30-minute long case study in emotional advertising, or to use the more sinister but correct term: propaganda. It shows you victims looking sad, you get sad. It shows you the bad guy looking evil, you get angry… then, after fading in the alt-rock sky-gazing music, it demonstrates the ease in which you can take that anger and do something. Buy a bracelet, send some money and sign your name – congratulations you’re a warrior for peace. Just don’t forget to spread to tell all of your friends… they’ll be astounded at how amazingly compassionate you are to care about something they didn’t know about. Besides, what’s the point of helping a cause you have 30 superficial minutes of propagated knowledge about if nobody else knows you did? It’s social media chain mail. The impulse-buy effect of Kony 2012 didn’t have millions of Generation Y’ers parachuting into Uganda to emancipate the children and save the world; rather everyone with a Facebook account went climbing over each other to make sure everyone else knew they‘re aware and taking action. I’d confidently bet money that 90% of people wouldn’t be able to point to Uganda on a map, let alone make any informed observation of its political complexities. Invisible Children might well have cut and pasted Joseph Kony’s own propaganda model and just swapped some names around.
The real issue behind the film (beyond Invisible Children’s own shady motivations) is indeed a serious issue. Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army are bad dudes who do bad things. That’s not news. The people and organisations that need to know to make any difference already do. Invisible Children sound bold and robust with all their vigilante justice bluster, but in reality, the only people actually capable of combating the influence of Kony and his ‘army’ have been doing so for years, with steady success. There are MANY reasons to discard the legitimacy of this campaign and Invisible Children itself (handily summarised here, but what disappoints me is how pitifully easy it is to seduce millions with almost Pavlovian methods. There are thousands of better ways to spend our humanitarian dollars, but this campaign used the most manipulative means to sweep that money their way. Dangle the right thing in front of our faces and we’ll salivate until our mouths – and wallets – are dry.
Cynical me believes that was precisely Invisible Children’s intention. If they weren’t abusing the idea of charity, I’d stand to applaud their marketing nous. The irony of it all is that for all the satisfaction we get from being informed and ’aware’, that very attitude is so effortlessly manipulated – and we are so dumbly unaware. I hope that soon the thundering herd of people charging across the plains of the internet with their futile Kony 2012 ‘action kits’ will slow down, and individuals will soon realise they’d been suckered in, suckered in real good.
By all means, fight for a cause; donate to charity; care about the plight of those who suffer in this world – it’s important that humility exists… but think about it, really know about it. Treat altruism with sincerity and care about it for real, not because it’s what the cool kids do. There’s a lesson to be learned here. Take it away Phil Collins… ‘Oh think twice, it’s just another day for you and me in paradise.’