April 20, 2012, was supposed to be the day the Internet changed the world. These were the early, optimistic days of “online activism,” and a little YouTube documentary called Kony 2012 had recently racked up 100 million views in less than a week.
Buoyed by their own virality, and the belief that clicks could actually count for something, the nonprofit behind the video planned a global rally unlike any the world had ever seen. On April 20, they promised, thousands of protesters would gather in global cities for an event called Cover the Night, plastering awareness materials on bridges and telephone poles and demanding justice for the Ugandans who had suffered at the hands of longtime warlord Joseph Kony.
But in L.A., three people showed up. In New York and Sydney, turnout was much the same. On April 21, the day after the day the Internet was supposed to change the world, supporters and critics of the Kony campaign woke with the conviction that “online activism” just didn’t add up.
“A Kony wristband woven together by fairies out of rainbows and unicorn hair [doesn’t] magically change the destiny of Africa every time a white person buys one on the Internet,” snarked comedian Aamer Rahman during one on-stage performance.
He wore a sweatshirt that said “Do the Right Thing”: presumably, anything besides repost that ubiquitous video or send yet another #StopKony tweet.
In the three years since then, of course, the reputation of online activism — also known, dismissively, as slacktivism, clicktivism and hashtag activism — hasn’t much improved. Cynics sighed, huffed and eye-rolled through the rise of #BringBackOurGirls, a campaign that (as we now know) did not actually return 250 Nigerian schoolgirls to their families. The Internet promptly picked up and dropped a number of other causes, from the treatment of women to the depiction of Asian Americans on TV.
For every movement and hashtag that has come after, the April 20 implosion of Kony 2012 is a critical touchstone — a particularly epic failure for doubters to gesture toward.
And yet, even as we question new online movements, the legacy of Kony 2012 is subtly changing. “Kony2012 was criticized for its failure to achieve its stated policy objective and generate significant offline action,” summed one recent paper in the European Journal of Social Psychology. But Kony did succeed in other things: like getting millions of people, from different countries and backgrounds, to unite around someone else’s distant suffering.
In academic terms, researchers call this an “emergent opinion-based social identity” — a bit of jargon that’s actually worth understanding, given its huge implications for everything from Kony to #BlackLivesMatter to the tea party.
See, as the social psychologist Emma Thomas and several co-authors explain in that recent journal article, the way we see ourselves is really central to how (and whether!) we pursue social change. You wouldn’t be surprised to see hardcore vegetarians campaigning for animal rights, or avowed feminists fighting abortion laws — for them, the political is personal. These issues lie at the heart of their preexisting identities.
It’s really tricky, however, to persuade people to care about things that have nothing to do with them. The average person encounters thousands of injustices every week — I spy two biggies, on Tuesday’s frontpage alone — but most of these injustices are (a) insurmountable or (b) really, really far from home. Between the powerlessness, the distance and the sheer number of tragedies in which someone (anyone!) should intervene, it’s impossible to get eyeballs on an obscure human rights issue like the reign of Kony.
The exception, Thomas and her colleagues write, is when an issue like Kony transcends the news and becomes a marker of identity.
On social media, of course, that now happens all the time: Every #YesAllWomen and #BlackLivesMatter declares who we are, what we stand for personally. It’s so easy to forget that wasn’t always the case — that in fact Kony, the “most viral video of all time,” was the first deployment of this thing we’re now calling “emergent opinion-based social identity.”
By most measures, of course, Kony 2012 was a flop. While Thomas’s research found that many supporters of the campaign did take real-life action, and while those petitions and phone calls did result in renewed commitments from the U.S. government and the United Nations, Kony has still not been captured. The campaign against him also suffered, infamously, from questions about its motives and its funding; the nonprofit behind it, which never recovered from the fallout, has said it expects to close permanently this year.
And yet, in the sense that Kony 2012 served as a social model for every online movement that came after — many of which would actually change the world — Kony was a success. Without it, there’d arguably be no #BlackLivesMatter or #JusticeforAll. We wouldn’t see our personal involvement and identification with these hashtags the same way.
On Saturday, the Princeton sociologist Timothy Recuber delivered a lecture in New York on the efficacy of activism in the social media age. He’s coined an intriguing new term, called “infoguilt,” to define the self-loathing social media users commonly feel when they see bad news online and don’t repost it.
Was there infoguilt before Kony? If so, I don’t remember it. But there’s now “a new cultural consensus,” Recuber said:
“The least unacceptable response to suffering is to speak out against it.”
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