Even if you are reading this in one of the country’s bafflingly common 3G blindspots, even if your internet has been down for 48 hours, indeed even if you are currently dead, the chances are that you’ve come across the word Kony recently. Over the past week it has been instantly turned into one of the world’s leading ‘memes’ by a viral campaign of stunning efficiency, and the momentum is building and building as people talk about it all over Twitter (millions of users), Facebook (tens of millions of users, probably), and to a lesser extent this blog (me). It’s the kind of thing that could, in days gone by, only be achieved by a months or years-long process of teasers, name-checking, and eventually concerted PR spending or celebrity endorsement. Make Poverty History was a fairly recent example (as was the promotion of Gabbo in the ‘Simpsons’, in probably the funniest half-hour of television ever made). But even Make Poverty History, with its little wristbands and Dido performance, looks old-fashioned now. Today, a single word like Kony can go from zero to infinite global coverage in literally hours. It’s one of the things that make the internet exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.
This is one of the biggest ever examples.
Who or what is Kony? This is a very quick summary for anyone who has avoided googling or otherwise learning it, by some astounding effort.
In short, he (Joseph Kony) is a guerrilla leader in Uganda who, with his group the LRA, is trying to establish theocratic rule (that is, living by God’s commandments, although not as Christians we know would recognise them) by a long campaign of brutality against Ugandan civilians. Among his many crimes are the abductions of a large number of children. A group called Invisible Children has made a 30-minute video about this, and it’s this video which has been the figurehead of their online invasion of the world. It’s been watched by, so far, about ten million people including me. Once I’ve published this, the figure is expected to rise to ten million and three. The video’s stated aim is to raise awareness of Kony’s atrocities by ‘making him famous’. The internet age’s key innovation – instant fame – used as a weapon against a malevolent lunatic. Good idea, right?
By the time I came back from my show yesterday evening, around 20 people had asked me to re-tweet support for Kony 2012, which had already been endorsed – seemingly just in the time I’d been out of my hotel – by all sorts of luminaries, most crucially Minchin. I normally try and adopt Minchin’s opinions more or less unedited because it saves the effort of losing an argument to him further down the line. I was all set to do a blog throwing my tiny weight behind this crusade. Then I noticed Minchin, and a number of others, had posted cautionary notes saying that there were various caveats. The organisation that made the video has had various questions raised about its fundraising and its other procedures. Others were saying that it was actually dangerous to try and unseat someone like Kony without offering a viable alternative; Western intervention like this has a history of grandly fucking up already volatile areas. Still others were asking why this faddish cause was obsessing everyone when similar causes have been neglected, are being neglected, all the time. And even more people were sneering that this is really just ‘slacktivism’, people clicking on a link or adding to an e-petition or writing KONY 2012 on a toilet wall, and then sitting back and going ‘right, that’s sorted’. ‘Something is not always better than nothing,’ says one blog comment among a few thousand I’ve read this afternoon. ‘Sometimes, it’s worse than nothing.’
I was confused. I ducked out of getting involved. I went to bed.
By the time I had woken up, this topic was so big that I’m pretty sure I heard my laptop whimper when I typed in the word. The primary debate about whether the anti-Kony campaign was a worthwhile cause or a shallow/possibly even harmful fashion, and a kind of metadiscussion about whether merely discussing things does actually help, or not. Because that basically seems to be what these people want. They want everyone in the world to be talking about Kony. They reckon that if that happens, there is a greater chance of eventual justice, and eventual peace or relative peace for the people of Uganda, than if we were all in ignorance of the subject like a week ago. Awareness is their goal. It seems a pretty reasonable goal. Yet there is a very strong counter-argument. The more it gets discussed, the more confused the issues become; the more uninformed people hitch a ride on it, the more casual tweeting and blogging there is, in some ways the further we get from understanding the issues at stake. People spend years and years acquainting themselves with the complexities of countries like Uganda. For those people it’s not just alarming but sometimes seems counter-productive when suddenly the world shows up and goes ‘hey, just heard about your problem! Here’s several million quid and 34,000 different solutions we’ve come up with! Do you have broadband here by the way, so I can check my Likes?’
