Invisible Children representatives and Northwestern panelists gave views on social media influence and Kony 2012 controversy at a Northwestern University Conference on Human Rights-led discussion Monday.
Kony 2012 t-shirts, buttons, books, stickers and blank forms for addressing local policymakers paved the way to the McCormick Tribune Center forum, where students, faculty and others attended a Kony 2012 discussion panel, held in collaboration with the African Students Association, Peace Project, Inspire Media, Northwestern STAND and Northwestern Community Development Corps. The event began with a showing of Joseph Kony awareness group Invisible Children's second Kony 2012 short documentary.
Invisible Children uses the concept of wide-scale awareness to facilitate change in American and global policymaking on the issue of kidnapped children forced to work as soldiers in the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), an extremely violent central African rebel group headed by Kony. The organization has been commended and condemned for their creative, hip and arguably simple approach to solving a complex political problem.
Following the showing of Invisible Children's new video, Oyella Jane, a student from Uganda, spoke about her personal experience with the LRA – she caught a bullet in the back escaping a bus ambushed by the rebels – and her motivations behind joining Invisible Children.
"The war lasted for so long, and for all of that period, people were dying, people were crying," Jane said. "I am living testimony of [the LRA's] existence."
Five months away from graduating college, Jane took a semester off to tour and speak with Invisible Children in the U.S. She said she believes the organization has a "very strong message" for the international community, that focuses on peace.
Guest panelists Northwestern Senior Lecturer in History Jeff Rice, Communication junior Rayyan Najeeb, co-president of Inspire Media and J.D. Stier of the Enough Project, a policy partner of Invisible Children, discussed the "Kony 2012 Effect," or how social media plays a part in awareness-gathering. The panelists did not offer pro or con arguments on the issue, but engaged the audience with different theories on aspects of Kony 2012's aims and impacts.
According to Rice, it is dangerous to focus primarily on Kony when examining problems of genocide and violence in east Africa.
"These were political problems and they demand political solutions," he said. "You have to provide political analysis, not just humanitarian analysis."
A graphic in this second Kony 2012 video compared the size of Kony's 250-man army to the 440,000 people it has displaced. Rice asked "why" an army of a few hundred could displace hundreds of thousands. Pointing out that he does "think Kony is a bad man" and "should be caught and put in jail," the professor wondered if it is possible that "something other than Kony" could be displacing these people, too. Kony may be a horrible man, but he may also be an "easy target."
"What’s a mob to a king? What’s a king to a god? What’s a god to a non-believer?" said Najeeb, quoting Frank Ocean's lyric from a recent Jay-Z and Kanye West song. "The point is, there's a form of reciprocal power."
There are instances when the "mob" has the ability to influence those in power, according to Najeeb, and most will point to awareness efforts. If the information reaches enough brains, probability states that someone, somewhere will do something about it.
But how do advocacy groups make people care? Advertise. Be cool. Be unique.
"Think about how we ... are choosing to make decisions about social issues," Najeeb said. "Are we choosing to do it because it makes us look cool, are we doing it because it’s a social issue that we actually care about?"
Stier, the last speaker, endorsed social media as the best tool for spreading information. He said the LRA is "scary, it's complex, it's far away," but it "needs to be talked about. This has to happen, because otherwise the White House is going to deal with this tomorrow."
Questions during the question and answer session at the end of the event included interest about Kony 2012's negative backlash, how the backlash dialogue creates incentive to learn more about the problem and if humor is an acceptable way by which to demonstrate activism in such a sensitive case.