Tanya Kant is a doctoral student in Media and Cultural Studies in the School of Media, Film and Music at the University of Sussex. Her current research focuses on personalisation on popular online platforms such as Google and Facebook. As 2012 draws to an end, Kant revisits the Kony 2012 campaign in her guest post for RE.FRAMING ACTIVISM.
On 5th March 2012, the half-hour documentary Kony 2012 was uploaded to YouTube by the charity Invisible Children. Within three days the video had been viewed over 35 million times, and after two weeks exceeded 90 million views. Its staggeringly fast distribution – on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other popular social networks – did not go unnoticed by the institutional media, with every major UK news source running stories on the video’s viral success. Yet it was not the campaign itself that captured the attention of the newspapers; instead, the sheer abundance of numbers involved – of views, ‘likes’, retweets and ‘shares’ – was enough to hail the documentary as ‘the most successful viral video of all time’ (Telegraph, 2012).
Yet only weeks later the video’s popularity began to plateau. The campaign’s ‘Cover the Night’ initiative, which was intended to ‘blanket every street in every city’ (Kony 2012) with marketing materials, failed to attract participants or publicity, suggesting that ‘online’ enthusiasm could not be transferred to have tangible ‘offline’ affect. As 2012 draws to a close, Invisible Children’s plea to ‘Make Kony famous’ seems to have succeeded only in the most fleeting manner – a one hit wonder of activism that may have made Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony momentarily visible, but has had no enduring or effective impact.
In many ways then Kony 2012 seems to exemplify the arguments that Jodi Dean presents in her article, ‘Communicative Capitalism’ (2005) – not only did the video’s activist message seem lost under its distribution as ‘communicative capital’, the video promotes a form of superficial activity that calls for online symbolic communication rather than ‘concrete’ political participation. Under Dean’s analysis, the ephemeral online frenzy surrounding Kony 2012 exposes users’ ‘profound passivity’ (2005: 60), in that though millions of people watched, shared and ‘liked’ the video, its content was quickly forgotten.
Dean attributes this ineffective engagement to ‘technology fetishism’ (2005: 51) – a form of collective distraction wherein communication technologies become fetishised objects that work to falsely fulfil our desire to participate in political struggle. Under the power of social media’s spell, ‘we don’t have to assume political responsibility… because technology is doing it for us’ (2005: 63). According to Dean, viral campaigns are empty signifiers of activism, in which ‘a contribution need not be understood; it need only be repeated, reproduced, forwarded’ (2005: 59).
Which begs the question; does the forgotten Kony campaign expose a profoundly passive web population that fetishises technology in order to superficially fulfill a desire to participate in what Dean calls ‘politicization proper’ (2005: 65)? Though the video itself makes a plethora of promises that go some way in supporting Dean’s notion of communicative capitalism, I’m not convinced that the millions of people who joined the Kony debate signify a profoundly passive audience, nor a web public seduced by the fetishistic power of social media.
The evocative, high-quality production Kony 2012 asks us to harness the power of the ‘technology that has brought our planet together’ (Kony 2012, 2012) to spread its message. It sought to create a frenzy of abundant circulation; and to the desired effect. Yet, though Kony 2012 was ‘repeated, reproduced, forwarded’, the ‘profound passivity’ of web users’ cannot be so straightforwardly identified. The video was quickly followed by a robust and frequently scathing storm of criticism that attracted the same amount of attention as the video itself. YouTube users uploaded their own counter-arguments to the video’s claims that racked up millions of views (‘Kony 2012 is misleading’, 2012) and Facebook users distributed a plethora of counter-comments and alternative news sources. Though many people rightly continued to condemn the actions of Joseph Kony, these new criticisms highlighted the video’s misleading facts and overtly emotional narrative, the invisible evangelical agenda of Invisible Children and the colonial overtones that the video conveyed. Instead of merely using the video as communicative capital, many users sceptically interrogated the video’s content. As such, the video provoked an active online response rather than passive reception, in which members of the public worked hard to find the flaws in the message broadcast somewhat infallibly by Invisible Children. It seems that Kony 2012 was not just ‘repeated, reproduced, forwarded’, but also critically ‘understood’.
Importantly, not only did many people critique the Kony campaign, they also self-reflectively acknowledged the ‘profound passivity’ that Dean suggests masquerades as activity. Much criticism focused specifically on the superficiality of merely ‘liking’ the video – contentious ‘memes’ begun to appear on Facebook and Twitter, distributed by thousands, expressing sentiments such as ‘One does not simply destabilize a Ugandan warlord by merely liking a status’ and satirical videos highlighting the ineffectiveness of simply sharing were watched by millions (Psychicpebbles, 2012). These self-conscious parodies can hardly be condemned as masquerades – they are explicit, if rather unconventional, contributions to activist debates.
Of course, some would argue that a few self-reflective ‘memes’ hardly signify an audience that is prepared to engage effectively in tangible forms of activism. However, as Pierre Bourdieu suggests in his seminal work Distinction, the traditional forms political struggle that Dean advocates as ‘proper’ is not an inherently ‘correct’ form of activism – it is a carefully managed and maintained ‘field of production’, legitimised by those who have the access to the appropriate educational, economic and cultural capital (1984: 398). To me, the Kony campaign is not symptomatic of technology fetishism – instead it reveals the critical engagements of millions of people who would not typically participate in ‘offline’ forms of activism.
Ultimately, the Kony campaign was not forgotten because of a superficial whirlwind of likes, views and shares – it failed to endure largely because of a web public that sought to interrogate the video’s content and contest some of its claims. As such Kony 2012 was forgotten for the right reasons, and suggests that the online furore generated by such campaigns should not automatically be dismissed as profoundly passive – perhaps we should instead question the legitimacy of ‘politicization proper’.
Bourdieu, Pierre (1984) Distinction, London: Routledge (2010)
Dean, Jodi (2005) ‘Communicative capitalism: Circulation and the foreclosure of politics’, Cultural Politics, Vol 1 (1), pp51-74
Kony 2012 (2012) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4MnpzG5Sqc (accessed 28th December 2012)
Kony 2012: A video by Psychicpebbles (2012) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k1FKS1SHSsc (Accessed 28th December 2012)
Kony 2012 Video is Misleading (2012) Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7DO73Ese25Y (Accessed 28th December 2012)
Telegraph (2012) ‘Joseph Kony 2012’ Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/nes/worldnews/joseph-kony/9143781/Joseph-Kony-2012-film-passes-100-million-views-as-it-becomes-most-successful-viral-video-of-all-time.html (Accessed 28th December 2012)