I’ve tended to be one of these people who dabble in issues, which is why I’m trying to get a proper grip on this one. I’m still not sure, after extensive reading, what I think. But here’s what I THINK I think.
The bottom line is surely that, if we the world’s population have a finite amount of collective attention, and a billion things to choose from, it’s better if we all focus on things like global (or in this case local) injustice than watching Youtube clips of animals (charming as Fenton the dog undeniably was). Of course the choice is not quite as polar as that, but it’s close. If you are watching the Pussycat Dolls online, you probably are not thinking about what might be done in Uganda. If you’re watching this video, you are. Maybe you’re thinking about it in a wrongheaded way, maybe you’re a bull in a china shop, maybe you do ‘get involved’ for ten seconds and then congratulate yourself and go to the pub, as critics of social media always make out. But you’re thinking about an important thing, which you wouldn’t have been thinking about. Millions of people are now discussing something which they wouldn’t even have known about. Surely awareness is better than ignorance, isn’t it, even if many of the side-effects of that awareness are unhelpful? Isn’t it?
And yes, charities are often a bit inefficient, some of them may indeed be incompetently or cynically managed; Invisible Children does appear to have some questions to answer, which you can look up and form your own opinions about. But if, like a couple of commenters on the article I’ve linked to, you’re writing ‘these guys are scammin’ or ‘stupid people, this is just for money’, you’ve got to be pretty bloody sure that you are easy in your conscience that you couldn’t do ANYTHING to help. You’re cool with dreadful things happening in Africa because you are a hundred percent certain your money, activism, effort wouldn’t make a difference. When I was in Senegal with Action Aid, looking at the buildings they’d built and the communities they’d enabled to feed themselves, I kept thinking back to people at home going ‘yeah, but charities waste x percent of your money on their overheads, the money never goes to the actual poor, etc’ – which you hear all the time. I’m convinced, since that trip, that this is baby-out-with-bathwater thinking. Sure, some charities (though not Action Aid) are poorly organised, blunder around, try to impose solutions which don’t fit with communities. Yes, some organisations could use their funds better. Does that mean it would have been better not to build those wells, those schools? This is a parallel situation. Most of the world has far more eagerness to help than it does actual expertise. Does that mean we shouldn’t bother at all?
Maybe social networking is, as an enormous amount of conservative commentators seem to believe, just the ultimate self-indulgence of our time: just hipsters getting interested in something for twelve seconds, setting up a Tumblr page (fuckyeahcharity) and moving on. Maybe nothing good actually gets achieved by all the tweeting and blogging and the rest of it, because in the end international and even local politics are too intractable and best left to the experts. The evidence of, say, Egypt seems to suggest otherwise, but even though Twitter (in particular) has claimed some enormous successes, who am I to know how much a revolution REALLY hangs on the massive spread of online ‘awareness’, and how much it’s really down to factors I don’t understand?
But I really want to believe that the internet’s massive potential for harnessing international cooperation is capable of doing great things, and that some sort of great thing could come out of this. I reckon that exploiting the power of the internet to do good is one of the main ways in which our generation can leave a useful legacy, because we’re the first humans to have this technology in our hands. If nothing else, this Kony business proves that everyone can get involved to some degree with issues that were previously well out of our reach. It will be interesting to see whether that ultimately gets us anywhere. I feel like it should.
I’ve written this not so much to express a position as to encourage you, the few people I have influence over, to think this through yourselves. On the same page of the online newspaper where I first read about this, the next story down was ‘Jolie suffers after Oscar dress humiliation’. I’m not suggesting if you don’t read about Kony, you’re likely to fill your head with vacuous gossip. But I do think to some degree that is the kind of choice everyone faces every day when logging onto the internet. Perhaps however this turns out, more people will think about going for Africa not Angelina. Or maybe not. But it’s on. Let’s see.
PS Since (a) this is complicated, and (b) I’ve had to write it fast, and (c) I am sometimes dense, I apologise for any factual errors it contains. Thanks.