The dust has started to settle following the ‘Kony 2012’ social media bomb. Over the space of 2-3 days it exploded over social media sites and almost as swiftly as it arrived it dissipated, with Jason Russell’s breakdown seemingly providing a tragic full-stop to the public part of the campaign. To be clear: I don’t wish to debate the merits of Kony12 as a campaign, but instead want to look at the nature of the debate and what it means for well-meaning people who do not work in the political or development sector.
The most interesting part of the ‘Kony 2012’ charity meme has certainly not been the expert/academic moral debate itself. This has followed the standard patterns of polarisation among commentators. The video has its supporters, including the creators themselves who have earnestly stood up for their message and sought to spread it far and wide. Others have sought to attack it, citing inconsistencies or picking apart the campaign’s aims with almost gleeful relish. Media, too, have enjoyed stoking the fires on this one. I have lost count of the number of articles or news channels who have interviewed ‘real Ugandans’ to show how confused and outraged they are by the video. The media’s insensitivity regarding Jason Russell’s breakdown has perhaps been the nadir of this whole thing.
Neither has the spread of the video itself been that remarkable. It has propagated like a meme, similar to the Red Cross’ social media-heavy post-Haiti earthquake donation campaign, or any number of Avaaz initiatives. These so-called ‘slacktivism’ campaigns have also been the subject of an increasingly dreary debate, often from rival NGOs and their supporters, about whether they are ‘real’ activism and whether they can produce ‘real’ results. Let’s be clear on that – charity social media campaigns are not the same as physical activism, but that doesn’t make them all as offensively useless as many like to argue. There can be few more competitive industries than the charity sector, and certainly no group of people more concerned with feeling superior than those who work in it.
Instead, the most interesting part of #Kony12 must be the ever-increasing uncertainty of the public caught in the crossfire. The speed at which the debates now run means that people cannot afford to pin their support to a social media campaign, because they can be sure that a vehement, devastating critique will be spreading with equal virulence within a day. I’ve witnessed a number of people do a 180° about-face, first posting their “Stop Kony!!” support, and then posting one of any number of articles questioning Invisible Children’s dealings a day later. Many more simply hedged their bets, posting the video or articles with “I don’t know what I think of this” comments, stuck in an ever-deepening hole of moral cognitive dissonance. I’m a guilty-as-charged member of this latter group, partly because I couldn’t get the video to work on the not-exactly-win-ternet here in Lebanon. But it seems like an ever-increasing number of people are just waiting for someone to tell them what to believe, and the rabid competitiveness and self-righteousness of commentators is particularly unconstructive when trying to engage the general public. The danger is that people will stop wanting to join campaigns, because they know that within minutes someone will turn up and try to make them feel stupid for doing so.
Here’s something we don’t like to think: people only engage in charity because it makes them feel good, and altruism is a myth. Agreed? Good. So if we want to engage non-‘charity people’ in our efforts to make the world a better place, we have to give them something in return, even if that thing is just a warm, fuzzy feeling of having done a ‘good thing’. Campaign organisers such as Invisible Children have a responsibility to ensure that their initiatives are open to challenge. Debate is vital for ensuring that initiatives are helpful and accountable. But the pompous glee with which some people publically attack campaigns (and I’m certainly not just talking about Kony12 here) goes well beyond reasonable critical debate, serving the critic’s ego but stripping away the positive kick other people get from being involved in something they feel is meaningful. An ever-increasing culture of cynicism and pessimism is perhaps the greatest common enemy of campaigners everywhere. We must be careful that the feelings of ‘righteousness’ that serve as our own reward for working in this sector do not come at the expense of other people’s attempts to change the world for the better.