Asch Harwood is the Africa program research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Update: I was recently interviewed on NPR’s "On the Media." You can listen here.
When Invisible Children released its call to “make Kony famous” on April 20, Malcolm Gladwell’s piece in the New Yorker about the inadequacy of social media to affect social change came immediately to mind. The Kony 2012 video, with its eighty million plus YouTube views, could easily be seen as a litmus test for his hypothesis: can online networks translate into offline action?
If we are to believe press reports about Friday’s “Cover the Night” event, I can only imagine that Gladwell is feeling at least a little vindicated.
The 80 million YouTube viewers didn’t turn out to plaster their cities with images of Joseph Kony. Nor did many who RSVPed via Facebook to local events.
So yes, from that perspective, it was a failure. Characterizations of “slacktivism” are apt.
But did we realistically expect that our cities would be inundated with protestors demanding Kony’s arrest, that Times Square would be blanketed with images of the warlord, or even worse, that well-meaning but ill-informed young people would start trouncing off to Uganda in search of Joseph Kony (not that anyone suggested the latter)?
Despite the no shows, I would like to offer an alternative perspective--that the interest in, and debate about Africa that it inspired, even if just for a handful of young people, is a success in itself.
In my (limited) experience, Africa does not inspire the masses of Americans. The “dark continent” remains dark for most. As a result, I spend a lot of time trying to get people to listen.
The Kony video was remarkably successful at this. For fifteen minutes, people were talking about Africa. That’s not bad considering how hard it is to get the continent on anybody’s agenda.
And a few people, many of whom were not previously interested, did indeed show up for events or put up posters (these notwithstanding). So, in this case, I’m not sure we need people to go out and “do” something. Instead, we should hope that they have been inspired to go beyond Joseph Kony to discover Africa in its diversity and energy, and perhaps, eventually choose Africa as their course of study or vocation.