The furor over the clever social media strategy that put the name “Joseph Kony” on the lips of teenagers around the world rumbles on, and I really can’t help thinking this is yet another example of the hidebound institutions of the West failing to keep pace with reality.
A quick catch-up for those not checking Facebook these days: A nonprofit group, Invisible Children, posted a video called “Kony 12” that went viral on YouTube depicting the depraved conduct of Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army, a vicious guerrilla movement that has been battling the Ugandan (and other regional) security forces since the mid-1990s. The video began showing up in odd places—like my 14-year-old son Griffin's Facebook page, complete with very genuine expressions of outrage from his peers about a world that would allow such atrocities to go on for so long.
Some have applauded Invisible Children for putting the conflict on the world’s radar. But the primary instinct of Western commentators (who, after all, had more than a decade to do their own “objective” version of the story) has been to criticize Kony 12’s oversimplified and anachronistic depiction of the conflict.
As a guy who spent decades writing about conflicts like this, I agree with some of the criticism. My son and I talked about the LRA after he asked me about it, but also the Ugandan government’s often brutal retaliations and the machinations of foreign powers (including the U.S.). None of those issues feature in the video.
But the sanctimony of modern, main-stream journalism—particularly American journalism—is unbearable on this issue. Given the paucity of serious foreign coverage in the U.S. media, can we blame anyone for using the tools of modern media to get around the commercial filters that masquerade as “editorial judgment” these days? How many U.S. news organizations can claim to have had any impact with their coverage of the LRA or even Uganda in general in the past decade? The list of those that even bothered trying is less than a dozen.
The critics so quick to tear down Invisible Children should, in fact, be studying how they managed to reach such a wide audience with this story rather than complaining that the video didn’t meet their standards. Whatever the simplifications, the LRA kidnaps children for use as sex slaves and child soldiers and has raped and murdered its way through a three-country swath of central Africa for a generation.
Brian Storm, whose groundbreaking online documentary site MediaStorm helped pioneer this kind of activist journalism online, understood early on that you don’t pull punches when you’re attempting to get people to take action. “I want people to say, ‘Shit, what can I do about this,’ ” he told me when we were collaborating on a piece about India’s female infanticides last year. “To me, the goal is connecting, not writing a damned encyclopedia article.”
I had worried about the tone of the India piece, which is definitely a work of advocacy journalism. To me, it verged on shrill, which—again, to me—lessened its impact.
But that’s simply not the world we live in anymore, and Brian was correct. The drier, scholarly approach still has its place, particularly in building war crimes evidence against men like Kony. Yet too tight a focus on the “objectivity” of the Kony 12 video risks giving “equal time” to a group that deserves no such favor, and anyway completely misses the two most important points illustrated by this episode.
One is entirely optimistic: As Storm surmised and Anne C. Richard notes in Foreign Affairs this week, the Kony affair is evidence that there is a great store of good will ready to be tapped in the social media space.
The other important thing to point out is more troubling: The Kony 12 episode, to me, is another in the continuing list of events—including WikiLeaks releases, the so-called “Twitter” revolutions of the Arab Spring and China’s burgeoning micro-blogs—that show how blogs and social networks are wrestling control of information from the rather narrow government and media organizations that enjoyed a monopoly for most of the 20th century.
While this will cheer cyber-purists, the implications cut both ways. After all, if Kony’s partisans had the savvy of Invisible Children, a mirror image of the Kony 12 video might have gone viral instead, with far more half-truths than the current video.
Happily, there still are a few surviving outlets that cover stories like Uganda’s internal violence well.
I was able to point my 14-year-old son toward more balanced sources—BBC, Reuters, New York Times, etc. ... The sad thing is that I get the feeling a dwindling number of people would bother to do the same these days—either because they can’t be bothered with “foreign news,” or because their own media consumption habits have driving them so far down various political rabbit holes that they can no longer distinguish between fact and opinion.
While we’re on the topic of Africa, here's a very smart look at the growing rivalry—benign for the moment—between Africa’s most important economic power and the one most likely to displace it in the next 20 years.
John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Lagos and now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes in his CFR blog about the “edgy relationship” between the two powers. The two sparred this week over immigration and transit issues—an example, Campbell says, of a rivalry that has increased as Nigeria has grown resentful of South Africa’s pretentions to speak for the continent.
“Despite the fraternal rhetoric, especially on the Nigerian side, there is a degree of ambiguity about the relationship. The Nigerian government trumpets a goal of becoming among the world’s twenty largest economies by 2020, and its rhetoric often features overcoming in size the South African economy. At times, 'overtaking' South Africa appears to function as a unifying national goal, in a country that has few such sources of unity. With respect to diplomacy, Nigeria wants a permanent African seat on the UN Security Council; South Africa is its principal rival. Nigeria and South Africa frequently take different positions on African regional issues, as they did most recently over Libya.”
A rivalry—and a blog—worth tracking.