Kony 2012: Seven Questions about Social Media Campaigns and International Law

by Charli Carpenter

[Charli Carpenter is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She blogs at Duck of Minerva.]

One of the most curious aspects of the Kony2012 campaign is its backing by an important and powerful public servant, Luis Moreno-Ocampo. In publicly endorsing the campaign, Moreno-Ocampo, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, has espoused a powerful causal hypothesis: that social media campaigns are an indispensable new tool for the promotion of international justice. In the original Kony2012 video Moreno-Ocampo states: “We’re living in a new world, a Facebook world, in which 750 million people share ideas, not thinking in borders.” In the follow-up video, Beyond Famous, Moreno-Ocampo repeats the message: “We are changing the world, guys. This is completely new.” At a fundraiser in Los Angeles, Moreno-Ocampo brokered relationships between Invisible Children staff and Hollywood, and told reporters: “The Invisible Children movie is adding social interest that institutions need to achieve results.” In another interview, he stated: “Invisible Children will, I think, produce the arrest of Joseph Kony this year.”

Moreno-Ocampo’s enthusiasm for the campaign and for Invisible Children can be understood partly in terms of public relations for his own institution, and for the synonymity of IC’s narrative with the one underlying his own indictment of Joseph Kony for crimes against humanity. But his claims that campaigns like this will decisively shift public attention (and therefore policy attention toward international law and justice and the global institutions that promote them) deserve critical inquiry. Not only are those relationships probably more complicated than he suggests, but research on the “CNN effect” suggests both that this agenda-setting role of public awareness campaigns isn’t entirely new, and also that public engagement – while perhaps a good in and of itself – doesn’t necessarily translate into government policy to enforce international law.

A more productive approach at this point is to ask questions about these relationships rather than pronounce decisively that the world has changed.  And we need to break this down a bit. Does social media impact citizens’ appreciation of and understanding of international law as Moreno-Ocampo implies? These are two separate questions and two separate processes. Even if they both hold true, does this imply that policy-makers will listen? And if that’s true, then in a world where social media and international law are routinely utilized and invoked by actors on both sides of any political issue, can we assume the net gain for human security will be positive? I don’t know the answers, but it’s worth thinking the questions through a little more carefully.

1) Does social media impact citizen engagement with global social issues? We know that social media disseminates information, but does this change people’s level of engagement in meaningful ways? The short answer is probably “it depends.” Social media appears to sometimes have a short term galvanizing effect much like the oft-trumpeted CNN-effect of the early 1990s; and this is indeed “new” in the sense that it takes power out of mainstream media gatekeepers and puts it in the hands of individuals. But it’s not at all clear why it works sometimes and not others, how to sustain attention, or under what conditions that effect translates into constructive action by policy-makers. Not all videos go viral; not all advocacy campaigns that use social media succeed in creating such a buzz. Even when we do see a short-term awareness-raising effect, it’s not at all obvious that this creates any long-term, lasting impact on social interest. According to data from Google Insights, searches for the term “Joseph Kony” did spike dramatically in the days after the KONY video’s release, but afterward they petered off to the same level as before. The same is true for search terms like “war crimes,” “child soldiers” and “international criminal court.” If Kony is arrested this year, and if we believe that this would not have happened in the absence of the video, it is likely that the key change will have been in elite interest, not mass interest.

2) Does “citizen engagement on social issues” (where we see it) necessarily equate to “citizen understanding”? Obviously not: what KONY2012 has taught us is that the quantity of that “awareness” around issues may not be matched by the quality of citizen’s “understanding” of the relevant international law or the issues. KONY2012 may have raised awareness of child soldiering, but it did so through what many consider irresponsible simplifications. And while it focused attention on one war criminal, there’s not much evidence that it helped promote Americans’ broader understandings of the relevant international law on child soldiers or anything else. Invisible Children is hardly alone: other campaigns have routinely misstated or misconstrued international law as an advocacy strategy. The “Save Darfur” campaign arguably did little to inform the public about the nuance of events in that conflict, and it wantonly misled the public about the legal concept of “genocide.” When Wikileaks disseminated its viral “Collateral Murder” video it doctored the film, confusing the audience about the complexity of events on the ground and about the distinction between “murder,” “war crimes” and “lawful targeting.” Assange’s later conflation of “civilian casualties” with “war crimes” in his promotion of the Afghan War Diaries dataset put civilian harms on the agenda, but promoted a fallacious understanding of what “war crimes” are. The public debate over drones is equally confused on these points – a process that arguably empowers actors who would bend, break or reinterpret the law.

3) What is the relationship between citizen engagement and citizen understanding, and what engagement/information ratio is most helpful in generating political will for international law enforcement? Educators like me prefer to assume that the optimal global civil society is one in which most citizens are both informed and engaged. But in social science terms the relationship between these two processes may very well be inverse – explaining, for example, why the much more nuanced successor video to KONY2012 has received less than 2 million views as of today instead of 100 million. To some extent, simplification is required to create political engagement with global social problems – something scholars and practitioners of global agenda-setting have long understood. And if anything, the saturated new media environment of the early 21st century may be exacerbating this problem by reducing citizens’ attention spans. If so, is it better to have a fully informed population (if possible) that is nonetheless apathetic because the very complexity of issues makes it hard to get behind any one policy proposal? Or is it better to have a somewhat naively over-engaged public rallying behind a specific cause to create political will, coupled with an informed political elite capable of translating that will into nuanced and effective policy options? Are some forms of misinformation / simplification more problematic than others?

