Cover the Night and the missed opportunities of Kony 2012

Kony 2012’s “Cover the Night” Flickr/Susrutac

The latest instalment of the saga of the Kony 2012 movement, “Cover the Night”, launches this evening.

Comedian Aamer Rahman summed up the rise and implosion of the Kony2012 campaign when he said people who’d posted the Youtube video on his Facebook feed had often asked him, “Don’t you believe children should be children?” He answered in the affirmative – yes, he did believe such things.

But what he had trouble swallowing was the idea that a “Kony wristband woven together by fairies out of rainbows and unicorn hair magically changes the destiny of Africa every time a white person buys one on the internet.”

In his humorous criticism of the Kony 2012 saga, Rahman has pointed to a serious question of his own: what value is there in good intentions, if they aren’t backed up by effective methods and followed up by concrete results? When the campaign spread like lightning through Facebook and Twitter, I initially welcomed the fact that young people were interested in it, and preferred links to the video over posts about the Kardashians or Justin Bieber.

Kony 2012 merchandise. Flickr/theperplexingparadox

I thought the campaign was audacious in a good way, because it was effective in its smash-and-grab use of social media to draw attention to its cause. Since the video went viral, the African Union has announced a taskforce of 5000 soldiers to focus on the Lord’s Resistance army and two resolutions were passed by the US congress, endorsing the capture of Joseph Kony.

But since then, some very valid questions have been asked about the organisation behind Kony2012 – for example, in relation to its finances, its politics and – critically – its reliance of a “white man’s burden” narrative and apparent lack of agency towards the Africans it purported to help.

More people throughout the world now know who Joseph Kony is, and it’s likely that the organisation behind the campaign has learned a thing or two about transparency.

Kony 2012. EPA/Stuart Price / Pool

But is that enough of an end result? My RMIT colleague Terry Johal believes the role of social media in civil unrest is over-stated, and Kony2012 could be seen as the latest manifestation of technology playing a part in civil action.

Before social media existed, the use of text messaging in protests brought down a Philippines president. Email lists mobilised demonstrators before the end of the New Order regime in Indonesia. One of the first ways the world found out about what was happening in Tiananmen Square in China twenty years ago was through fax machine.

Most recently pro- and anti- Assad groups have been using Facebook as a medium to spread videos in support of their positions. But in each of these circumstances, the use of technology seemed to be grassroots.

The text messages, fax machines, email lists and most recently Facebook videos were a natural evolution of strengthening an existing message and cause. Perhaps it was the deliberate, almost cynical appropriation of social media by Kony2012 that made it appear less genuine than these earlier cases, and more open to discrediting.

Revolutions are not made by technology alone – there were two aspects to Kony2012.

Invisible Children have now given us a textbook example of how to effectively use a specific media to target an audience comprised of digital natives. After all, they were responsible for the most viral video in all of the internet’s short history.

But it’s the offline activities and consequences of the use of technology that also plays a part. In this instance, Kony2012 could also – because of the stumbles and the problems with the offline component of the campaign - be read as a missed opportunity.