The popularity of digital platforms, particularly social media, has swept away in a whirl the traditional gate-keepers of information – journalists, scholars, politicians. By now this is an old story, often told. Information, once scarce, has become overabundant, and those whose business it was to sell it find themselves without a market. Not surprisingly, they consider this a moral disaster. People with university degrees are being pushed aside by amateurs. Those who know are shouted down by those who don’t. Instead of editorial control, there is a babble of ranters; instead of truth, oversimplified bile.
A new class of digital pundit has arisen, comfortable in the new landscape and able to make sense of it for the rest of us: Clay Shirky, Ethan Zuckerman, Jeff Jarvis, and Yochai Benkler are the best of the breed. The trait separating these analysts from mass media gate-keepers is openness to the new.
For this reason, I have been fascinated by Ethan Zuckerman’s reflexively hostile reaction to the online video, Kony 2012.
If you just fell to earth from another galaxy, then you haven’t heard about Kony 2012, a 29-minute documentary produced by (and starring) Jason Russell, head of the nonprofit advocacy group Invisible Children. The subject of the video is Joseph Kony, a Ugandan warlord portrayed in the style of the ogre of the fairy tale who steals children at night. Viewers are asked to “make Kony famous” using various devices such as contacting entertainers and policy-makers. The purpose is to mobilize global opinion in support of Kony’s arrest in 2012.
Kony 2012’s popularity has redefined the meaning of “going viral.” Six days after being posted, it had “generated well over 100 million views” spread across many countries and different platforms. By comparison, Lady Gaga at her most crowd-pleasing needed 18 days to reach the same number. Given its obscure subject matter and ADD-defying length, Kony has pushed way beyond record-breaking: it’s a digital monstrosity that needs to be dissected and classified.
I hope to do something like that in a future post. Here, however, my aim is to explore the curiously old-fashioned response by Zuckerman to the documentary.
As with grief, public reaction to a viral message follows predictable stages, among which anger plays a prominent part. Righteous indignation can be a ploy to ride on the original message’s popularity – Evgeny Morosov, for one, has carved out a tidy little niche by pooh-poohing every prominent instance of online activism. More frequently, anger is rooted in pure envy, masked by a show of high-mindedness: “Why Kony and not the worthier X?” is a wearily familiar pattern of complaint.
Intensity of anger being proportional to the success of the message, the jealous rage aimed at Kony 2012 and its producers has been ferocious – accusations of racism, colonialism, brainwashing, and war-mongering have flown thick and fast. Russell, who said he felt he had become “the devil” to his opponents, seems to have suffered a breakdown – adding the taste of blood to the feeding frenzy.
Some of the criticism aimed at a viral message, however, is of a healthier kind. It questions the facts, logic, and underlying motives of the material. A blog started by a 19-year-old student on the heels of Kony’s success parsed the funding for Invisible Children, and found that most of the money went into “awareness” campaigns rather than to help children in Uganda. (The new blog received over a million views within 24 hours.) Others pointed to the organization’s low transparency rating, and to the $30 cost of the anti-Kony “action kit” promoted in the documentary. To top it all, Joseph Kony, the fairy-tale monster, had apparently sought safer haunting grounds in the Congo, yet the documentary hoped for Ugandan government action for his capture.
This is the global information sphere at its best, performing a function journalism lays claim to but rarely if ever fulfills. The obscure message-senders behind a surprisingly popular attempt at political influence and persuasion were researched, poked and pried at by multiple hands, finally revealed to the public in their history, warts and all. Russell and Invisible Children lacked the odor of sanctity and the nuance of scholarship, but nothing was exposed to destroy the credibility of their campaign.
I have watched the video several times. A slick composite of emotion-laden visuals, it links small actions by the viewer to an important intermediate goal (Kony’s arrest), then to cosmic transformation (a political nirvana in which the public, armed with social media, makes known its wishes, if not its commands, to the people in power). Stripped of the hippy-dippy idealism, it’s a fair description of today’s political dynamics.
