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#Kony2012 – Ethical Video Activism Alternatives

KONY 2012

One thing must be said – the #kony2012 campaign is one of the most successful human rights video advocacy campaigns ever. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good example of video advocacy.

Since the video appeared there’s been a flurry of comment online regarding the ethics of the campaign – from marginalising the agency of Africans, propagating the myth of the “white man’s burden”, supporting US military intervention as well as supporting a Ugandan government with its own dubious human rights record. Their current hashtag of #stopatnothing¬†only emphasises this lack of clear ethics. We’d like to hope at least that they will stop at recruiting child soldiers ūüôā

I agree with all these critiques. What I’d like to add to the discussion is what effective and ethical video advocacy looks like, in a similar vein to WITNESS’ excellent piece, Understanding #kony2012 as #Video4change.

EngageMedia’s work centres on how video and internet technologies can be used as effective tools for people at the grassroots to advocate on social justice and environmental issues. In many ways, the Kony campaign tells us that these methodologies can be successful. The campaign is working very effectively at raising the issue and also at mobilising people. It may even reach is a very tangible goal, the arrest of Joseph Kony.

But it also shows us how these methodologies can be used in the wrong way by being manipulative, top-down and denying the agency of those on the ground.

Distribution, Outreach and Engagement

In terms of its methodologies, rather than its politics, there’s a lot to learn from this video campaign. For me, the most interesting things happen after the video.

  • There are immediate and tangible actions you can take to get involved and spread the word. The actions range from signing a petition, getting an ‘action kit’ and giving money. They don’t leave you wondering what can I do, the options are right there.
  • Social media outreach and pressure on powerful people – tweeting and Facebooking is highly encouraged and the site makes it easy to “contact” powerful people to place pressure on them.
  • Materials are available for downloading to spread awareness and mobilise
  • There is a¬†mobilisation you can join – crucial for face to face networking
  • As soon as you land on the campaign website they capture your email to build a database of supporters they can mobilise.

Interestingly the video is very long, and in fact, the first 5 minutes is really quite jumbled, off-topic and confusing. I won’t go too much into the video’s construction, all I’ll say is that the editing and graphics are slick but the story leaves much to be desired. Plus given the length of the video, 30 minutes, I’m surprised it’s gone ‘viral’.

These are similar techniques to what we teach people in our workshops. The difference is we want people to do this for themselves with their own agency and autonomy. We don’t do it for them as some kind of angels of salvation. But it’s useful to understand the methodologies, why they work and how they could be put to better use in a more politically and ethically ‘post-colonial’ way.

Other Ways

So what does a more ethical version of this type of work looks like? And how do ‘outside’ organisations relate to those ‘inside’ affected regions? We like to think that EngageMedia is working exactly on that issue. Here are some lesson’s we’ve learnt from working in places like West Papua, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

  1. Don’t ‘help’ – build solidarity not charity. That means working with people and coming in on an equal footing. It also doesn’t mean putting other people on a pedestal. Don’t agree? Express it and have a debate the fleshes out the issue.
  2. Build the skills of affected people so they can run and implement workshops with others. Build-in your own redundancy.
  3. Build local voices – there’s a little concept called¬†Participatory Video¬†that is in use by thousands of organisations worldwide. The concept is simple – work with local people to help them tell their own stories for themselves. Don’t tell them what their story is. A video we helped produce in West Papua,¬†Love Letter to a Soldier, is a good example of this. Its Director just won Best Documentary at Indonesia’s leading social change film festival.
  4. Video and the internet technologies make it so much easier for first-person stories to be told with all their complexity. Outsiders can bring analysis and perspectives that haven’t been thought of, that¬†shouldn’t¬†be¬†denied, but they also bring their own biases and lack of local knowledge. Given it’s now so much easier to have the people effected to speak for themselves this should be encouraged.
  5. Can’t understand the language? Subtitle it! Online, crowdsourced systems like¬†Universal Subtitles, now Amara,¬†make it easy and reduce the barriers of language.
  6. Build local networks and work with local social movements that can act together and build their own agency.

All this isn’t to say they outside attention isn’t useful. Quite often it is very effective and bringing governments to account, but it all depends on what kind of attention, what the demands are, how it developed and the ethics of what it’s asking for. Calling foreign military intervention and support for the corrupt Ugandan government isn’t a great demand.

We also need to¬†acknowledge¬†that not everyone can tell a good story. ‘Outsiders’ should still be able to speak on issues of concern in places that are not their own. An American will know how to push the right cultural buttons of an American audience. An ‘outsider’ in this sense is at a disadvantage.

The #Kony2012 campaign is remarkable as regards their ability to draw such widespread attention and engagement with a reasonably limited budget. Whilst one level they’ve been hugely effective at tapping bottom-up social media networks, they’ve failed dismally at tapping bottom-up participatory media. The uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa have shown us what an empowered citizen media looks like. Invisible Children’s patronising, neo-colonial approach, however, has taken only the promotional abilities of these technologies, but none of the substance.