Kony 2012 became the most viral video in history as it pierced through social media networks and attracted online attention one year ago. What did Kony 2012 teach us about the use of new media to effectively launch an activist campaign?
The Kony 2012 campaign is a successful example of how new media activism can capture attention quickly, mobilize action and influence political decisions. Kony 2012 is a short film developed by Invisible Children and released on YouTube last spring to promote the “Stop Kony” movement. The campaign’s intention was to make a Ugandan militia leader and fugitive, Joseph Kony, globally known in an effort to arrest him by December 2012 when the campaign expired. Kony is wanted by the International Criminal Court for accusations of mass kidnapping, murder and sexual abuse. Many questioned whether an online video could make a war criminal a household name and how people would work together to capture him. How could new media users across the globe stop Joseph Kony and bring an end to his abduction of thousands of people in Uganda?
New media strategies by activists are producing greater visibility for political issues in order to influence public perceptions and government decisions. Online activism has the potential to spread information and mobilize collective action faster than traditional forms of activism, such as staging large riots or protests. The cyber sphere offers activists a larger platform to rally and create buzz about their issue, which leads them to become less dependent on journalists to cover their story. However, many argue that these social media campaigns lack the necessary components that define activism and enable its effectiveness. Opponents of new media activism dub individuals who partake in them as “slacktivists,” which criticizes the lower levels of exertion for participation. This is an unfair judgment because online activism can create informed and committed individuals who may have the potential to form a lasting impact on important issues. New media activism campaigns like Kony 2012 are changing previously held perceptions about activism and its ability to form a collective identity and produce democratic change without the intermediary role of journalists.
Although Kony was not captured within the one year deadline, the video was a success in terms of its ability to mobilize activists online. Some may think that the campaign was flawed and unsuccessful because it did not reach its ultimate goal, but this is not crucial to my argument. Above all, Kony 2012 showed the world how new media can serve as an effective outlet for activism. Kony 2012 became the most viral video in history when it reached 100 million views in six days. A-list celebrities including Oprah, Rihanna and Justin Bieber showed their support by tweeting about the video, which influenced more individuals to learn about Kony 2012. The hashtag #StopKony continued to trend on twitter as people were influenced by the video (Shaw). Prominent public figures including former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton also lent their support to capture Kony.
As the message of Kony 2012 spread, online voices amplified and joined together in a matter of days to mobilize action. This influenced political decisions and raised monetary support capable of producing significant change. Invisible Children organized lobby meetings with Congress, which resulted in increased funding for programs that encourage Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army to surrender (Goldberg). On January 13, President Obama also issued a law to extend the Rewards for Justice Program, which rewards individuals who provide information leading to the capture of those who have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. Those who watched Kony 2012 online also gave enough support to provide aid to several of Kony’s victims.
Scholars like Sobieraj would argue that this form of activism is not enough to create a lasting impact or draw the attention of journalists because it lacks the intense physical component seen in protests. Van de Donk and Foederer argue that online activism cannot replace the emotional intensity and thrill generated by physically protesting. Traditionally, activists had to riot or cause public damage in order to receive attention and create a significant impact in public discourse (Sobieraj). A common concern is that the lack of face-to-face interaction prevents the formation of long lasting effects and a coherent community (Etzioni and Etzioni).
I disagree with the assertion that online activists lack real commitment and do not contribute to meaningful change. It is understandable to think that low input activity online causes low impact; however, new media activism strategies have the potential to deliver results more quickly than on-the-ground protesting. Activism should not be judged by its medium or the amount of effort contributed, but rather evaluated by how the spread of information increases awareness and causes individuals to act on issues. The cyber sphere has strength in numbers that can lead self-motivated people to achieve a common goal with a collective vision. This is done by sharing information through tweets, Facebook updates and email. Sharing a political message or video creates a personal connection to the issue and closes the credibility gap since people are more likely to support an issue if they see their friends endorse it or post about it. This act of sharing information may persuade social network contacts to consider taking a position on the issue. Thus, activism on social media increases the relevance and credibility of the issue, while influencing what people will talk about online.
Moreover, what was once defined as effective activism is changing due to the capabilities of interconnected social media networks. The way individuals respond to problems and show their support is shifting as more people engage and share their opinions through new media. Activists groups are no longer dependent on journalists to achieve their goals because a story can connect to audiences faster through social media networks than with traditional forms of media. Kony 2012 captivated audiences overnight using YouTube and social networks before the mainstream press covered the issue. Thus, press coverage may become a secondary priority that follows the implementation of new media tools to spread messages and mobilize support.