x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Is a YouTube video a good way to help Africa? It just may be

The Kony 2012 campaign may be overly simplistic and deserving of certain criticisms. Some of the bashing, however, comes across as nothing but narrow-minded rants.

An embarrassed US president admits that reports of massacres taking place in an African capital are "very sketchy". Then, he is asked: "If mass genocide had broken out in a small European country, would your intelligence briefing this morning have been quite so sketchy?"

The above dialogue took place only on television, in the drama The West Wing. The realities of the situation in Rwanda, on which the episode was based, were far more complex and defied any such easy life lessons and moralising.

Before the age of social media, news events, especially in Africa, were often viewed through the prism of popular culture. And fictional accounts rarely give the full picture; reality is never as black and white as it is presented on television.

In 1994, the US showed little inclination to intervene as Hutus in Rwanda tried to exterminate the country's Tutsi minority in Rwanda. For then-president Bill Clinton, who would later claim that he was unaware of the extent of the massacres at the time, the perception was that there was very little to gain and much to lose. Since then, little has been done to end many African conflicts, including in Darfur, Congo and on the border of the two Sudans.

But times may be changing.

Two weeks ago, the name Joseph Kony was barely known outside of Africa and policymaker or activist circles. Today, he is arguably one of the most famous men on the planet.

The campaign Kony 2012, conducted by the NGO Invisible Children, has highlighted the crimes against humanity that Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army have carried out in Uganda over the last 26 years. A now-infamous video published on YouTube went "viral", with 75 million hits by the most recent account, and within days a backlash ensured.

Certainly, that video has its share of cringeworthy oversimplifications. Some criticisms were valid: the Ugandan government that is hunting Kony is not without blood on its own hands. The NGO Invisible Children does appear to be engaged in shameless self-promotion on the back of people's suffering.

But other objections were mere rants: the LRA may be waning, but that doesn't erase the litany of rape, murder and enslavement that Kony's bizarre, cult-like militia has committed. The fact that the group has been pushed out of Uganda hardly diminishes the quest for justice.

All of this detracts from a single fact: the video has, irrevocably, made Kony and his crimes famous, becoming the fastest-growing social media event of all time.

Of course, this has been a phenomenon of popular culture, not policy. Kony already was at the top of the International Criminal Court's list of most-wanted war criminals. And last year, US army advisers were sent to Uganda to help bring him to justice. However, Kony 2012, with a little help from (Facebook) friends, achieved a notoriety that dwarfed the efforts of decades of good intentions.

So did tweets and Facebook posts make a difference? And can such campaigns really change the world? Yes, and yes, it would seem.

In October 2010, a few months before the Arab revolutions started, The New Yorker magazine published a controversial essay by Malcolm Gladwell headlined Why the revolution will not be tweeted.

Gladwell dismissively asks: "Are people who log on to their Facebook page really the best hope for us all?" He concludes that the weak ties that social media are built around "seldom lead to high risk activism".

But why should they? Individuals may care about issues, but it is unreasonable to expect them to rededicate their lives.

And so, we are left with the mere perception of activism: a tweet here, a post there. But do not sell perception short. Kony is in the public consciousness and so, in a way, are the myriad of related problems that Africa faces. Leaders may or may not take effective action, but unlike Mr Clinton, they can never claim ignorance.

Do not sell 75 million people short.

 

akhaled@thenational.ae

Follow on Twitter: @AliKhaled_