Human rights on steroids: Kony 2012 in review
By Lucy Harding
In March 2012 an online video campaigning for the arrest of Joseph Kony, alleged Commander-in-Chief of the Lord’s Resistance Army, was launched by Invisible Children Inc. Within six days the video had been watched by over 100 million people. If you hate Joseph Kony you are now joined by a host of celebrities including Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber. A few months on, the Journal of Human Rights Practice has released a collection of four reviews on the Kony 2012 video and campaign. The reviewers reflect a range of disciplinary perspectives, providing comment on the most widely shared human rights video ever. They seek to reveal how the campaign captured public attention and question whether it’s time to celebrate (and replicate) Kony 2012’s success.
So, how did a video focusing on prosecution at the International Criminal Court end up going viral? The reviews go some way towards providing an answer. Lars Waldorf identifies three key features of the campaign. First, its repackaging of humanitarianism as commodity activism; the video focuses on the producers and consumers of humanitarian products rather than desired beneficiaries of the campaign. Second, the video offers a militant version of human rights by, for instance, combining powerful ideas of both international justice and military intervention. Finally, Kony 2012 uses clicktivism – it invites viewers to simply act through a few clicks. Similarly, Sam Gregory, notes the campaign is audience-orientated and provides a space for the viewer to take manageable action. David Hickman offers a differing perspective noting that Kony 2012 employs a range of documentary modes: poetic, expository, participatory, reflexive and performative. This kitchen-sink approach acts as a powerful call to action.
The reviews offer different takes on the campaign’s success. Mark Drumbl sees the campaign as falling short in relation to both an ethics of representation and effectiveness. By obscuring the complexities of child soldiering we end up advocating ineffectual solutions – misguided law and the neglect of the root causes of violations. In contrast, the other reviewers suggest there are trade-offs between ethics and effectiveness; local voices and global reach. The campaigns’ audience-driven approach is implicated in its success at mobilising interest yet has led to critiques regarding the video’s lack of representation of Ugandan voices and agency. David Hickman argues the film would have benefited from an observational curiosity but such narratives, which take time to unfold, are ultimately incompatible with the bullet-pointed messages of campaigning. The reviewers each have a different take on the video’s legacy. Mark Drumbl, on the one hand, points to rapidly waning public attention. Lars Waldorf, on the other, asks how we can replicate such short-term noise in relation to human rights and humanitarian disasters.
Examining Kony 2012 in light of the constraints of human rights practice affects our take on the campaign in two ways. First, it suggests our critique of the campaign should account for both what is right and what works. Secondly, it forces us to confront how things could be done better. Sam Gregory provides a tangible recommendation, arguing for increased drillability in campaigning (enabling the audience to dig down beyond a core message).
Ultimately, the reviews explore and leave readers with a challenge: Can we build on the campaign’s use of social media whilst campaigning with responsibility to the stories we tell and generating sustained interest?
The Journal of Human Rights Practice (JHRP) contains four reviews of Kony 2012 which have been made free for a limited time. Authors: Sam Gregory, the Director of video advocacy organisation WITNESS; Mark Drumbl, Director of the Washington & Lee University’s Transnational Law Institute (and author of Reimagining Child Soldiers in International Law and Policy); David Hickman, a freelance documentary filmmaker; and Lars Waldorf, senior lecturer at the Centre for Applied Human Rights (University of York). The blog title, ‘human rights on steroids’, is a quote taken from Lars’ review.
JHRP is the main academic journal focusing on human rights practice and activism. The application of human rights, and its study, has grown exponentially over the last two decades. The journal covers all aspects of human rights activism, spanning professional and geographical boundaries. It seeks to challenge conventional ways of working, stimulate innovation, encourage reflective practice, highlight fieldwork and evidence, and engage a global audience.