When George Clooney was arrested earlier this month in front of the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, it was more than just a civil disobedience public relations stunt to raise awareness of human rights violations in Sudan and South Sudan.
For the past year, Clooney has been one of the most vocal backers of a private satellite network — the Satellite Sentinel Project — to track human rights violations across Sudan in real-time. The project, which also has the backing of Don Cheadle, Matt Damon and Brad Pitt among others via the Not on Our Watch organization, offers the prospect of global accountability for genocide and war crimes anywhere in the world. Based on its initial success, we could be witnessing the beginning of a new age of high-tech celebrity activism, in which traditional awareness stunts and fundraisers are replaced with innovative technology.
In this brave new world of celebrity activism, technology has the potential to bring about regime change and concrete political results. The data from Clooney’s satellite network is collected, analyzed and corroborated by the likes of Harvard and Google. Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court, which is deciding the case against individuals such as Sudanese Defense Minister Abdelrahim Mohamed Hussein specifically cited the months of satellite results from Clooney’s private satellite network, according to a Dec. 3, 2011 report by Time Magazine’s Mark Benjamin. The network reportedly has the ability to track troop movements, burned and bombed villages and massive population re-locations.
While celebrity activism is a notably fickle endeavor, it’s clear that new Web-based tools are leading to radically new types of initiatives to bring about political change. Look no further than the hyper-viral Kony 2012 campaign, which raised awareness around the world about Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony. What made the campaign so powerful was the ability to message 20 major "culturemakers" (i.e. celebrities) to get the word out about Kony, via social media. With a simple tweet, these celebrities were able to recruit thousands of people to the cause and attract the attention of U.S. legislators. After all, it’s one thing when the United Nations comments on Kony, but it’s quite another when Oprah or Kim Kardashian messages a veritable army of followers with the plea: “Stop Kony!!!”
There is a downside to all of this activism, of course. Writing in the March 26 issue of The New Yorker, John Colapinto explains in-depth how and why celebrities get into the philanthropy game. Many celebrities, to nobody’s surprise, have a shallow understanding, at best, of what they are supporting or why. Often, these efforts are merely the fad du jour or an attempt to rehabilitate a reputation over the short-term. In hindsight, the whole Kony 2012 campaign was deeply flawed from the beginning — even before the series of bizarre and unfortunate incidents that enveloped the organizers of the campaign.
However, there is something wonderfully romantic in the notion that the leading men and women of Hollywood are real-life heroes in addition to playing them on the big screen. Now that social media — especially Twitter — has empowered celebrities to get their messages out to a truly global audience, will they be looking for new ways to use technology to further their philanthropic causes? Clooney’s satellite network, which he refers to as the "anti-genocide paparazzi", could be just the beginning of a new era of high-tech celebrity activism. Now that non-profit organizations are acclimating to the idea of using drones to monitor abuses around the world, it’s possible to envision a future in which celebrities operate their own private drones and satellite networks to achieve their philanthropic goals.
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