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J.J. McCullough


Media Bites: I Wikipedia, Therefore I Am (Better Than You)

Posted: 03/07/2013 12:17 pm

Everyone loves secrets. Everyone loves knowing something powerful or important that others don't. Whether it's the proverbial hipster band "you probably haven't herd of" or some hackneyed "shocking fact" that isn't all that shocking ("did you know vikings didn't actually have horns on their helmets?") we cling to obscure knowledge and esoteric trivia not only for the intellectual superiority it brings, but the moral authority too -- the idea that by knowing something concealed or contrarian you're not only wiser than the yokels in your midst, but also a brave individualist unafraid to champion the challenging and subversive.

There's only one problem: learning glamorous, powerful secrets is hard. It takes, y'know, research and stuff. So we create shortcuts. Thanks to social media, you can follow Fun Fact accounts on Twitter and Tumblr that spit out dozens of nuggets of cool-sounding insight every day (without citation, natch). Or simply link-surf Wikipedia for hours and absorb someone else's biased take on hundreds of subjects. It's never been easier to get wise without work.

If there's a takeaway from the ignorant lunacy of last year's #stopkony 2012 effort -- a slick and self-righteous social media campaign to depose a Ugandan warlord who no one in the country, from the prime minister on down, actually felt threatened by -- it's this. Folks who ordinarily didn't care much about African politics one way or another watched a snazzy, 30-minute YouTube video and were instantly converted to the cause. Not, I suspect, because anyone really cared much about Kony or Uganda one way or another, but rather because there was just so much social capital and ego padding to be gained by appearing to care about an under-the-radar cause no one else did.

Kony was obscure, so simply being aware of his existence allowed anti-Konyites to boastfully harangue their Facebook feed about something important they knew but their pals didn't. They were egged further by a rich tapestry of #stopkony folklore declaring that the supervillian's crimes were going "ignored" by the powers that be (NB: they weren't), so even spouting the simplest generalizations about Kony's evil, his child soldiers, his torture, his whatnot, delivered a powerful hit of persecuted satisfaction one can only get from knowing something disturbing and tragic that "They" -- the government, the mainstream media, the United Nations, you pick -- are too haughty to notice. The entire campaign had the grating air of a door-to-door evangelist: "hey there, have you heard the truth?"

But the Kony people hadn't heard much truth themselves. Anyone with even a rudimentary education in African affairs made that clear very quickly through a string of indignant fact-checking editorials and other irritated rebuttals against their movement. So lesson learned? I doubt it. This was a movement about the emotional satisfaction that comes with owning knowledge, not the dreary business of searching for it.

Others have written about how the Internet may be literally changing our brains; reducing our ability to focus and making us less inclined to consume any information that can't be reduced to 140 characters or a status update short enough to avoid the dreaded "see more" link. At a social media seminar a few years ago I remember being taught that "no one wants to read what they can hear, and no one wants to hear what they can watch." #stopkony certainly didn't demand much more than that, and neither did Loose Change or Zeitgeist, two equally obnoxious and ignorant social media cause-celebres that retain passionate devotees to this day, despite being repeatedly savaged by debunkings every bit as thorough as the ones we'd like to believe killed the Kony cause.

You're not supposed to observe depressing stuff like this without adding some concession about how "the Internet still holds great promise for activism" and "social media has the potential to revolutionize politics," but these days I'm not so sure. Like any communication medium, the technological limitations of the web and the culture of its users make some messages work better on it than others, and the evidence is beginning to accumulate that the best-working messages of all are those that push some theme of victimhood and conspiracy while simultaneously promising easy, revolutionary knowledge to the otherwise lazy and ill-informed. It's a phenomena visible in everything from the increasingly convoluted, hydra-headed Obama birther stories to those horrible ads offering "weird tips" to make you thin, rich, pretty, or bilingual. If this is the schlocky stuff from which web success is made, it doesn't bode well for the fate of democracy in a political culture that's getting more and more web-centric. We've seen the future, and his name is Ron Paul.

The crusade against Kony wasn't the worst campaign to be endorsed by the Internet hive-mind, of course. The man was a monster, and even if his monstrousness is less pressing these days, it is nice that his victims are at least better known. But #stopkony remains social media's most representative failure just the same. Few campaigns have harnessed so much passion for such pointless ends, and spread so much ignorance in the name of unearthing must-know information.

The net is always evolving, however, and I guess it's possible, in time, that we'll eventually learn to break this cycle of vanity and posturing responsible for our current glut of naive e-rallying against dopey non-issues.

