A young filmmaker’s chance encounter with armed militia in northern Uganda nine years ago has resulted in a media storm that today is capturing attention around the world and reinforcing claims about the power of social media. It’s also created healthy debate about the most effective way for concerned people to affect humanitarian issues half a world away, and whether advocacy and awareness are sufficient responses to a longstanding conflict.
I’m writing of the viral video by Jason Russell, a 24-year-old filmmaker who went to Uganda as a student to discover a story he could tell through film. He found the story. It was about children conscripted against their will into the Lord’s Resistance Army run by the sociopath Joseph Kony.
Russell began telling the stories of children who sought refuge in common places where their numbers gave them strength to resist forced conscription. They would leave their homes to sleep together at night in buildings or other places so they couldn’t be abducted one-by-one at home.
Now a video posted by Russell’s organization, Invisible Children, has millions of viewers and is the subject of debate. The debate asks whether the information presented in the video is accurate. Kony’s militia is no longer operating in Uganda but is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and it numbers hundreds of conscripts, far fewer than the alleged 30,000 implied in the film. And while the militia is still doing great harm, the concern of critics is whether the film’s questionable information is a solid basis for useful action.
Other critics point out that Invisible Children spends only 30 percent of the funds it raises on direct services to children. And still others ask if a misinformed public can have meaningful influence about a situation in which a better solution is to assist local persons to resolve problems on their own doorstep.
The challenge of awareness
Over the years I’ve observed that some organizations are better at marketing development and empowerment than actually doing it. Invisible Children seems unabashed about its role. Russell tells the New York Times no one wants to see another boring documentary about Africa, so he decided to make one that is “pop” and “cool.” His most telling comment is that Invisible Children strives to be the Pixar of human rights storytelling. Which begs the question: To what end? Pixar produces content for entertainment and diversion, not for social change.
This is at root the challenge of awareness created through social media. Does awareness lead to action? What kind of action? Can a campaign built around celebrity, bracelets, pledges and donations lead to meaningful action? A new word, “slacktivism,” has been coined to describe this online activism.
A different approach
In stark contrast, outside the chatter of social media and as the Invisible Children video was going viral, the General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church was training a group of college students face-to-face in Washington, D.C., about global health issues. The board was preparing the students for visits to legislators to discuss the church’s concern for health programs around the world, specifically focusing on the diseases of poverty and the church’s campaign against malaria known as Imagine No Malaria. The two methods of engagement could hardly be more different.
But both seek to engage young adults in critical issues of consequence in our hyper-connected world. There is hope in this effort. I take hope in the debate about the effectiveness of the method associated with Invisible Children. The questions of how to effectively advocate for human rights, affect government policy and empower local people to solve local problems all deserve wider discussion and action.
Each of us will decide whether Invisible Children’s method of online activism is sufficient and if we support it. I hope it feeds the kind of substantial engagement supported by the Board of Church and Society that will in the long run create skilled, effective influencers who will effect change in the long term.
If the Kony2012 campaign contributes to a meaningful consideration of how we can effectively advocate for a better world, then it is serving a useful purpose. And for lasting change and long-term influence, the model practiced by the Board of Church and Society offers a proven track record of effectiveness.