With April 20th having come and gone we have seen the first mobilisation of the Kony 2012 campaign, which aims for the capture of Joseph Kony, the leader of the Ugandan terrorist organisation the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Unfortunately from the perspective of supporters, reports from around the world show the protest has fizzled in a spectacular, rarely gaining more attendees to drag itself into double figures. Whilst many will contribute superficial explanations for this it actually provides a unique insight into the changing nature of activism and its limitations.
Make no mistake, the ‘Cover The Night’ events have been by all reports a dreadful failure. In Brisbane, the event managed to attract 50 people. In Sydney only 25 people attended, and the Melbourne demonstration also struggled. The Vancouver event managed just 17 people, Toronto got a dozen and the Montreal event was cancelled. Many of these protests were accompanied by Facebook events with attendees numbering well into the tens of thousands. As I write this, the initial video by the charity Invisible Children charity has received over 88 million views on YouTube, and 18 million on Vimeo.
Serious questions have to be asked on why such a massive disconnect exists between the initial hype behind the campaign and the complete failure of its mobilisation. Many will simply dismiss the campaigners and supporters altogether, labelling them as ‘slacktivists’ and committed to any image of social justice rather than serious political action. Others have already blamed the length of time between the appearance of the video and the protests, as well as the quick moving nature of social media.
But none of these explanations really explain the magnitude of the failure of Cover The Night. Twitter and Facebook played a vital role in organising people throughout the Arab Spring, allowing for rapid dissemination of information on protests and state repression. Nor is time necessarily a major factor. The video debuted only 6 weeks ago, a relatively small period of time in movement politics. For comparison, the initial Occupy Wall Street protest had inspired similar protests in 2000 cities after six weeks.
Rather, the near complete lack of activity around Cover The Night seems to reflect deep political and organisational problems with the Kony 2012 campaign. Indeed, early political criticisms of Invisible Children, the charity organising the Kony 2012 campaign, have clearly impacted its success. One of the initial interventions into the debate by sociologist Grant Oyston remains one of the best, outlining most of the reasons to oppose the group and the campaign: that Invisible Children spends very little money on direct help for child soldiers, that the LRA has been significantly weakened of late and is no longer active in Uganda, that the group openly supports the brutal Sudanese and Ugandan militaries and that military efforts to capture Kony would and already have harmed innocent civilians. Since then further revelations have harmed the campaign including the charity’s links with some of the more extreme homophobic elements of the US Right as well as repeated criticisms by African activists and victims about the campaigns implicit paternalism. It’s interesting to note here that Ugandan blogger Javie Ssovi predicted that the threat of military intervention could lead to an increase in child abduction by the LRA, which is exactly what happened. On top of this, the breakdown of Invisible Children’s co-founder Jason Russell added an element of farce to the whole mess.
However the approach to activism used by Invisible Children in the Kony 2012 campaign also provides key points for understanding how it has failed to develop as a protest. Namely because it isn’t anything like traditional grassroots activism, but is rather an exercise that more closely resembles corporate marketing.
Almost every component of the campaign reflects this. Go to either the Kony 2012 or the Invisible Children websites and you can quickly find yourself in the web store with a wide range of t-shirts and Mother’s Day specials. You can download templates for door hangers and stencils, as well as videos directing you how and what to chalk. There’s a customer service link in case you get confused when e-shopping. That’s not to mention the “Action Kit” which comes with everything you need to get active with some pre-made bracelets, posters, stickers and buttons, all cover in the Kony 2012 brand. None of this is available in stores. Maybe if you call in the next 30 minutes they’ll throw in a #stopKony shoulder bag FOR FREE!
Looking through the store there’s hardly anything to distinguish it from what you would see on any generic retail outlet. In a serious political movement you would expect democratic collectives to produce such things themselves. People participate in open meetings where they can debate how they want to frame the campaign’s arguments, how they should propagate them, what actions they will organise, who or what it will target, and how to take the movement forward. The result is that activists are intimately linked with the movement. People become united and empowered, which is what carries political movements onwards and allows them to grow.
None of this exists in the Kony 2012 campaign. People are expected to acquire everything they need from Invisible Children. Rather than encouraging people to form their own collectives and debate one another on what to do as soon as possible, Invisible Children rely on individual consumption of their products. The supporters are infantilised, mere consumers of an ideal and propagators of a brand. The campaign is in no way democratic, nor is ‘grassroots’, and in many ways it is borderline exploitative. Is it any wonder that people would have as much loyalty to the campaign as they would the latest fashion label or style given how little participation they are afforded?
