Like many others, I awoke this morning to find my Facebook wall plastered with KONY 2012 logos and heartfelt pleas to help spread the message. Now, for those who don’t know me, I’m very much a cynic, but I like to think that I do give everything a fair chance. I simply choose to live solidly by the mantra ‘question everything’, and when I see flashy slogans and buzzwords suddenly flying in about such a complex issue as child soldiers, alarm bells start ringing.
I’m not going to write a piece about the very real and detailed criticism that’s already been levelled at the Invisible Children campaign. There’s plenty of it out there for those interested, written by people who know what they’re talking about, and covering such diverse topics as how they support a corrupt military, their organisation’s sketchy finances, and much broader concerns about US foreign policy.
Instead, I’m going to try to keep this grass roots and as relevant to Southampton students as I can.
A few months ago, we had on campus a very large and well publicised campaign advocating the removal of Nestlé products from the union store. This campaign was based on well-established evidence and was thoroughly focused on university life. It didn’t set out to change the world. Any action that would have been taken because of it would have been largely symbolic. Its aims were small, yet very specific.
Through the course of their campaign, the organisers tried very hard to inform the student body. That is to say, they weren’t tied up with slogans or hype; they were ultimately trying to get people to research the issue for themselves, to develop opinions and engage with each other. They held film nights and were very forward about their sources.
And yet, what happened? Their motion was thrown out, and we had such debacles as this article and the provocative actions of the victors passing around KitKats at the AGM.
I noticed something interesting while this was going on. Through platforms such as Facebook, it became clear to me that a lot of people saw the actions of the organisers as a personal attack on themselves. They didn’t like facing up to the uncomfortable truth of what Nestlé get up to, but rather than sympathising with the victims, they chose to lash out at those who were making a lot of noise about it. This is understandable. People don’t like to admit that they’re wrong.
Fast forward to this morning and we have those same people championing an issue that they probably hadn’t heard of yesterday. What are Invisible Children doing that’s so different to cause such a radical response? I’d argue it’s this: dumbing down.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t for one second mean that the people who are supporting this campaign are stupid. Nor that they have anything less than good intentions. My beef is with Invisible Children, and I’d like to take a very brief look at a couple parts of their campaign that I feel are most worrying.
Firstly it’s this: they purport to promote a very real, very specific solution that busy people around the world can bring about simply by sharing their video. Their reasoning is this: if people spread their work, the US government will take notice of ‘what the people want’, and thus continue to provide military intervention in Uganda, which will in turn lead to the arrest of Joseph Kony and an end to the prevalence of child soldiers in that country.
Political opinions aside, I take issue with this for a very specific reason: they completely leave out the fact that the arrest of Joseph Kony will require the death of many of his child soldiers. Whether this is a necessary evil or not isn’t the point, the fact is that they refuse to mention it at all. They attempt to take from their supporters the ability to consider and decide for themselves whether this aspect of their solution is viable or not. For me, this is the purposeful misdirection of the public, and that is something that can never be supported, no matter what the issue.
My second problem is with their use of advertising. Specifically, with this poster. This is an association that is also made in their most recent video. Whatever else he may be, Joseph Kony is not Adolf Hitler, and he is not Osama Bin Laden.
Tapping in to the inherent fear and anger that is associated with these men is dangerous and it is misleading. The situation in Uganda is an incredibly complicated and unique one. Attempting to ignore all that and simply plastering the man with words like ‘evil’ and ‘tyrant’ serves to erase the voices of those who are the real sufferers in all this. And they are who I feel are ultimately hurt by the actions of Invisible Children. Because there is not just one Joseph Kony doing this; there are many. It is a problem that spans families, local towns and international policy. Dumbing down the issue to allow ease of consumption directly harms those that Invisible Children claim to be attempting to help. And that is why I feel the need to speak out.
So yes, I do think it’s a fantastic thing to see so many people promote an issue. I do not for one second mean to criticise that. But I do feel that what is needed is critical consumption and intelligent activism. I do not claim to have the answers to Uganda’s problems. However, I do feel that if even half of the millions of people who have already shared these videos were to critically engage with the issues, and to discuss their findings with each other, then real solutions would be found.
Education, rather than marketing, is what’s needed. As hard as it may be to accept, it takes more than a Facebook ‘like’ to bring about real change.