Human Rights and New Media: Promoting ‘Slacktivism’ or Impact?

Aliya Renee Khan
Sep 25, 2018 · 13 min read

“Right now, there are more people on Facebook than there were on the planet 200 years ago.” (Kony 2012 2012). This is the opening narration of Kony 2012, a short film released by the American NGO Invisible Children that took young activist minds by storm through a quick viral spread and equally speedy decline. The video urged viewers to act against Joseph Kony, a leader of the guerilla group Lord’s Resistance Movement (LRA) in Uganda accused of several human rights violations, most notably the abduction of children to become soldiers and sex slaves. What ensued was a frantic campaign to ‘make Joseph Kony famous,’ urging young people across the country to plaster posters of Kony throughout their cities and to share the Kony video on social media. The video also framed the conflict as a turn towards a changed reality in which people are more aware of one another through the communication newly possible through the Internet. Despite this simplistic and optimistic view of the campaign, Invisible Children later faced a significant backlash from journalists, activists, and academics who were more informed about the complexities behind the situation in Uganda and criticized the ‘white savior’ narrative espoused by the campaign. There is often a large disconnection between young American activists and the complexities of the issues that they claim to help alleviate. Internet activism can help reduce this disconnection by creating awareness for serious issues, but it can also oversimplify situations and promote long-held stereotypes that mesh well with problematic ideas such as the ‘white savior complex’, the ‘ideal victim’, and ‘distant suffering.’ Through an in-depth analysis of Kony 2012 and the ensuing response to the campaign, the advent of Internet activism can be considered through a critical standpoint which contrasts the highly emotive, inspirational campaign video with the minimal impact it eventually created for the society it claimed to help.

The Internet can connect individuals from disparate communities, promoting greater overall awareness amongst humanity. According to Richard Kahn and Douglas Kellner,

“Whether by using the internet to take part in a worldwide expression of dissent and disgust, to divert corporate agendas and militarism through the construction of freenets and new oppositional spaces and movements, or simply to encourage critical media analysis, debate, and new forms of journalistic community, the new information and communication technologies are indeed revolutionary (Kahn and Kellner 93)

New media theory often espouses the idea of the Internet being “decentralized” and “universal.” In the open web standards promoted by Tim Berners-Lee and the early Internet community, this universality is characterized by the ability for the Internet to run regardless of cultural or political beliefs, therefore transcending individual difference and creating an unbiased platform which people could then adapt to their individual use (“History of the Web”). This created a platform where an equal dialogue between media consumers and producers, as espoused in Enzensberger’s “Constituents of a Theory of New Media”, was debatably achieved. Enzensberger states that “[f]or the first time in history, the media are making possible mass participation in a social and socialized productive process, the practical means of which are in the hands of the masses themselves” (Enzensberger 262). Internet activist campaigns such as Kony 2012 take advantage of this new productive process in multiple ways: they are able to mobilize the masses through new media (in the case of Kony 2012, through YouTube) to then gain attention from people who are directly involved or can make a contribution to the issue, for example, politicians. To do this, they enlist the support of celebrities who then continue to help spread the message through social media and the Internet. Additionally, they are able to make a wide audience feel as if they have a “voice” and are making a contribution by encouraging the masses to continue speaking about the issue online. This creates a community of masses supporting the issue that can speak out and contribute to the campaign in a manner that is convenient for their own lifestyle. ‘Dumb mobs’ of masses become ‘smart activists’ who are able to easily access information and connect with each other in order to organize (Kahn and Kellner 89). Additionally, the Internet is often used as a forum to inform and connect activists and organize actual demonstrations. Over time, the supposedly democratic culture of the internet has evolved to support this form of internet activism, global awareness, and at its extremities, phenomena including hacker culture, cyberterrorism, and internet militancy: “The global internet, then, is creating the base and basis for an unparalleled worldwide anti-war/pro-peace and social justice movement during a time of terrorism, war, and intense political struggle” (Kahn and Kellner 88). The internet has become the place where political and cultural battles are fought, debates are held, and people are connected.

