Bad bad video! Or what we’ve learned from KONY 2012 to change the world for better

The past few months saw a lot of Africa experts complain about the KONY 2012 video, the most cited drawbacks being:

  • wrong timing for Uganda (the theatre of Joseph Kony’s operations shifted from Northern Uganda in December of 2005 to neighboring countries)
  • oversimptlistic treatment of the on-the-ground reality (good vs evil)
  • perennial patronizing attitude by the ignorant Westerners misrepresenting the complex truth to Western audiences
World map of mobile internet penetration (May 2012)

But really no-one studied the 30-min video from the point of view of media for development, taking into consideration the challenges and advantages of mass communication in the Web 2.0 age (See The 10 Commandments of Development Communicator). Because of the digital divide, it is still predominantly Western audiences that are able to implement social awareness campaigns on the scale similar to what the Invisible Children did. Besides, for many a nation in the non-Western world voluntarism is low on the public agenda – one half of the population is busy getting super rich, the other one is struggling to find enough food to survive. The stable middle class base is rare throughout the Majority World.

We disagree with Ugandan journalist Angelo Izama when he argues that the KONY 2012 campaign will not make Joseph Kony more famous. Instead, he suggests, “it will make Invisible Children famous.” Mr Izama overlooks the fact that any media campaign contributes to the increase in popularity of its producers. Especially if it is being banned or protested against.

As Tashi Tagg, a noted South African TV critic and pop culture expert from The South African TV Authority, noted in a conversation with Thinus Ferreira, a media expert,  the South African broadcasters’ bru-ha-ha to yank a recent Nando’s Diversity ad off the air “gives Nando’s an edge on the advertising scene. It’s giving them loads of free advertising and buzz – everyone’s talking about them. Their ad is doing well on the internet and they don’t have to pay broadcasters to flight it. So it’s ultimately Nando’s who is winning.” Tashi Tagg also says that it gives Nando’s “loads of fodder for future campaigns. They can run with the copy: ‘Nando’s – so spicy … the broadcasters are too chicken to air our ads’,” she says.

The Nando’s Diversity TV commercial went viral and has amassed more than 400,000 views since June, 1 when the TV advert was posted. Another controversial Nando’s video “Last Dictator Standing” has amassed a stunning 1, 220, 000+ views since November 2011.

KONY 2012 did make Joseph Kony famous. The real practical question is for how long? With whom is he famous now? (Did he go viral in non-English-speaking countries like Kazakhstan?) And what did we in the Majority World countries learn from the Invisible Children campaign to tackle the numerous invisible issues at home? How can a media campaign of this kind mobilize any society in the world?

One issue to consider as a lesson learned  from KONY 2012 is enhancing the democratic principle of representation. The famous dictum by Winston Churchill goes, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” It used to be for a long time (and in most parts of the world it still is) that, for the people to reign according to democratical principles, there had to be a person representing a group. The internet is changing that. As shown in KONY 2012, the Invisible Children campaigners used social networks to enhance the effect of their conversation with the representatives of the US people. Without the resonance of the Lord’s Resistance Army issue achieved by Facebook-empowered campaigns, no-one in Washington, D.C. wanted to talk about an obsolete warlord from Central Africa — Joseph Kony isn’t considered a threat to the US national security and, thus, there used to be no mechanism or interest among politicians to stop the violance perpetrated by his guerilla group.

With this said, let’s ask ourselves what stops citizens of other nations from campaigning to put in the limelight any humanitarian challenge anywhere in the world? Issues like increasing inter-African trade, providing one billion people with enough nutrition to get them off the brink of chronic starvation (See The worst music with the best intentions insight on a Zimbabwean fundraising tune for Somalia), helping North Korea out of its cul-de-sac (See My North Korean film classes in humanity and creativity), resolving the societal and infrastructural challenges in Haiti?

One of the numerous lists of countries to media-campaign for was prepared by Open Doors, a non-denominational mission supporting persecuted Christians in 50 countries where Christianity is socially or legally discouraged or oppressed.

2012 World Watch List of Persecuted Christians by Open Doors, a non-denominational mission supporting persecuted Christians in 50 countries where Christianity is socially or legally discouraged or oppressed

