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Kony

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.’

Really?

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.

21 Responses

  1. Misha says:

    Thank you Mark, for effectively saying what i’ve been trying (and failing) to articulate over the course of yesterday. In the end I just went to bed rather than shout at people.

    The thing is, you can argue every available point for and against this. “Oh the child soldiers have been around for years, why does it matter now?” BECAUSE IT SHOULD! Yes it’s bad that it’s been happening for years but for gods sake that’s no reason not to try and stop it now!

    “He’s not even in Uganda anymore, it says so in the video” Oh yes, that’s okay then, let him carry on obviously.

    I cannot roll my eyes hard enough at that one…

    Interestingly, yours is the best argument i’ve seen for the western powers blundering in to help, (although the Ugandan army are doing so too). That yes, has not always been the best. However, many people are arguing that this is all “white man saviour”ism, Oh I must go and help the poor black man with my superior white ways. Again, I cannot roll my eyes enough.

    If I can hijack this for a moment to make a point here.

    NEWSFLASH. You can want to help someone regardless of the colour of your skin or their skin. It’s called being a decent human being, and shouldn’t preclude you from getting involved in supporting a charity in another country.

    End ranty/long/i haven’t got my glasses on so can’t spel check comment.

  2. Megan says:

    Thanks for posting this, Mr Watson.

    I saw the Kony video when its hits were in the 8000s, because Stephen Fry tweeted about it. He usually knows about what’s right. I was impressed. Then I realised that I didn’t really understand how this all would work. The evocative-of-Che-or-Obama posters look stylish, but what were they actually going to do aside from pollute, oversaturate, and muddle the message? It’s quite like any of the other cause célebs that’s not necessarily helpful becase ‘raising awareness’ will only get you so far if you don’t know where the money goes. I’ve been writing (a bit) about this in terms of corporate breast cancer campaigns for a while.

    www.popcornmonkey.com/?cat=27

    Idealism should always be tempered with cynicism (or at least realism). Follow-through is important if you care about any cause. Make sure you know what you’re supporting. Perhaps if you want to help the child soldiers of Uganda, you should get involved with a more established groups doing more practical work in the area, like Save the Children (www.savethechildren.org.uk/resources/online-library/policy-brief-child-soldiers) or Oxfam (www.oxfam.org.uk/oxfam_in_action/where_we_work/uganda.html), or War Child (www.warchild.org/index.html).

  3. [...] Mark Watson wrote an interesting thing about the Kony phenomenon. Go read it. Share this:Facebook Filed under: Being awesome. Leave a comment Comments (0) Trackbacks (0) ( [...]

  4. Jess says:

    Over the course of the past few days every one of my friends has asked me “have you heard about Kony? Google it omg!” And so I completely understand what you’re saying about the possibility of it being a ‘trend’ amoung the fashionable youth. I’ve been invited to a lot of “KONY2K12″ orientated events held by the local trendy clothing outlets in my city. I think the video in its self is dazzling and powerful with it getting the word out after going instaviral however I do feel with people constantly socially networking about this issue it is having the opposite effect and people are becoming desensitised to the matter, one boy in my class even said “you know the adverts on the TV with thin crying african kids asking for money? It’s just another one of those, what’s new?” And although such an insensitive ignorant comment made me grind my teeth together it, in fact, is what leads me to think that maybe we don’t quite understand the issue we are supposedly promoting and supporting.

  5. [...] “Awareness is their goal. It seems a pretty reasonable goal. Yet there is a very strong counter-argument” – Mark Watson [...]

  6. Alex says:

    I think this is pretty much exactly the same conclusion I’ve come to. It’s entirely pointless me even leaving this comment.

  7. Blathnaid says:

    Mark, you compare this to the power of social networking in the Arab Spring. Big difference: in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, it was the people of those countries who were leading the social networking push. In this case, it’s an American speaking to other Americans about Uganda (and coming off as someone with quite the messiah complex). This is what Ugandans have to say about it: www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/uganda/9131469/Joseph-Kony-2012-growing-outrage-in-Uganda-over-film.html. I can only imagine that they’d have the best insight.

  8. Benjamin says:

    I’m also dithering over what to think. It’s basically quite difficult to argue against any of this without looking like a bit of a knob.

    Can only say that I enjoyed the unusual length of the blog and, in particular: “just hipsters getting interested in something for twelve seconds, setting up a Tumblr page (fuckyeahcharity) and moving on”

  9. My feelings on the view can be summed up by quoting the same blog you did. ”

    If you want to write to your Member of Parliament or your Senator or the President or the Prime Minister, by all means, go ahead. If you want to post about Joseph Kony’s crimes on Facebook, go ahead. But let’s keep it about Joseph Kony, not KONY 2012.”

