What Indian NGOs and Activists can learn from Kony 2012

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For the uninitiated, Kony 2012 is an online campaign started by an US-based non-profit group, Invisible Children. The project uses a 30-minute slick, professionally made, documentary style video urging people to be a part of the campaign to capture the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, who primarily uses children as a weapon of war. The video is targeted towards an American audience, especially young people. In the past week, the Kony 2012 video became an online viral phenomenon, and some consider it to be the fastest growing viral video in the history of the web. As of this moment, the video had more than 81 million views on YouTube.

Coupled with the meteoric rise of the video and its popularity there has been a tidal wave of criticism and backlash against the Kony 2012 campaign.

Regardless of your opinion of the project, the Kony 2012 campaign’s meteoric rise contains important lessons for Indian NGOs and activists on leveraging social media for building large scale social movements in the country.

1. Social media can get people to pay attention to the issues that matter

Before Kony 2012, Uganda was rarely in the news in America; if it was, , it was usually a couple of paragraphs in last page – sidelined to obscurity. The Kony 2012 campaign was able to bring unprecedented media attention to the conflict in Northern Uganda. Three days after the launch of the video, there were more than 2,000 news articles on the story and there was Kony 2012 segment in every single prime-time news show.

There is no shortage of social issues that need attention in India. Social media can enable NGOs and activists to democratize content, raise awareness, and create widespread interest – reversing the process of how traditionally something makes the news. We saw this happening with the Anna lead anti-corruption movement, which really is the tip of the iceberg.

2. If we’re not careful, social media can encourage ‘Slacktivism’

The Kony 2012 campaign and similar social media based efforts have given rise to a phenomenon termed ‘Slacktivism’ i.e., slacker activism. Watching the video and sharing it on Facebook enables people to ‘feel-good’ that they have in some way contributed to social change.

Slactivism is not new in India. This was the biggest challenge with the Anna-led anti-corruption campaign where many people hit a “like” button a Facebook page and felt they had contributed adequately to the movement. Change comes from actions in the real world, and we should be careful not to use social media give an excuse for idealistic citizens to go on with their lives thinking they have made a contribution. We, as activists, must use social media to enable more substantial contributions and to give rise to more nuanced conversations. Indian activists are starting to realize this: take for instance the work done by an organization called Bhumi. The organization’s founder, Mujeeb Khan, is currently undertaking a national march urging young people to create change through their actions and practice personal honesty. At the same time, Mujeeb is tweeting his experiences on the ground as travels around India and posting videos online from various cities across the country.

3. We need to think about how we represent the poor

The biggest critics of the Kony 2012 campaign have been Ugandans and the wider African community, who feel that the video reinforces the image of Africa being a place of war and suffering and in need of rescue from the outside world. Somewhere in the making of this video, the filmmakers have failed to dignify the people they are portraying.

For NGOs in India this is lesson in the making. In leveraging social media, increasingly organizations will have to tell stories of their work. In doing so, organizations need to treat people with utmost dignity and respect.

4. Social Media creates a temptation to oversimplify issues

This is probably the biggest challenge with social media, which is built on 10 second attention spans and 140 character twitter updates. The Kony campaign, in its urgency to tell an interesting story, fails to provide a full and nuanced picture.

If your mission is to bring justice to the poor, there is very little room for over-simplification. Organizations in our country have always known this, but with the coming wave of digital activism, we would be allured to over-simplify and dramatize issues. Organizations have to try really hard to resist this temptation.

After all, real change takes years, if not decades, and is never sexy.