 2012 World Watch List of Persecuted Christians by Open Doors

  1. North Korea
  2. Afghanistan (See I want my TV in Afghanistan)
  3. Saudi Arabia
  4.  Somalia (See What the world’s only active Somali archaeologist has in common with the Iraqi-British winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize)
  5. Iran
  6. Maldives
  7. Uzbekistan (See Post-Soviet nations gradually embrace high-speed overland transportation)
  8. Yemen
  9. Iraq (See Steppes In Figures #5: Ukraine and the world)
  10. Pakistan (See Photojournalism prize offers €50,000 grant to develop a project in Zimbabwe)
  11. Eritrea
  12. Laos
  13. Northern Nigeria (See Copyright wars II: What “pirates” of Hollywood (read “American film-making pioneers”) share with Nollywood marketers)
  14. Mauritania
  15. Egypt
  16. Sudan (See The debut list “40 Most Powerful Celebrities In Africa”: dominated by musicians+overwhelming number has a very small social media presence+some did very little to support social causes)
  17. Bhutan
  18. Turkmenistan (See Adasia: untapping media markets in Central Asia)
  19. Vietnam
  20. Chechnya
  21. China (See From Geely in Ukraine to Chery in Zimbabwe: how many China’s global brands can you think of?)
  22. Qatar
  23. Algeria
  24. Comoros
  25. Azerbaijan (See Multikulti Ukraine)
  26. Libya
  27. Oman
  28. Brunei
  29. Morocco
  30. Kuwait
  31. Turkey (See Turkey’s ‘soap power’)
  32. India (See India’s creative industries)
  33. Burma (Myanmar) (See Myanmar. Its soldiers, pirates, posters and theaters)
  34. Tajikistan
  35. Tunisia
  36. Syria
  37. United Arab Emirates (See Why I am excited about flying through Dubai or Why I am excited not to fly through OR Tambo in Jozi)
  38. Ethiopia (See Fast readers of Ethiopia or Addis’ avid culture of newspaper reading)
  39. Djibouti
  40. Jordan
  41. Cuba
  42. Belarus
  43. Indonesia
  44. Palestinian Territories
  45. Kazakhstan (See Afriwood to participate in 2012 Ukrainian Content Market)
  46. Bahrain
  47. Colombia
  48. Kyrgyzstan
  49. Bangladesh
  50. Malaysia

Another issue that KONY 2012 made us think about is the celebrity factor. Say whatever you want but the media trick the video and the related to it campaign used to publicize the persona of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony is something to emulate in the future.

Don’t get us wrong, we are not saying that pacifying Kony is the only solution to the guerilla war problem facing Central Africa. Take Zimbabwe for an example. Last month, Senator Femai, a member of Zimbabwe’s main opposition party the Movement for Democratic Change suggested that to stop HIV women should have fewer baths and shave off their hair to make them less attractive. (See Top ranking cities for health safety and security list. Scrap it!) Petina Gappah, an international trade lawyer and Zimbabwean-born writer, commented on her Facebook wall (See The creator of Ted reinvents conferencing):

The Femai story has gone viral. As always in the UK, it is all about [President Robert] Mugabe and Zimbabwe. No mention at all that Femai is one of [Prime Minister Morgan] Tsvangirai’s men, one of the people that the British are actively supporting to take over.

Petina Gappah’s spirited debut collection An Elegy for Easterly

The role of celebrity culture in media is huge. From George Clooney to Bono and Angelina Jolie, global celebrities (predominantly from the West rather than anywhere else–why, anynone?) promote social causes across the world and get celebrated (or criticized and, thus, publicized) along the way.

KONY 2012 did not invent this. What the campaign video did is to work with the reality that we live in and harness the celebrity factor to promote the cause Invisible Children fight for. The NGO identified the right celebrities and shaped public opinion with their help. Moreover, Invisible Children thought it through and applied the celebrity principles to the villain Kony to publicize his persona by using the United States political imagery and gimmicks. Whether wrong or right, this move did put Joseph Kony into the public mentality. It’s already a different question how to do it right to eliminate the problems Kony’s LRA troops are causing in the Central African region.

To conclude, we can only ask all the KONY 2012 critics, especially from the African crowd of experts, how can you maximize the publicity effect created by the US-made video? What can you do to educate the world (especially the Majority World) about the Kony-related problem, the lack of cooperation between Africans on the continent or the challenges of urbanization in Africa. (See Urban rail in Africa: Whether “freedom trains” will solve Zimbabwe’s traffic jam problems, more attention should be paid to what happens when you board at A and get off at B. And don’t forget the bike!SinS book review. Africa Rising: how 900 million African consumers offer more than you think and Navigating African cities through our own unique and diverse mental maps)

It’s easy to make a name for oneself by criticizing something that the US enthusiats did to help solve a problem that was low on their government’s agenda, something that went viral because of the efforts and media expertise of the US Americans. And before you criticize Steppes in Sync for this article, think of how many Africans (like Kofi Annan) work for the good of other nations and how expertised they are in this pursuit? Why was Open Doors founded by a Dutchman (one of those Westerners)? While a Zimbabwean Pentecostal leader Emmanuel Makandiwa or a Nigerian prophet TB Joshua are busy stirring controversy by picking up a new Mercedes or prophesising deaths of African presidents. (See Digitalizing religious discourse in Zimbabwe) Instead, these Africans could be doing their best to help the starving kids of  Somalia or the persecuted Christians in North Korea?


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