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Kony2012's Biggest Flaw is its Saving Grace

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I'd like to stop having a conversation about whether Kony2012 is good or bad. Trying to get young Americans to care about suffering in Africa is undoubtedly good. Trying to get the American military to strengthen the Ugandan army (which is allegedly guilty of war crimes, including rape) looks undoubtedly bad, and the result of the paternalistic approach taken by Invisible Children that so many commentators have rightly condemned.

This great quote from twitter by Zoe Flood (@zoeflood) says a lot:
My driver in Uganda (from a major military town) on the #Kony2012 vid: "They haven't arrested him because he makes the army too much money."

So -- the answer is Kony2012 is good and bad. And now what can we learn...

First of all, that the power of social media isn't so much in the reach (i.e. any idiot on T.V. can reach millions, as Glenn Beck has shown us) but in the interactivity and conversation. It was one of the more encouraging experiences of my life to watch as the conversation on Twitter shifted from about 1 in 50 tweets critical of the campaign on the night the video started to go viral, to about 50 per cent critical, 50 per cent blind support 24 hours later.

And the reason for the shift was partly the voices of Ugandans themselves being included in the conversation. Watch Rosebell Kagumire and follow her tweets -- she's amazing. She and others like Amber Ha are the people who should have been consulted before Invisible Children came up with its flawed strategy. Including local voices who are critical, along with those who are supportive of IC's approach, is necessary both to developing smart solutions, and not treating Ugandans as a monolith.

What's so (potentially) beautiful about social media is the way it allows this inclusion to happen.
I'm convinced we can make inclusion and conversation a foundation of social change work and still come up with theories of change that are simple enough for Kony2012-style tactics.

Tactically, the Kony2012 campaign represents several strokes of genius -- harnessing clicktivism to drive policy on an issue most Americans knew absolutely nothing about, and in which they have no clear vested interest (though let's not kid ourselves -- the West always has an interest in being involved in any country as resource-rich as Uganda.)

The tactic of selecting 20 celebrities and 12 policy makers for a social media pressure campaign to make Uganda, the LRA, and Joseph Kony such hot issues for Obama was brilliant. By doing so, Invisible Children is creating not only a constituency of people in the U.S. who know and care but also a mainstream media frenzy. Targeting young people in particular with a sexy action kit that mimics the motifs of street art was another ingenious move. That will get people beyond clicktivism and into the street.

Fortunately, the strategic lunacy doesn't mean we can't learn from this tactical brilliance.

More fortunately still, you'd have to be living under a rock not to know about the huge problems with Kony2012. Invisible Children temporarily won the media war with a ruthlessly inaccurate, highly sentimental mediation of a war. As Teju Cole suggests in his devastating Twitter essay, that kind of sentimentality is banal and deadly.

Mercifully, though, in this environment, it takes less than a day to pierce that sentimentality with some perspective -- and as Cole demonstrates, you can even use twitter to do it. Social media might contribute to the simplistic strategy used by Kony2012, but it also makes possible the conversation that spread an important, thoughtful, critical backlash.

So -- next time around, let's make the inclusion of marginalized people on both sides of the conversation happen right from the beginning, not after the fact. That's really how we'll use social media for social change, especially when combined with Invisible Children's game-changing tactics.

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