On the other hand, it can be argued that the modern Internet, while egalitarian in philosophy, is often used to promote an overall capitalistic agenda. Particularly in the realm of internet activism a type of “participation from your living room” is encouraged, obscuring the complexities underlying the actual social problem. Campaigns often undergo heavy branding which create a type of consumption philanthropy that “‘champions those causes that stabilize the current system, reducing the distance between the problem and the reaction to the reaction to the extent that the problem is no longer visible (Nickel and Eikenberry 2009:979)’ What is more, creating a brand out of a social problem may in fact stifle the political and critical debates on the issue” (Tatarchevisky 309). Debates are heavily simplified to appeal to a mass audience who can simply buy branded bracelets or T-shirts or share a post to show that they are ‘trendy activists’ without needing this audience to fully commit to an understanding of underlying complexities woven throughout any social issue. The internet is used as an aid to capitalism, promoting ideals such as individualism and competition through its free-market-like design, which could potentially create “modes of fetishism, enslavement, and domination yet to be explored” (Kahn and Kellner 93). Tatarchevisky describes a capitalistic model where the media acts as a commodity that can be exchanged for the attainment of political goals: “The internet joins in this system through its perpetuation of a mythology in which its public sphere is full of potential and unequal accumulations of wealth and power are masked. Its capabilities for easy access to publicity offers a dream of the renewal of democracy, but in reality, there is a disconnect between actual political decisions and the potential of voices circulated via the internet” (Tatarchevisky 308). This argument can be likened to Baudrillard’s theory that in order to create a more egalitarian society where the voices of the masses were heard, media consumers must go beyond producing and use media in a disruptive manner in order to create a new system. While the many voices on the internet feel as if they are contributing, they are framed as ‘amateurs’ compared to people in power and do little actually change the status quo. Many Internet activist campaigns feed off this ‘feeling of power’ that users of new media have and create campaigns where they can contribute further to the status quo by buying products, putting up posters, or donating money without creating much of a tangible impact, as was the case with Kony 2012.

Kony 2012 and the vast movement which followed its release represent an example of internet activism which involved several concepts discussed above including virality, use of social media, mass participation in the media, and capitalistic branding of activism. The film portrays the general circumstances regarding Joseph Kony and his abductions by playing solemn background music when referencing or interviewing a victim of his terror. The film initially establishes the exigency of the fragile situation in Uganda by referencing an interview from years ago of a Ugandan man named Jacob who was a child victim of Kony’s terror. After establishing the issue which the film intends to communicate to its audience, it begins to outline a systematic method involving the viewers which would allow the Kony 2012 movement to gain momentum and the attention of important people including celebrities and the American government. The film clearly depicts the creation of a Facebook page called “Invisible Children” which would allow viewers to easily search, find, and like the page. Since the video primarily targeted young Americans who were more likely to use Facebook, this use of social media effectively created a large following for the campaign. Additionally, scores of young adults are shown in the documentary contributing to the Kony 2012 movement and providing monetary as well as political support to Invisible Children in Washington D.C. Proof that this strategy has worked is shown in the film when the number of followers on the Facebook page reaches into the thousands. Kony 2012 engages the audience by providing them with the illusion that they are empowered to create positive and tangible change. This is a simplified narrative about how, through social media and YouTube, a young Western public now not only knows and cares about what is happening in the world, but also has the means to make a difference (Von Engelhardt 467). Using rhetoric which emphasized the role of the audience in fueling and sustaining this movement encouraged viewers of this film to contribute time, money, and word-of-mouth to Invisible Children. Kony 2012 is by far the most publicized online humanitarian campaign ever produced. The video was particularly successful in reaching its chief target group of young Internet users in the United States (Von Engelhardt 465). However, following the Kony 2012 campaign, the movement declined almost as rapidly as it rose, with little conclusive evidence that the original stated goal of the campaign, to find Joseph Kony, was ever reached: “The response to the Kony 2012 film fits with what the literature suggests: that is, that social media can expedite the delivery of information to a wide audience and prompt discussion of or engagement with a particular issue. Kony 2012 also disappeared rapidly from Facebook feeds, thereby illustrating the difficulty in using social media outlets to sustain debate over time” (Hershey and Artime 637). Despite the fact that the campaign was able to raise awareness for a large audience of young Americans, it did so by reducing a complex issue to a simplistic narrative that would appeal to a Westernized audience that was relatively unfamiliar with the subject matter and easily meshed with preconceived notions of the groups involved, and did not effectively create a sustained discussion of the issue within its target audience.