Just don't ask me how -- I haven't watched that video yet.

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  • A Ugandan boy who goes by the name Ali Ali, sits in a hut and reveals the nearly-healed wounds inflicted as punishment for trying to escape from the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) rebels who had abducted him, at a center for victims of war in Gulu town, in Uganda's war-torn northern region, 285 miles north of the capital Kampala, Friday, March 20, 1998. Ali, who escaped from the rebels, had been one of the thousands of young Ugandans abducted and forced to fight alongside guerrillas of the LRA, a rebel group which operates from bases in neighboring Sudan. (AP)

  • An Ugandan Red Cross worker distributes blankets to displaced people in a primary school in Lira, 230 miles (370 kms) north of Kampala, Friday, May 29, 1998. Some 10,000 people have fled attacks from the rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) to find shelter in Lira. The LRA, operating in small units, have managed to elude government troops, continuing their penetration deep into Uganda, and residents of Lira and Oririm fear the government is on the losing end of the insurgency. (AP)

  • Displaced women with their babies wait for a distribution of food and blankets in a primary school in Lira, 230 miles (370 kms) north of Kampala, Friday, May 29, 1998. (AP)

  • Rebel Lord's Resistence Army boy soldier, Samuel Okumu, with his gun stands at the Sudan/DRC border Friday, July 28, 2006. (AP)

  • Lord's Resistance Army boy soldier, John Komakech, stands on guard during the visit of their LRA deputy chief, Vincent Otti to the Sudan/Congo border for talks with Sudanese Vice President, Saturday, July 29, 2006. (AP)

  • The leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, Joseph Kony , left, and his deputy Vincent Otti, sit inside a tent Sunday, November 12, 2006 at Ri-Kwamba in Southern Sudan during a meeting with UN humanitarian chief Jan Egeland. Egeland met with Kony, the elusive leader of Uganda's notorious rebel Lord's Resistance Army and one of the world's most-wanted war crimes suspects, seeking to secure the release of women and children enslaved by the group during their 20-year conflict with the Ugandan government. But Kony denied that his forces are holding prisoners. (AP)

  • The leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, Joseph Kony, left, and his deputy Vincent Otti, center, speak with UN humanitarian chief Jan Egeland Sunday, November 12, 2006 at Ri-Kwamba in Southern Sudan. (AP)

  • Commander of Land Forces of Uganda Peoples Defence Forces (UPDF) Gen. Katumba Wamala, left, holds Francis Ocan, son of Lords Resistance Army (LRA) chief Joseph Kony, after receiving a white flag from Ocan as a sign of peace at 4th Division Headquarters in Gulu, northern Uganda, Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2006. (AP)

  • Lords Resistance Army (LRA), rebels Col. Anywar Michael, third from left, and Martin Ojul, right, join fellow members of the Acholi tribe in a traditional dance, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2007, during their visit to northern Uganda. The LRA has brutalised people of the region, where thousands have been killed and over two million displaced. (AP)

  • Ugandans look at bodies of civilians killed in an ambush by the Liberation Resistance Army (LRA) at Olege in Bibia Amuru district about 400km (248 miles) from Kampala, as they lie in a truck, Tuesday, May 1, 2007. (AP)

  • Nora Anek, 84, sits in a hotel in Gulu, Ugunda on Thursday, April 19, 2007. The mother of the Joseph Kony, leader of Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army rebels, wants her son to come out of the bush and sign a peace deal with the Uganda government. For nearly two decades, Kony has led the cult-like LRA, declaring himself a prophet fighting to rule this country of 26 million people by the Ten Commandments. The LRA has been blamed for tens of thousands of murders, mutilations and kidnapping children for use as soldiers and sex slaves. (AP)

  • Members of the LRA community living at Koch Goma IDP camp in Gulu, northern Uganda, dance to welcome Lords Resistance Army members, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2007. Members of the rebel delegation - accompanied by government representatives and diplomats involved in the negotiating process - began consultations with the victims of the bloody insurgency to hear their views. (AP)

  • Members of the LRA community living at Koch Goma IDP camp in Gulu, Northern Uganda raise their hands after having been asked if they were ready to forgive the atrocities of the past twenty years, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2007. (AP)

  • Lord Resistance Army's spokesman, Dr. David Nyekorach Matsanga, speaks during a press briefing in Nairobi, Kenya, Monday, Dec 22 2008. (AP)


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