Kony 2012 – sticky sticky sticky

The unexpected rise of #StopKony coincided neatly with a great Radio 1 documentary I happened to catch post-gym on Monday night. Presented by Greg James and in traditionally R1 colloquial style, it dealt with trends and social memes; although largely focused on Youtube videos and funny Twitter trends, I was impressed with how much theory it managed to pack in and how insightful it was. (I was also surprised at how many agencies there are that deal solely with managing the content and ‘talent’ behind viral videos like Nyan Cat and Fenton-the-dog – although working in the industry I do I really shouldn’t have been).

There was a great explanation of memes about halfway through that described them as parasitic – exactly how I was taught to understand them when I studied psychology of religion. Dawkins and his fellows have gone to great lengths to explain exactly why religion spreads and sticks as it does, and have floated really interesting theories about the specific conditions that a religious idea needs to fulfil in order for it be accepted by the subconscious part of our brains and become ‘sticky’ – it’s actually amazingly formulaic.

Anyway, the #StopKony craze this week has been really interesting. I first heard about it on Monday when my friend-from-home sent me a message asking me to watch the Invisible Children documentary, and inviting me to a protest in Southampton next month. (I’d never heard of Kony before that, and as someone who keeps a fairly keen eye on international affairs I felt a little bit stupid about this). It’s clearly a very compelling documentary, and I don’t think anyone is disputing the factual contents of the IC output in the abstract. Since then, I’ve read up about the past of LRA and it is, inarguably, horrendous: child soldiers are definitely one of the most saddening and emotionally wrenching global issues, as well as one of the most complicated. I can see exactly why the film and its content has stirred up so much anger and revolutionary spirit in so many people, and as an example of some of the atrocities that occur every day in various places around the world it’s a very absorbing one.

What interests me though is why exactly #StopKony has captured the public imagination, as opposed to hundreds of other human rights abuses, brutal military or revolutionary regimes or social-economic injustices worldwide – the fact that it plays upon some of our most common and dearly held moral convictions is obvious, but there are so many other instances’ of this type of thing all over the world. What is it about this that makes it so sticky? The LRA is pushing 25 years now, and has actually declined in its power, numbers and activity in the last 10 of these. Joseph Kony hasn’t actually been in Uganda for something like six years, and it seems that the modern LRA numbers only in the hundreds and is scattered across East Africa; even when Obama sent troops to support the Ugandan counter-LRA forces last year, the rhetoric was very much to ‘hunt’ the scattered members down (incidentally, the information in reports that many of the local LRA hunters were ex-child soldiers originally recruited by Kony is strangely satisfying, at least to me)[i]. Ugandan spokespeople are said to be pretty angry that the IC video has created so much focus on their communities, the majority of whom seem to be focused on building their local infrastructures and getting on with their lives[ii].

Maybe what #StopKony is in actuality is a very, very good marketing campaign. It certainly has succeeded in creating a story for public consumption, despite its possible temporal irrelevance. Somehow it has fulfilled the criteria for meme status, ensuring its spreads like wildfire throughout social media channels – even if we don’t agree with it, we are all talking about it. And isn’t that the point of marketing, to set something on the public agenda, despite the facts?

Making #StopKony both an event, and a celebrity. IC were very clever at building up anticipation to the documentary, the style of which was not unlike the release of a film, or the release of the Brit award nominees. Since its ‘release’, continued assertion and reassertion of its existence throughout its Twitter account has transformed #StopKony from a hashtag to a separate entity: IC posing questions to followers, replying to Tweets and continually name dropping and thanking supporters and donators has separated #StopKony from its origins. #StopKony is not the documentary makers, the IC or even the Kony 2012 campaign itself, but a conviction and a concept personified and made ‘alive’- supporters can interact with this ‘voice’ that Tweets, LOLz and hashtags back.

Setting temporal limits. The scope of the campaign is psychologically inviting. Giving Kony 2012 a ‘release’ date and an ‘expiry’ date creates a clear window of opportunity which makes the whole concept so much easier to comprehend, get on board with and feel like we are contributing to. Open ended campaigns with no clear resolution are too vague and feel insurmountable. This, on the other hand, has a limited time frame so it feels manageable, as if energy invested in it won’t go to waste. Essentially, #StopKony is a great narrative with a clear beginning, middle and end, story like in its structure and composition.

Clearly defined roles. The characters in this story are clear, and by extension our role is also clearly defined. #StopKony has a clear protagonist – Joseph Kony is the focus of the campaign, and his status as ‘wanted’ by the ICC and the UN gives him ultimate ‘bad guy’ creds.  The idea that everything will be ok if he is taken out of the equation (never mind the insecurities of the nation as a whole and the unavoidable complicity with the Ugandan government that will need to happen if he is ever to be brought to justice) is pleasingly simple and attractive. And the roles of everyone involved are clearly defined – the LRA are shocking Kony is the ringleader, the UN and ICC, in this instance at least, cast as the morally righteous world powers that have officially decreed him to be so terrible.

Uniting the audience. And we, the Tweeting, ‘sharing’, ‘Liking’ global public, find ourselves comfortably cast as the empowered, united front that have the combined means to bring him to justice. Our role is clear, and the required action is relatively simple yet, potentially, vindicating and powerful. There have been various global ‘events’ planned which I’m sure the majority of those pressing ‘Attend’ on Facebook will actually show up to, but it’s really enough just to Retweet, thumbs up, email and chat about #StopKony. It does two things: shows how moral we are, and unites us with others. The diffusion of the campaign through celebrity Tweeters doesn’t need much analysis; all in all it just goes to strengthen the idea of a moral unity, a worldwide stand against something that no-one can argue is wrong.

The White House has backed #StopKony, complimenting the “hundreds of thousands of Americans who have mobilised to this unique crisis of conscience.” And I think this is broadly right – it is testimony to the continued existence of human conscience and morality that we care about these things and want to help. It shows a clear yearning for unity and empowerment that can only be made greater by the current uncertainty we face as our world slips further into economic confusion every week. In a world where the powerless feel ever more side lined and weak, this is a massive boost to morale and a chance to feel like the things we do can really matter.

The only thing is, though, that it seems that this morality and outrage may be misplaced. The critique of IC has highlighted flaws in its fund distribution as well as raised questions about its cooperation with the Ugandan government.  Its elevation of status through Tiwtter and Facebook may actually be misinforming the public about the best ways to contend human rights aberrations, and be oversimplifying the issue to a ridiculous degree. Drawing complex global issues in broad brush strokes does not educate or inform; in its worst form it makes a mockery of both those that are victims and those that are trying their best to ‘help’.

The key issue for me is why #StopKony is sticky with social media users (without being too generalistic, the young, connected and vocal) and why issues that are closer to home are not. Think of what could be achieved if young people felt empowered enough to start a similar furore over issues that actually affect them; furthermore, imagine what could happen if my generation and the ones just below understood not only the process and effects of political and social legislation, but also the methods to counteract them, and applied the same kind of moral indignation and technological propulsion to their campaign.