Following the release of Kony 2012, many bloggers, politicians, and academics criticized the movement for its overly simplified narrative and implicit racism used to fit the video into the idea of the ‘white savior complex,’ where Ugandans were often portrayed as distant victims without agency or power. In his analysis of the campaign, Sverker Finnstrom states that “Following a mainstream media trend, Invisible Children, Inc., conveniently reduces a very complex conflict, with northern Uganda as its historical epicentre, to a colonialist “Heart of Darkness” stereotype of primitiveness” (Finnstrom 128). The campaign was partially appealing to young Americans because it fit with their preconceived notions of African countries rather than challenging them, making them feel as if they, as privileged Americans, were responsible for ‘saving’ the people of Uganda, when many Ugandan activists were involved to a greater extent than Americans. One of the most prevalent criticisms of the movement came from Ugandan journalist Rosebell Kagumire, who created her own YouTube video responding to the Kony 2012 documentary citing the oversimplification of the war in the film and the lack of attention given to local initiatives. She describes the video as showing a situation where an white outsider is trying to be a hero, implying that a powerless Uganda needs America’s help in order to survive: “This is the same narrative we have seen about Africa for centuries” (“My Response to KONY2012”). She encourages the development of a form of activism that will focus on changing government policies, showing actual progress on the ground, and highlighting voices of the oppressed rather than campaigns focused on sensationalized, easily forgotten narratives. Additionally, the campaign was giving support to the wrong people: one war-affected respondant stated “the government of Uganda are not the right people […] to arrest Kony […] because the government — they also contributed to what is this war” (qtd. in Gould 217). This misallocation of funds further supports Kagumire’s argument for a more informed campaign that highlights complexities and identifies social, political, and economic systems other than Joseph Kony which also contributed to the problem. Additionally, Kagumire effectively used the same media platform of the original video to respond, which shows a shift in the overall media economy to one dominated by producers to one where a consumer could become a producer and then criticize something that they consumed.

Further criticism of the campaign involved an analysis of the ‘slacktivism’ type of involvement promoted by the video. To participate, viewers could purchase a ‘Kony 2012 Action Pack’, which included T-shirts, bracelets, stickers, and posters. Activists were encouraged to hang the posters in as many places as possible to gain recognition for the movement. This aspect of the campaign heavily relates to the interpretation of the modern internet as a promoter of capitalism. The heavy branding of the campaign reduced it to a single phrase ‘Kony 2012’, which lacked immediate explanation or connection to the actual issue as well as promoted the simplistic narrative outlined in the video of a campaign trying to “catch a bad guy.” Finnstrom describes Invisible Children’s campaign as the “ultimate manifestation of a global humanitarian and military economy which is profoundly occult” (Finnstrom 128). Essentially, by purchasing an action pack, activists believe that their contribution will ‘magically’ solve the simple issue in Uganda: “The most prominent feature of the Invisible Children films is the creation and constant re-creation of a magical master narrative; the lobby reduces, de-politicizes and de-historicizes a murky reality of globalized war into an essentialized black-and-white story that pits the modern Ugandan government and its international partners against the barbarian LRA” (Finnstrom 130). This ‘black and white’ storyline makes it “feel” closer to the activist, and therefore he or she truly believes she is making a significant contribution. Eventually, the Invisible Children campaign was formed as a type of ‘slacktivism’, defined as a low-intensity, low-commitment, and low-impact type of political engagement (Christensen 2011). Per Lauren Gould, “it suggests to the next generation that one can fight the injustice and evil in “dark Africa” from the comfort of your own home, without any knowledge of the geopolitical causes or local consequences” (Gould 208). Overall, the actual impact created by the campaign was much murkier than its clearly stated goal, perhaps contributing to the eventual fall in contributions to the movement.

