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Kony collared by the sound of a million Tweets


In the early 2000s I worked as a communications officer for an international aid organisation. Each week, I'd see dozens of stories come across my desk from communities ravaged by natural disasters, famine and poverty.

One of the few times I went home and cried was after reading the testimonies of former child soldiers in Northern Uganda. Drought, earthquake and poverty were bad enough, but the horrors that the children of Northern Uganda were put through by the Lord's Resistance Army were something else.

I spoke about the stories with friends, but they had never even heard of the group or its leader, Joseph Kony. It just wasn't on anyone's radar.

On Thursday night I went for dinner at my sister's house and she asked me about 'this guy Kony'. She'd seen some posts about him on Facebook, and had decided to look him up on Wikipedia. She wanted to know more. She wanted something to be done.

Somehow, a conflict that never, even in its worst days, made it to the front page of our newspapers, has become a topic of conversation around the world.

We've been hearing for some time about the power of social media to change the power balance in the world — to take it out of the hands of governments and society's elite, and put it back into the hands of the masses. The potential is surely there: more than 750 million people are on Facebook, while Twitter averages around 140 million posts a day.

The electronic age has seen an explosion of voices shouting their opinions and views into cyberspace, but organising the vast mass of voices behind a single idea has proved difficult.

While social media played a role in uniting and informing protesters in the Middle Eastern uprisings, it was used mostly in support of the on-the-ground activism that brought down the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. The Occupy Movement used social media as a vehicle and awareness raising, but the proliferation of voices and agendas diluted the campaign until people stopped listening altogether.

This time, we saw something different. An orchestrated social media campaign involving a 30-minute video and a simple call to action has put Kony in the minds of millions.

US-based advocacy organisation Invisible Children has been working since 2005 to make people aware of the horrific suffering of children at the hands of the LRA in a conflict that has gone on for more than 20 years. Their first production looked at the plight of children who each night would take refuge on the streets of the city of Goma in order to avoid being kidnapped or killed by the rebels.

Their latest video sets its sights on Kony, and calls for him to be brought to justice for his crimes.

The video itself has been criticised for being overwrought. It plays on the emotions rather than providing a great deal of background information about the conflict or the current political situation.

It also glosses over the important fact that Kony and his rebels haven't been in Uganda for a number of years — he and the remnants of his followers have been hiding in South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Efforts to pursue Kony in these countries have been frustrated by the complex politics of the region.

No matter how many people in the West sign on to the campaign, bringing him to justice is a complicated prospect.

Yet what's most fascinating and exciting about the video is the way it has united people behind a single moral purpose.

There is no question that Kony should be held accountable for crimes against humanity. His depravities are outlined in numerous testimonies from former child soldiers and captives. He was the first person to be issued with an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court.

This information has been available on the web for years. But thanks to this ingenious social media campaign, we now have a million twitterers all talking about it at once.

So much so that mainstream media took up the campaign. Channel 7's Sunrise was first, announcing a rally on Sunday at Martin Place. Channel 10 devoted an hour of prime time on Thursday to airing and discussing the video. Invisible Children's global campaign on 20 April is sure to grab headlines.

And so we are about to find out how much noise a million tweets can make. Can the noise cross borders, seas and penetrate into the heart of Africa? Or will 'slacktivism' prove to be a balm on Western consciences that does little to make people's lives better on the ground?

Does it really matter to have a million, or a billion, people behind your campaign when you have no power to do anything on the ground?

The world's despots and warlords will be watching the outcome with interest. Modern technology has meant that their brutality can no longer go unwitnessed around the world. But can social media bring them to justice? If this works, they must be asking themselves, who is next on the list after Kony? 

Michael McVeighMick McVeigh is editor of Australian Catholics

Topic tags: Michael McVeigh, Kony, Uganda



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Existing comments

It'll be interesting to see how, in the future, traditional diplomacy will be affected. Will the social media, powerful but unreliable and unaccountable, make it easier or harder to solve problems by patient negotiation? Will the unleashed anger of millions around the world be harnessed for the promotion of peace or will it lead once more to demands for justice at the point of a gun?

Joan Seymour | 12 March 2012  

The whole concept is mindblowing and I am disappointed there has been so little response from your readers Why no responses?

GAJ | 12 March 2012  

While it's great that Kony's atrocities have come to light by virtue of this video, but we need to carefully review Invisibl Children's agenda. Just because they've increased awareness, doesn't mean that all the money they're raising will be well spent. They aren't an on-the-ground aid organization. Only 10% ever heads to Uganda while 30% goes to staff. Most of their income goes to paying lobbyists in the US to campaign for military intervention. This is incredibly dangerous. It turns the US army into the biggest mercenary organization on the planet. And the excuse "well at least they got the world aware" worries me. My biggest hope is that slactivism means IC become forgotten quickly, but real aid organizations ride the back of the publicity.

Rick M | 12 March 2012  

April 20 .. Too far away. The "slack" in slactivism mean everyone will have forgotten about it. Other social media activists will be watching in absolute fascination.

Rick M | 12 March 2012  

It's the end of the day, and so far only one posting for this article! Maybe all the Eureka St readers have joined the million + face bookers and Twitters, in condemning Kony and calling for him to be brought to justice.

Jo dallimore | 12 March 2012  

Just because some American makes a movie with himself and his kid as the star and then outs it in youtube, twitter/facebook, whatever - why should we suddenly listen now? Why not help the Africans who've been working tirelessly already to stop this trade in human misery? Social media in this case is a good excuse to click mouse and then do nothing. (Except boost the ego of the producer) A social media campaign is only 'ingenious' if it's accurate and genuine (disinterested)

AURELIUS | 13 March 2012  

Well put! :)

Nicole Pryor | 16 March 2012  

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