I have been both heartened and dismayed by the intense press coverage of Invisible Children’s newest YouTube video, KONY 2012 that as of this afternoon had been viewed by more than 76 million people worldwide and “liked” by more than 1.3 million people. The “viral” quality of this newest video did not occur spontaneously. Instead, it comes as the result of Invisible Children’s years of organizing to build a global solidarity network grounded in the extensive use of social media.
The organization’s very inception is the result of its three founders having gone to Africa in 2003 with the intention of making a documentary on Darfur. Instead, they ended up in northern Uganda where they were confronted by the suffering caused by a war that was virtually unknown to people outside of Africa. They filmed the nightly ritual of thousands of children leaving home to sleep together as a defense against being kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army and being forced to become child soldiers.
After returning to the U.S., they produced a film titled Invisible Children and then set up a non-profit organization by the same name as the vehicle through which they could use the film to raise awareness of the child soldiers.
I believe that the centrality of film and social media to Invisible Children’s organizing strategy places it at the forefront of new innovative forms of global activism that have to capacity to create a degree of intimacy between people living on opposite sides of the globe that could not have been possible in the past. Social media as an organizing tool also opens up the possibility of creating extensive webs of interactions between activists across the globe. It allows story-telling to be a global enterprise.
The use of social media also has the power to unleash much greater local initiative and innovation by enabling direct communication between activists in different geographic locations across the global, without information first needing to flow up through traditional hierarchical organizational structures to a national staff that perhaps sends it back down again to activists in other local areas.
On their website, the Invisible Children staff described themselves not mainly as activists or organizers, but as storytellers who seek “to inspire young people to end the longest running war in Africa.” In my 2010 interview with their then 20 year old manager of social media and recurring donations, Cameron Woodward described the organization’s identity by saying, “We are young, we are citizens of the world, and we are artists, activists, and entrepreneurs.” Ultimately, they describe themselves as storytellers, which further distinguishes this new form of organizing from more traditional forms of human rights activism that rely more heavily on collecting exacting data and documentation of specific human rights violations.
I too am uncomfortable with Invisible Children’s call to extend the deployment of American military advisors to train the Ugandan military in order to track down Joseph Kony, Nonetheless, we are faced with a dilemma of a global institution created to prosecute those who commit crimes against humanity that must rely on various countries’ armed forces to actually track down and arrest the criminals it has indicted. The International Criminal Court does not have its own resources to arrest anyone, thus leaving it at the mercy of militaries that are often complicit in the original crimes. As a result, numerous war criminals are able to remain at large for years.
Consequently, I find something compelling about Invisible Children’s campaign to make Kony visible by pressuring American celebrities and politicians to speak out. After all, without a concerted campaign to make Kony “famous” his killings will undoubtedly continue to wreck havoc in central Africa, far removed and out-of-sight from all but a few engaged westerners.
Isn’t that just a continuation of our old obliviousness and complacency to horrible crimes that occur at a safe distance from our own lives? Might our continued silence also make us complicit?
Dr. Helene Slessarev-Jamir is a political scientist and serves as the Mildred M. Hutchinson Professor of Urban Studies at the Claremont School of Theology.