Understanding the Kony 2012 campaign as mere marketing also allows us to understand many of its tactics. How else does one explain the celebrity culture fetish that surrounds Kony 2012? As Victor Ochen, the director of the African Youth Initiative Network, told The Guardian:
"This is a day when communities are trying to heal broken hearts, but Invisible Children want to plaster Kony’s face everywhere," he continued. "People in the affected areas find it very difficult when an organisation encourages people to wear T-shirts bearing Kony’s face. How do you think Americans would have reacted if people in another country wore Osama Bin Laden T-shirts? All of this just confirms to us that they do not care about the victims and ignore their suffering."
Surely a focus of any truly grassroots political movement would be to make strong connections with victims and African peace activists. The overuse of the Kony image makes no sense in this context, but it makes perfect sense if you’re trying to manufacture a brand.
It also helps to explains who Invisible Children aims to target to spread its message. In the initial video, it is said people should aim to influence celebrities like Lady Gaga, Rihanna, George Clooney and Ben Affleck. How this would actually help the victims of the LRA remains a mystery to me, yet support from such sources would clearly boost the profile of Invisible Children. The video also calls on people to contact commentators and politicians including Bill O’ Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Condolezza Rice and George W. Bush. To simply ignore the roles each of them played in supporting, and in the case of Rice and Bush, carrying out the devastating wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the scores of civilians killed in each conflict, highlights the complete apolitical nature of the entire campaign.
However it is important to note that the sort of political marketing used by Invisible Children is hardly an historical abstraction, but rather the latest in a clear trend towards an apolitical and corporatised form of activism. This can be seen within the ‘Make Poverty History’ campaign, which moved away from progressive calls of debt cancellation and disbanding of unjust free trade agreements, to selling wrist bands and organising music festivals. Another obvious example is Earth Hour, itself a creation of the advertising industry and with great support from the Fairfax press, aimed to create awareness of climate change through the community and business sector by convincing them to switch off their lights and non-essential items for an hour. Whilst it maybe a nice gesture, it certainly acts to distract people from the more pressing issue, namely that reducing individual consumption of electricity is likely to have little effect on carbon emissions, especially as we see record production and investment in fossil fuels by government and industry.
The trend can also be seen in mainstream political campaigning. In Australia, The ‘Kevin 07’ campaign focused on personality differences between Kevin Rudd and John Howard, distracting from the relatively minimal differences that existed between the major parties outside of WorkChoices. The result has been a demobilised base which has largely abandoned the party. The superficiality of the whole campaign was epitomised when Neil Lawrence, the man who coined “Kevin 07”, went to work for the mining industry in crafting the anti-mining tax ads that would help kill off the resource super profits tax and Rudd’s leadership. Similar is the case of the 2008 election of Barack Obama, which effectively relied on the rhetoric of ‘hope’ and ‘change’ to sell an essentially conservative candidate who has since continued much of what was started by the Bush Administration. As Noam Chomsky noted at the time:
The Obama campaign greatly impressed the public relations industry, which named Obama “Advertising Age’s marketer of the year for 2008,” easily beating out Apple. The industry’s prime task is to ensure that uninformed consumers make irrational choices, thus undermining market theories. And it recognizes the benefits of undermining democracy the same way.
………Obama’s organizers regard the network they constructed “as a mass movement with unprecedented potential to influence voters,” the Los Angeles Times reported. The movement, organized around the “Obama brand” can pressure Congress to “hew to the Obama agenda.” But they are not to develop ideas and programs and call on their representatives to implement them. These would be among the “old ways of doing politics” from which the new “idealists” are “breaking free.”
This highlights the worst feature of activism as marketing. Not only does it alienate people from campaigns by disempowering them, making campaigns unsustainable, but it is also bound to uphold the values and opinions of the status quo. This sort of marketing can only be performed by the type of large professionalised NGO’s that can afford to run these types of expensive campaigns. They require the support of wealthy donors and large advertising agencies, all of which perpetuate only the dominant privileged ideologies. Hence why agencies like Invisible Children support Western military intervention rather than respecting the agency of African peoples.
The ultimate irony of the Kony 2012 campaign is that it has occurred shortly after the recent explosion in true democratic grassroots movements worldwide. From the Arab Spring, to the Indignants movement of Spain, to the Occupy protests, the World is once again seeing mass mobilisations that arguably haven’t been seen since the early opposition to the Iraq War. Importantly, the demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt, where long term dictators were forced to step down in a matter of weeks, show the power that true democratic movements have to lead to the betterment of ordinary people, something no amount of marketing can ever provide.