Puzzled by the controversy, I turned to the digital pundits for an explanation. I was particularly interested in Ethan Zuckerman’s opinion of the video, because he’s an expert on sub-Saharan Africa as well as a brilliant analyst of the online environment. And as it happened, Zuckerman had just dashed off a long post on Kony. Reading it only deepened my puzzlement.
Zuckerman is generous regarding Invisible Children’s motives. He doesn’t think Jason Russell is a racist or a warmonger, although he’s willing to cite tweets mocking the “white savior” and his “American war of choice.” His own criticisms are, if anything, less coherent – and, in the end, all too familiar.
At the heart of Zuckerman’s critique of Kony 2012 is a horror of “simplification.” Versions of this word appear over 30 times in the post. Zuckerman possesses an expert’s knowledge of the situation in Uganda, and he’s overwhelmed by its complexity. Geography and lack of infrastructure, he writes, makes capturing Kony an almost impossible task. Even if it were possible, it would mean attacking and killing the very child-soldiers Invisible Children wishes to save. Even if these could be saved, it would mean strengthening the hand of Uganda’s unsavory strongman, Yoweri Museveni. Even if we were willing to swallow this bitter pill, Kony anyhow is now out of reach in the Congo. And so it goes.
Zuckerman’s concern is the imposition of “simple narratives” on the “wildly complicated conflicts” in Uganda and the Congo. “Here’s the problem – these simple narratives can cause damage.” By failing to keep our eyes on all moving parts, we may break the machinery in the attempt to fix it. Instead of capturing a moral monster, we may prolong the life of a thuggish regime.
A “more complex narrative” proposed by Zuckerman “would look at the odd, codependent relationship between Museveni and Kony” and the troubles of the Acholi people to which Kony belongs. “Such a narrative,” Zuckerman then admits, “would be lots harder to share, much harder to get to ‘go viral’.” Which leads to a Hamlet-like concluding soliloquy:
As someone who believes that the ability to create and share media is an important form of power, the Invisible Children story presents a difficult paradox. If we want people to pay attention to the issues we care about, do we need to oversimplify them? And if we do, do our simplistic framings do more unintentional harm than intentional good? Or is the wave of pushback against this campaign from Invisible Children evidence that we’re learning to read and write complex narratives online, and that a college student with doubts about a campaign’s value and validity can find an audience?
As I said before: Zuckerman is a brilliant and knowledgeable analyst of Africa and the information landscape. I have often cited his “cute cat theory” of online activism, which has a witty name but deep explanatory power. Kony 2012, in fact, proves the theory: the demographic which first diffused the video also populates the cute cat websites. Yet something about Kony disturbed him, and I’m not sure, from his post, that he understood exactly what that was.
My guess is that it has to do with gate-keeping and agenda-setting. For some time, Zuckerman has performed the function of a gate-keeper for the global information sphere. I went to him, not the New York Times, to learn the facts behind the Kony 2012 fuss. The job of a gate-keeper is to let in the good information and keep out the bad: that is, to set the agenda. Zuckerman’s complaint about “simplification” and his longing for a “more complex narrative” can be seen in this light. The story of Uganda promulgated by the explosively popular Kony video was not one he endorsed, and he felt, as a conscientious gate-keeper, that his authority had been violated. Not surprisingly, this seemed to him an incipient moral disaster.
Jason Russell, nervous breakdown and all, stands in the same relation to Ethan Zuckerman as Zuckerman stands to mass media. Each came to the public’s attention on a disruptive wave of information, which overthrew the previous gate-keepers and presented agendas the latter despised. Zuckerman’s arguments against simplification sound eerily similar to 1990’s criticisms aimed at new media – see, for example, the dark warnings of Cass Sunstein about the perils of a “Daily Me.”
Russell’s cause is capturing Joseph Kony. In the way of the information sphere, he has assembled a virtual community around this cause – a potent network able to diffuse his message to over 100 million people. We may accuse him of eccentricity, but I don’t see why he should be faulted for insufficient complexity. He certainly isn’t under any obligation to ask permission of a gate-keeper, even one as smart as Ethan Zuckerman. In any case, Russell’s ability to seize the agenda will be transient, probably more so than Zuckerman’s: impermanence of authority being a baked-in feature of social life in the brave new world now struggling to be born.