    I’d also like to say that by lunchtime today, any reference to Kony, KONY2012, invisible children and Uganda had disappeared from the twitter trends.

    I usually defend twitter to the hilt, but when something can be the most important thing of the year one day and nothing the next, something is broken.

  10. Well, considering you wrote the blog fast, I think you did bloody well. I’m glad you went to the effort of writing it as I have been very confused about this whole issue. But now, having read your take on it, it has sort of “tidied up” the opinions I already had in my head but I was too lazy (unlike you) to write down and put into any sort of order so I can actually think straight about the whole thing. So thanks for that.

    Those sentences were too long, I needed more commas and full stops but I’m too lazy to work out where to put them.

    I have spent most of my life giving to, or volunteering or raising money for, various charities in the UK and abroad. I know I will never stop being the person I am no matter how many people tell me that it’s a waste of my time and money.

  11. reply to mischa says:

    It IS white man “saviour-ism” whether eyes get rolled or not. That doesn’t make the situation any different (or any reason to not decide to help) but let’s not kid ourselves.

  12. Kathryn says:

    I can’t come up with much more to say other than that I agree. I could rant about the factions it has created amongst many of my friends, most of them well-intentioned, or the fact that the momentum seems to have faded so quickly after a brief period of manic re-posting for about 3 hours on tuesday night. Maybe so many people want to do something to help but feel powerless, and this movement makes them feel like simply sharing the video is a contribution to a greater (if flawed) goal.

    I don’t know. I’ll admit I took the video down from my facebook wall out of mild embarrassment after doing some further reading (prompted by twitter, which often contains the voice of reason somewhere within it. Frequently it is Minchin.)

    Helping people is always good. I agree with Megan, supporting well-established charities who seem to be working with people on the ground is perhaps a better idea than all of this.

  13. Sahara says:

    What an inspiring and insightful blog entry Mark… I’m going to tell everyone that mentions Kony to me, to read this! Thank you.

  14. Gorden Bennett says:

    I’m feeling a bit saturated by this already. Nice article though. My concerns are that this farce will now be used by the US to start military intervention in Uganda and central Africa. Obama will hold his hands up and say “the sheeple asked me to!” Coincidence that oil has been found there recently? I guess with Bin Laden gone the USA needs another bogey man, the ideological bad guy to detest and fight. I don’t see this as a peaceful campaign. As Mother Terresa once said,” if you want me to come to an anti -war march, call it a peace march, if you want me to come to an anti-austerity march, call it a prosperity march” Energy goes where energy flows I”m aware what this Koby 2012 campaign is against, but what is it actually for? Maybe it would be better focusing on the positive(s) rather than the bleedingly obvious negative.

  15. Lydia says:

    After reading around I’m not comfortable with KONY 2012, but I do agree with what you’re saying. Particularly about people attaching themselves to a “trendy” cause.

    I wouldn’t ever want to be cynical enough to think of helping people or wanting to help people as not a good thing. Despite the issues with Invisible Children I think it is impossible to watch the video without caring about what they are showing us.

  16. Clembear says:

    My concern with this is that we’ve missed the point a bit.

    We don’t seem to be having a discussion about war criminals, the difficulty in prosecuting them or the complex nature of international aid. Instead we’re talking about how we talk about them or how we advertise them. Advertising is very interesting but its not always the key issue. This seems to have become a marketing discussion rather than an actual issue discussion – as Josh wrote, let’s talk about the actual fellow in question not how we talk about him and its worthiness.

  17. Ingrid says:

    Wow this is exactly what I think! I’ve been looking around to see what various people are saying and honestly this it the first opinion I would say I completely agree with.
    Thanks for posting this Mark! I think it’s an interesting and important issue and I always enjoy hearing what you have to say (:

  18. Suzanne aka Senior Watsonian says:

    Well … this doesn’t exactly fit in with the theme above … BUT …

    * * * FOOTBALL GOOD LUCK RITUAL ALERT * * *

    SATURDAY 10 MARCH

    BRISTOL CITY v CARDIFF CITY

    KICK OFF: 3 pm

    * * * FOOTBALL GOOD LUCK RITUAL ALERT * * *

    Hey guys … let’s see if we can do it again!!!

    Right, Jen??? x

  19. [...] “Awareness is their goal. It seems a pretty reasonable goal. Yet there is a very strong counter-argument” – Mark Watson [...]

  20. [...] their goal. It seems a pretty reasonable goal. Yet there is a very strong counter-argument” – Mark WatsonThe Guardian: Kony 2012 – what’s the real story?Elias [...]

  21. Rachael says:

    I have been putting off getting involved on any of this because I feel like I need to do a lot more research before I go spouting any ill judged opinions, it clearly is a lot more complicated than what some people have dismissed it all as. However it is fascinating how quickly it has spread through the web, I’m both excited and scared by that.

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