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The Kony conundrum
Even as the internet era has accelerated the news cycle, sometimes to mere minutes, there is still one idea that holds true: you need a lash before you can have a backlash. Invisible Children, a charity based in San Diego, certainly had the lash, in the form of a 30-minute video about the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army. The Kony 2012 video, pitched to a five-year-old's sense of right and wrong, was an attempt to bring attention - and justice - to the case of Kony, whose violent paramilitary group has long been accused of using children as soldiers.
Kony 2012 went viral last week and, helped by Twitter messages and endorsements by celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Mia Farrow, had exceeded 71 million views on YouTube by Sunday afternoon. And that is when the backlash began.
The grounds for objection to the video are many. Some critics begin and end with its deep misrepresentation of the current state of play, including the fact that Kony has largely been defeated and is in hiding. Others chafe at the implicit "white man's burden" message of the video - that Western outsiders, and only Western outsiders, can remedy the situation.
Others object to the reduction of a complex situation to the story of a single "bad guy" whose capture would magically restore harmony to a conflictscarred region, and some object to the casual invocation of Hitler (is it a coincidence that the day of action promoted in the video is April 20, Hitler's birthday?).
For some, the backlash becomes an opportunity to promote longstanding arguments. Evgeny Morozov, the author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, objects that the video is another example of a kind of low-impact concern he calls slacktivism. The journal Foreign Policy immediately lectured on what should be obvious errors of context. And African bloggers - tired of the image of outsiders coming to the rescue, or worse, sending in troops - have asked to be left alone, to be respected for their own agency in their own land.
It can all evoke George Bernard Shaw's insight that "all professions are conspiracies against the laity". Yes, Kony 2012 may be crude, simplistic and shallow, but can it really be counterproductive if it prompts young people to ask why a well-known warlord with 30 years of atrocities to his name has not been caught and prosecuted?
The people behind Kony 2012 are arguing for the right to keep it simple. I was struck by the power of that urge when I read a thoughtful, nuanced blog post by Ethan Zuckerman, an expert on social networking and Africa, that came down against the Kony 2012 video. Zuckerman relied in part on research done by Sêverine Autesserre, a political scientist at Barnard College. Zuckerman wrote that "the focus on rape as a weapon of war, Autesserre argues, has caused some armed groups to engage in mass rape as a technique to gain attention and a seat at the negotiating table".
So we have got to the point that public outcry against the use of rape as a weapon in war can be viewed as helping spread the very thing it is trying to fight. You could understand why young people, who are connected globally in ways that were unthinkable even five years ago, might resist that kind of nuanced, professional reasoning.
We are entering an age when the shallow political power of the public - including those too young to vote - will increasingly help shape our policy debates. And yes, that is scary to professional foreign policy experts, much in the same way reference book authors with graduate degrees were rattled by the idea of an online encyclopedia created collectively by amateurs.
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