What a phenomenon. Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 film went viral this week. It also generated a maelstrom of criticism. If you don’t know the story check out Jason Margolis’s piece on The World from yesterday and this NYT piece from today. For other thoughtful treatments see here, here and here.
It’s mind-blowing what this video has achieved in such a short time. I first saw it when my 22-year-old goddaughter posted it to her Facebook page. I remember thinking: I didn’t know she was interested in Joseph Kony and the LRA. I suspect she was one of those many who’d never heard of him before the video made the rounds. And yet she was hooked immediately.
I have written for years about heartbreaking issues of war and atrocity and the shortfall between international rhetoric and action. I’ve often struggled with the apparent mismatch between the horror of what’s going on and people’s blithe ignorance of it. But knowledge isn’t everything. As Samantha Power pointed out in her book, A Problem from Hell, policymakers didn’t not act in Rwanda for lack of knowing what was going on. That’s even more apparent today in Syria where slaughter is unfolding daily as the world watches on Youtube.
Furthermore, as Rebecca Hamilton argued so well in Fighting for Darfur, even when a movement mobilizes enormous political pressure and political will around something as morally urgent as apparent genocide in Darfur, it does not necessarily follow that the policy prescriptions will turn out to be the right or most effective ones.
So in this case, do the benefits of mass awareness trump the downsides of distorting the story? Or will a well-meaning but not-quite-well-enough-informed mass of people put pressure in all the wrong places, making a bad situation even worse?
As for the editors among us, the video raises difficult questions about how to best tell the stories we want to tell, how best to reach people, how much to pare down the essence of a story and still stay true to reality. Is Jason Russell off the hook precisely because he’s doing advocacy? Or does he owe us something different? Whatever you might think about his storytelling, there’s no denying he’s got millions of people hooked.