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Kony 2012 and the Rise of Armchair Activism

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My Face and Twitter feeds have been dominated for the past 24 hours with links to the 'Kony 2012' Youtube video; the latest in internet-fuelled liberal fury.

Assuming that you possess a social media account of some kind, I probably don't need to explain this to you. But in case you've given up facebook for lent, 'Kony 2012' is a viral Youtube video created by charity Invisible Children, which documents the atrocities committed by Ugandan militia group the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), headed up by Joseph Kony.

It focuses particularly on the use of kidnapped children as soldiers and sex slaves, employing the Western filmmaker's young son as a contrast. It also encourages people to take part in a poster campaign across New York, with the aim of 'stopping' Joseph Kony.

It seems that social networking has encouraged a kind of armchair activism: people post links to this kind of material, often accompanied by statements of outrage and demands that their friends join them in said outrage. But the indignation stops there.

It cannot be denied that social media is fantastic for creating awareness of causes such as this. Every few weeks a new chain of links to viral videos and campaigning profile pictures comes along. In January it was SOPA and PIPA, and before that it was tuning your Twitter profile green in protest at the 2009 election in Iran. See also the campaign asking people to change their facebook profile picture to their favourite childhood cartoon character in support of the NSPCC, which turned out not to have anything to do with the NSPCC at all. Given, Kony and the LRA atrocities in Uganda are a more serious, humanitarian issue, but the point is the same - the value of a mass of mildly annoyed middle-class people on facebook to any cause is limited.

It seems that, for my generation at least, the approval of our peers on the internet is what it takes for a cause to get noticed. But far from unleashing the political activist within us all, campaigns like this are creating an aimless social media soup of directionless liberal indignation.

The video claims that the plight of these Ugandan children has been ignored due to a lack of mainstream media coverage, but outlets as mainstream as the BBC have been publishing on the subject since at least 2005, and humanitarian organisations such as Enough have also been raising awareness of the issue. [http://www.enoughproject.org/LRA].

The social media campaign has increased the amount of people who know about Kony, but the chances are the people who either have the power or who care enough to try and do something about it already knew. And what can be done? The Justice in Conflict blog points out that the 'Kony 2012' video is vague about how they propose Kony should be 'stopped'. By polarising Joseph Kony as the sole face of the LRA, it also ignores the fact that the organisation could well continue if he was captured or even killed.

'Kony 2012' aims to make the LRA leader famous, in order to "raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice." Whilst an increased awareness of the Ugandan situation is good, it seems to me that if you explained the situation to any right-thinking Westerner they would support his arrest. Problem is, that doesn't get us any closer to the arrest actually happening.

I don't think I'm being cynical when I say that grassroots activism will not be able to succeed where even the US government has failed. The problems documented in the video are complex and multi-dimensional, and public support, however widespread, is not the way to solve them.

If the last few years have proved anything, it is that when it comes to activism, strength is rarely in numbers. Take for example the protests in London over cuts to public funding: attended by thousands, they caused a considerable media stir and succeeded in bringing the city to a halt. And yet tuition fees were still raised, Education Maintenance allowance was still scrapped and benefits were still slashed.

There is something to be said for raising the profile of the atrocities in Uganda amongst the public; people should have an awareness of the world outside of their own experience, and things like this should not go unreported. But there are terrible things going on all over the world, and selecting your level of indignation based on how prominently they feature on your facebook timeline is not particularly helpful to any cause.

So by all means re-post the Kony video, tell all your friends and tweet it to your heart's content. Just don't expect it to do anything.