Joseph Kony was never actually found and captured, as the Invisible Children movement seemed to promise. Despite making Joseph Kony ‘famous’ and raising around $20 million, this primary goal was never achieved (Von Englehardt 481). Instead, the main contribution of the movement was to increase U.S. military involvement in Uganda, which could create even more issues for the country in the future due to a continued militarization of the area which could lead to further human rights violations. The campaign was also able to gain the attention of prominent leaders, including Barack Obama, who alluded to the discourse created by Kony 2012 in an April 2012 announcement of continued military support in Uganda: “We are joined today by communities who have made it your mission to prevent atrocities in our times; the museum’s committee of conscience, NGOs, faith groups and college students. You have harnessed the tools of the digital age, online maps and satellites, a video, a social media campaign seen by millions. You understand that change comes from the bottom up, from the grassroots” (Barack Obama, qtd. in Gould 214). Despite his optimistic support of the Kony 2012 movement, the goals set by Invisible Children far exceeded its tangible impact, calling into question the credibility of this form of social media activism that is still prevalent today.

The implications of Kony 2012 and the resulting backlash can be informative to more recent social media campaigns, such as #BlackLivesMatter and the movement for gun control in America. The main failure of the Kony 2012 movement was in its inability to create a sustained and complex discussion of the situation in Uganda among young Americans, as well as its inability to reach its stated goal of bringing Joseph Kony to justice. Despite this, Invisible Children effectively used new media to spread the discussion of their issue among a wide target audience, something that would have been much more difficult to do without the advent of YouTube and the ‘egalitarian’ Internet. Through new media, they garnered a large following which helped them gain publicity. It can also be argued that while indirectly, the campaign did promote a greater awareness of issues in Uganda, because someone familiar with the campaign might also be more likely to read or watch criticisms of it. However, the framing of the issue within the ‘white savior complex’ model is quite problematic and can seem insulting to Ugandans who have fought for social justice in their country. The implication of Kony 2012 is the advent of a new society where it is “cool” to be in an Internet activist. While some of this activism can be characterized as a commodified and trendy form of ‘slacktivism’, it can raise awareness of issues that are actually occurring and might cause some individuals to research the situation further. These individuals might in turn create their own media discussing the issue which would address more complexity than the original campaign. Overall, as internet activism continues to develop, it would be most beneficial to turn towards a type of discussion like the one Kagumire supported: one that is informed, empowers the people involved, and provides real updates with the situation on the ground.

Works Cited

Christensen, Henrik Serup. “Political activities on the Internet: Slacktivism or political participation by other means?” First Monday, vol. 16, no. 7, 2011.

Enzensberger, Hans Magnus. “Constituents of a Theory of the Media.” New Left Review, vol. 64, 1970, pp. 13–36.

Finnstorm, Sverker. “KONY 2012, Military Humanitarianism, and the Magic of Occult Economies.” Africa Spectrum, vol. 47, no. 2–3, GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies, 2012, pp. 127–135.

Gould, Lauren. “The Politics of Portrayal in Violent Conflict: The Case of the Kony 2012 Campaign.” Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, vol. 39, no. 4, 2014, pp. 207–230.

Hershey, Megan and Artime, Michael. “Narratives of Africa in a Digital World: “Kony 2012” and Student Perceptions of Conflict and Agency in Sub-Saharan Africa.” PS: Political Science and Politics, vol. 47, no. 3, 2014, pp. 636–641.

“History of the Web.” World Wide Web Foundation. 2018.

Kahn, Richard and Douglas Keller. “New Media and internet activism: from the ‘Battle of Seattle’ to blogging. SAGE Publications, vol. 6, no. 1., 2004, pp. 87–95.

Kony 2012. Directed by Jason Russell, Invisible Children Inc., 2012.

“My Response to KONY 2012.” YouTube, uploaded by Rosebell Kagumire. 7 Mar 2012.

Tatarchevisky, Tatiana. “The ‘popular’ culture of internet activism.” New Media and Society, vol. 13, no. 2, 2011, pp. 297–313.

Von Englehardt, Johannes and Jeroen Jansz. “Challenging humanitarian communication: An empirical exploration of Kony 2012.” The International Communication Gazette, vol. 26, no. 6, 2014, pp. 464–484.

Aliya Renee Khan

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Adventurer, vegetarian food enthusiast, lover of all things colorful. Advocate of sustainable and ethical consumption and believer in human resilience.

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