Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Kony 2012, awareness and slacktivism

If you've been on the internet at all today, chances are you've heard of, seen a link to or watched a film called KONY 2012. Now, there's lots of things that have been said about this film, and the organisation that made it; some for some against. I've not seen the film, and haven't fully made up my mind about Invisible Children ,the group that made it. For now, I remain extremely sceptical, and wanted to talk about why.

I have a strong background in charity and charity work. I was a Scout for five years, and have been a member of St John Ambulance for over half my life; I've helped raise money for LEPRA, which helps fight diseases such as leprosy, and Dove House, a hospice specialising in end of life and palliative care; I've donated countless belonging to charity shops and for three horrible days I worked door to door raising money for the British Red Cross.

I have formed some very strong opinions when it comes to charity, many of which may clash with the majority, so feel free to disagree. I firmly believe that giving you time to a charity is much more valuable than simply handing over your money.

Anyone remember the Make Poverty History campaign? In 2005 it was at it's height, many of my friends were wearing the wristband, and I was extremely vocal in my opposition of it. Not the overall aim of the campaign, but I was extremely critical of the way in which they were trying to do it. It was the first time I'd ever really been sceptical of a charitable campaign and I remember telling my friends that throwing money and celebrities at a problem is never going to fix it. Fast forward to 2012, how many people are still wearing the wristbands? How many people are still actively campaigning for it and raising funds? Hopefully quite a lot, but it has lost the attention it received in its heyday of Live 8. Does anyone know where and how the money was spent? If someone knows, please link me to documents concerning this as I'd love to know how much of the money got through to where it was needed.

This is part of the reason I oppose just throwing money at a problem. There seems to be little accountability; the money could have been spent on a new mansion for Bono for all I know. And it highlights why throwing celebrities at an issue doesn't help; people only care as long as a celebrity is talking about the issue. If they stop, we forget, something else distracts us and the chance to really make a difference is lost.

Which brings me to another charity related bug bear of mine: raising awareness. This is what the Kony film is meant to be for, raising awareness, and the manner in which people have been 'raising awareness' reminds me of the various Facebook Breast Cancer awareness campaigns.

These 'campaigns' usually involve women (and only women) posting cryptic messages as their status in order to raise awareness of breast cancer. Usually something like the colour of your bra or where you leave your handbag. I find this method of raising awareness to be very problematic. Quite how cryptic messages are supposed to raise awareness I will never know. It also marginalises and excludes men who suffer from breast cancer, furthers the idea that it's a disease only women get and reduces the likelihood of men examining themselves or getting help early. Add to this the fact that the vast majority of people who can use Facebook will probably already be aware of breast cancer, and you have a campaign that seems riddles with problems and is unlikely to achieve the desired goals in my eyes.

Now, social media is a very powerful tool that can really make a difference, just look at Twitter's role in the Arab Spring. But I think it can also be very dangerous as it encourages what I've heard termed as 'slacktivism'. From what I can tell, the majority of people who post their bra colour on Facebook for Breast Cancer awareness will not go on to do other things for that cause. I would like to be proved wrong, but I see the majority of people taking part in this, and then feel that this is their good deed for charity. It allows them to feel smug that they've done their bit without really helping. This is how I see the majority of awareness raising in social media. Awareness is raised, but that only does some good if that awareness is built upon, instead of letting it fade away.

And awareness in and of itself is not always a good thing. Take any number of PETA's campaigns (none of which I am willing to link to). Many of their recent campaigns have been by turns, misogynistic, fat hating and trivialise domestic abuse. These are shock tactics they claim are designed to raise awareness of vegetarianism, veganism and the way animals are treated. For me they merely raise awareness of PETA being a bunch of twats. How many people have been converted to a meat free diet by their campaigns? I'd love to know the numbers. But even if millions of people have gone vegan because of their adverts, that doesn't take away the fact their methods were dubious at best.

Which brings me back to KONY 2012. The film is designed to bring attention to the problem of child soldiers in Uganda, and the atrocities committed by Joseph Kony and the LRA. I've not seen the film, and currently do not plan to watch it. I've seen the link to the film posted many times today, and there has been a lot of discussion surrounding it. My main worry is that the people posting the video are engaging in slacktivism, and think that their efforts at raising awareness are sufficient. My other worry is that people are posting this film on without investigating further into it.

As described by this article here, Invisible Children, the creators of KONY 2012, seems to be a deeply problematic organisation. Any person who believes in human rights should be against what Joseph Kony stands for, but this does not necessarily translate to supporting Invisible Children.

We need to have more conversation on this subject, more action. And we need to investigate any organisation we choose to support before supporting them. We should never be afraid to ask questions, even when a person or organisation seems to be doing good. If the focus seems to be more about what the organisation is doing for awareness than about the actual problem or solutions to the problem, then we should be deeply suspicious. This should be about Kony, not Invisible Children.

So please, if you have seen Kony 2012 today and been affected by it's content, I urge you, don't just share the video on Facebook or Twitter. Research Joseph Kony, and everything he's done. Investigate Invisible Children; find out who they are, what they stand for and what they're trying to do out there; find out how they work and how accountable they are. Find other organisations doing work in this area; find out what has been done in Uganda, what has worked and what hasn't. If you really care about this issue then put your time into some research. If after that you're satisfied that you want to support Invisible Children, go right ahead. But please don't think you're making a difference by sharing that film. Find out how you can really make a difference.

Pressing retweet or share takes barely any effort, and that's what make it so attractive; it's easy. But the easy road isn't going to help the children of Uganda, or anyone living in poverty or animals living in horrific conditions. Thinking carefully about which causes to champion, which organisations to support and which methods of supporting them is. We can make a massive difference to this world, but lets think before we leap and let's do it right.

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