According to Invisible Children, 130 million people watched the first Kony 2012 video. Think about that number. That is over 15,000 times the population of Northwestern undergrads, almost 16 times the population of Chicago and 288 times the number of people who follow Ryan Gosling on Twitter. The immensity of this number continues to shock me, almost as much as the film itself.
While I will not re-hash the litany of commentators, objectors and supporters, I do want to point out the difference between the initial documentary and its follow-up, "Kony 2012, Part 2," which I saw at Monday's “The KONY Effect: Activism and the Power of Social Media."
As the panelists addressed, the first Kony 2012 video relied on two things to get its message across. The creators built an emotional connection via images of violence integrated with relatable (and, interestingly enough, white) characters to engender trust.
The message itself is simple: Kony is the problem, Uganda is the victim and Invisible Children/the US government is the solution. My feelings about the Part 2 video — after watching it at the event and once after — are mixed. On the one hand, it is a vast improvement on the first. The film outlines the countries where Kony actually operates, as well as giving some insight into the policymakers behind the movement.
But some remnants of the old emotional bandwagon from the first movie remain. The CEO of Invisible Children is subtly defined as the movement's new leader, while the iconography interspersed throughout the film makes it still seem like a dressed-up piece of emotional propaganda.
Many of the panelists at the event share my views on the film, although the five Invisible Children representatives would probably be quick to judge my interpretation. What I find most fascinating about my experience at the panel, as well as my experience with the online movement, is the willingness of our generation to accept the first video’s message, while choosing to not watch or discuss the second. While I understand that most people have distanced themselves from IC and Kony 2012 for very good reasons (like the founder’s public display of grossness), issues in sub-Saharan Africa remain. Our ability to jump on a bandwagon, discount the cause and forget about it shows a deeper problem than that of IC or its leadership.
I would suggest that, even though "Kony 2012, Part 2" addresses much of the criticism and offers some valuable (and accurate) information about Kony’s whereabouts, people would not have watched this video if Kony 2012 Part 1 had not come out first. I hate to say it, but I think we would rather hear a black-and-white, good vs. evil social justice message than one tied to reality.
In reality, things are messy. One reality of sub-Saharan Africa is that Kony is only one of many warlords that govern and terrorize civilians on a daily basis. Also, the rates of sexual assault in this feudalistic warfare are unprecedented in our era. Experts have proposed many causes for this systematic violence, but many of them have implicated conflict minerals — minerals that have been mined in areas of armed conflict against civilians. These “conflict minerals” power our cell phones, computers and iPads. Without these devices, the message about Kony would never have been spread. As I said, messy.
While I think that the discourse that has resulted from Kony 2012 shows great progress in social media activism, I hope that our generation will recognize a bandwagon when they see one, and will do research before hopping on. Because reality is a mess compared to romanticized propaganda.