Kony 2012 and the demand for attention

If you haven’t seen this 30 minute long video this week you are rapidly becoming a minority. The video announcing a campaign to catch Joseph Kony this year is now officially the fastest viral video of all time. It reached 100 million views in just 6 days. For such a long video, this is up there in Cheers and Mash finale territory.

It is very hard not to admire what the people behind it — Invisible Children — have managed to do. They designed and executed a perfect storm. It is really difficult to get people to watch things about horrific acts because, frankly, they tend to be depressing. You’d rather watch them later. But this video draws you in. It doesn’t quite reveal its whole intend while at the same time anticipating perfectly that it has one. And then it is straightforward and to the point. What’s more, it offers a clear direction: a campaign of awareness on April 20th plus a set of individuals to target for action. Extremely simple stuff.

I must admit that the way they did this — targeting influential people — worked to get me to watch. I had seen #Kony2012 popping up on Twitter and the like but it wasn’t until Bill Gates tweeted that it was worth looking at that I took the plunge. This is exactly what the organisers were hoping for.

But what goes up quickly can also come down quickly. With all this attention on the campaign, those who wanted to explore a more balanced message also quickly got a voice. That is because it was such an emotive issue that it had moved up people’s agenda. Hence, when Ethan Zuckerman got in on the act with a blog post (a long one) with a more nuanced approach I was able to sort this whole issue out alot more. His view: that much of the battle against Joseph Kony had been won and it wasn’t clear that concerted action to arrest him would do more harm than good.

Frankly, I’m in no position to add anything here. I certainly lean towards the view that foreign policy is best handled by experts even though they stuff up royally quite often. That said, there is something attractive about the symbolism of finishing one job against evil. Certainly, on the scheme of these campaigns Joseph Kony is worse than anyone in recent memory (yes, anyone!) and that what is being proposed has less downside risk and much lower actual cost than the campaigns launched against other evil doers. So I have less sympathy for the — there are other priorities in the world — argument and would prefer discussion on whether this would actually do something to bring peace to a region.

That said, in all the discussion I’ve read on this — and I must admit it is not that much — I wonder if the aid effort should be towards the 30,000 children who were taken. This sounds like a mental health problem of staggering proportions for Uganda and the region. Why isn’t that the focus here?

Nonetheless, I digress from what is interesting to me here: how people and organisations can compete for attention. The Kony 2012 campaign won the battle for attention. On April 20, we will see if that translates into action. But even so it raised awareness and got people talking. Compared to other ‘viral’ internet events, this surely has a great amount of effort. There is nothing in the Kony 2012 discussion that isn’t relevant for every international relations policy debate of our time. The fact that 100 million plus people are talking about that is a win in a world where we worry that the same tools are distracting people from real issues.

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