Source: http://invisiblechildren.com/kony-2012/ (Children, 2012)
Over the past 10 years, the internet and the way in which we use it have changed significantly, with many terming these changes as Web 2.0. The concept of Web 2.0 is the idea that over the past 10 years the internet has not changed, only the way in which we utilise it has, as started O’Reilly (2009) “Web 2.0 is not a technology, it’s an attitude.” The way in which the internet is now used has been significantly influenced by the increased usage of social media and mobile technologies. These changes have also affected how activism is now conducted and highlighted by the social media campaign, Kony 2012. The concept of this campaign was a short film highlighting war crimes committed by Joseph Kony in Uganda. See below for the full video;
This essay will explore the concepts of user participation and user created content within a social media setting, and then examine the positive and negative aspects of online activism.
According to Hinton and Hjorth (2013), only one word can be used to summarise social media and that is participation. Hinton & Hjorth (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013) observed that “the audience are no longer simply consumers of media: they have become participants”. These changes have led to the idea that users are no longer just consumers of the content, but have no taken on the role of also producers. This shift in the role of the consumer has led some academics to now term social media users as Produsers, as they are both consuming and creating content at the same time. This leads the consumer to feel that they are a stakeholder, and have contributed to the online sphere, leading to the creating of online communities. This participation has two distinct forms being that of user generated content and user-created content. User generated content is the idea that the user forwards content of another to indicate their response or support. However, user-created content is generated by the individual (Rheingold, 2008).
The idea of activism is not a new phenomenon, it has existed for many centuries and centres around the idea of commencing an action to bring about social or political change. Historically, prior to the Internet, activism occurred in the off-line spaces and was confined to a specific geographical location. However, social networking sites and other online technologies have changed the way in which activism is now conducted (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013). The study of online activism highlights a fundamental claim regarding Internet, that it is inherently democratising. As quoted by Gilmore in a Time Magazine article in 1993 “the Internet interprets censorship as a damage and routes around it” (Elmer-Dewitt, Jackson, & King, 1993). This suggested the internet’s basic functions are architected to the idea that all opinions can be freely presented and people have the ability to engage if they choose to do so. This leads to the idea that the internet, in particular, social networking has allowed groups to easily and effectively utilise social media platform to coordinate and collate support and as a tool to plan offline activism, with limited government intervention.
This concept was highlighted by the Arab Spring in 2011 in which social media help protesters distribute media and organise significant protests. These protests were mainly organised through mobile technologies such as Twitter and Facebook. This process resulted in several regime changes within various Middle Eastern countries. Although, according to Anderson (2011) social media was implicit in all these movements but was not the main cause or catalyst for the social activism.However, was utilised as a platform to further the activism and social movement.
Joyce (2011) states that there are now seven forms of activism which occur in the online sphere; documenting, broadcasting, mobilising, co-creating, systhesising, and the gathering and reallocation of resources. Mora (2013)indicates that the most important change to activism brought about by social networking is its ability to provide “channels for building relationships and connections through which information can flow.” This idea is also supported by Brodock (Brodock, Joyce, & Zaeck, 2009) which confirms the idea that current activism in the Internet age highlights the importance of social networking sites, he also suggests that relationships built through online activism are more important than content. Kony 2012, best highlights the points made by Mora and Brodock. The social media campaign focused on the concepts of building relationships by allowing consumers of the video to form a community through the campaign by liking or sharing the video. It was also observed that many people changed their profile pictures to that of the campaign logo. This allowed consumers to become ‘Produsers’ therefore, building an effective relationship between the campaign and consumers creating an online community based around the activism.
Source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/chris-holden/kony-2012-timeline_b_1387729.html (Holden, 2012)
However, the campaign also highlights the biggest issues of social media activism. As argued by Rotman (Rotman et al., 2011), social media activism has led to a rise in what he describes as ‘slacktivism’ or ‘Clicktivism’. This concept was a large volume of the engagement with the campaign has little to no effect beyond making one feel like they contributed. This was clearly evident with Kony 2012. Although, initially the campaign gained a large volume of traction, this did not equate to anything more than people participating in the campaign through the online sphere. This online participation did not convert to any real offline action by the participants.
The subject matter of Kony 2012 highlights the second main criticism of social media activism. Often this form of activism can seek to promote large-scale issues and provides consumers with a black-and-white picture to which the activism relates. However, as cited by many of the critics of Kony 2012 including Mikaela Luttrell-Rowland from Clark University‘s Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies who stated that the campaign oversimplifies the matter and gives false and misleading impressions through an over simplistic message for an extremely complex situation (Luttrell-Rowland, 2012). Luttrell-Rowland (2012) stated in response to the campaign, that it was “irresponsible to prize feel good, simplistic messages over complex history and to treat consumerist-consciousness raising as interchangeable with education.” Ultimately it was argued by critics of the campaign such as Luttrell- Rowland(2012) , Kony 2012 only promoted consumerism, not activism, and never attempted to pursued people to educate themselves on the topics of the activism.
The following two videos highlight the main criticisms of Kony 2012 and the charity behind the campaign, Invisible Children Inc.
In the first video, Jimmy Carr highlights the idea of Clicktivism.
Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hF8J99KbrZo (Four, 2012)
Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=okmswBs4rdg (Truthloader, 2013)
Ultimately the social media campaign of Kony 2012 highlights the pitfalls of online activism. Although several other issues arose with the campaign which was unrelated to social media, such as the charity facing a public relations crisis after the CEO was arrested. It still does not take away from the fact that ultimately, even the best-intentioned activism can fail if it does not engage their consumer, and force the online support to be translated into off-line action. Initially, the campaign generated a large volume of interest achieving millions of likes and views within an extremely short space of time. However, as highlighted by Rotman, the concept of ‘Slacktivism’ became evident as consumers sought to feel they have contributed. However, due to nature and topic, were unwilling to actually convert online support to offline actions.
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Truthloader (Writer) & T. Loader (Director). (2013). Joseph Kony 2012: What happened to Invisible Children? – Truthloader.