4) How much does citizen engagement matter anyway? It’s not so clear how citizen attention to issues correlates with government responses on international law and justice issues. We don’t yet have good research on the alleged “Neda effect” but studies of the much-trumpeted “CNN effect” suggest that the public’s opinion matters most when policy-makers are uncertain about policy options; they matter less when policy-makers already have a clear position on a problem. If so, an important question to ask is what shapes the awareness and understanding of policy elites? Here both Kony2012 and the Wikileaks campaigns are instructive: perhaps these new media strategies function not primarily by educating the public, but by provoking a mis-educated reaction from the public that then necessitates a counter-response by more informed elites. Perhaps this in turn sets the elite agenda in ways that promote policy attention to issues. Ultimately though, case studies of previous campaigns suggest it is the work of powerful brokers taking the message to policy gatekeepers, not the mobilization of the masses themselves, that produces policy change. In that sense, some of the very conventional strategies promoted by Kony2012 – like mobilizing “culture makers” – may be likelier to have an effect than the video itself. And this is not particularly new.

5) To the extent that social media empowers the public, and the public empowers policy-makers, can we assume this will result in the promotion of human security and international law? Even if Moreno-Ocampo is right that social media is raising public awareness of and appreciation for international law and norms, this alone may tell us little about the effect of any specific campaign. As Clifford Bob has documented in a recent book, counter-campaigns are just as savvy at this: for every successful rights-based claim made through a YouTube video or Internet meme, another group may use the same media – and even the same international legal norms – to offset the message. Some of Invisible Children’s biggest detractors, in fact, are gay rights groups seeking to discredit them for spreading an imperialist Christian fundamentalism through Africa. In an ideal world, of course, it should be possible to protect and promote both sexual orientation rights and the protection of children, but in reality the politics of advocacy sometimes pits groups (and certain advocacy frames) against one another. As citizens are faced with a bewildering array of claims and counter-claims, proposals and detractions, they could as easily find themselves paralyzed as galvanized by the flood of information about international law and complex global social issues. We need to ask how social media may be exacerbating the incivility of global society.

6) What do we mean by “promoting international law” anyway? We might mean many things: promoting new norms, implementing old ones through global bureaucracies, naming and shaming states to encourage compliance, supporting international legal institutions, or enacting policies in the pursuit of the principles enshrined in the law. And sometimes international laws – like the UN Charter regime and human rights treaties – conflict. To the extent that there is a positive effect, it’s quite possible that this formula works better with some kinds of global issues than with others. Would a viral video have the same impact if it were promoting a campaign for a new international treaty, as opposed to the enforcement of an existing treaty on a specific individual? Does it matter who the perpetrator is? Does it matter who the victims are? Would Americans be as easily galvanized by a similar video promoting US funding of UNESCO, or debt forgiveness, or the protection of the Syrian (or Palestinian) civilians as by a video promoting a manhunt by good (white) guys against a bad (black) guy? While the perfect should not be the enemy of the good, it’s worth thinking about the conditions under which these kinds of claims in this kind of media resonate with the types of audiences that are most easily reached through social networking sites, and what kind of international justice we are likely to achieve as a result.

7) In an era of social media that empowers advocacy claims both consistent with and at odds with the spirit of international law, what is the best advocacy formula for mobilizing support for the implementation of international law to protect human security? Moreno-Ocampo takes a clear position on this: social media is the answer! But it’s notable that Invisible Children itself does not advance the same claim: rather, their film and their campaign was explicitly framed as an experiment. The audience is invited to test Invisible Children’s hypotheses through by action or inaction. It’s certainly true that Invisible Children hopes for a certain outcome, but their effort seems to be less to capture Kony and more to carve out a new strategy for transnational campaigning that is neither the landmines model of NGO coalition-building, nor the top-down elite R2P model of expert diplomacy, nor the conflict diamonds model utilizing the mainstream mediaPerhaps this should be read as an experimental effort to test a new advocacy strategy for launching human rights “boomerangs” rather than a substantive effort to raise awareness of Kony or to enact a policy goal. In that sense, the real audience is transnational advocacy groups. And the real value of the KONY2012 campaign is to encourage a discussion about the optimal recipe, given today’s technological infrastructure, for inciting the right level of engagement / attention that will lead to the right kind of international law enforcement at the right time.

It’s fabulous that Invisible Children has put these hypotheses and this discussion on the global agenda. But it’s a discussion in which global public servants like Moreno-Ocampo should be engaging critically, rather than presupposing they know the answer. And there are many reasons to think that the answer is not as simple as some would like to think.


3 Responses

  1. I really appreciated this post. It poses absolutely critical questions for a serious debate. In my view, social media are NOT  democratically controlled, and are easily manipulated by powerful interests, although the myth still persists that clicktivism/slacktivism contribute to changing the world. There is very little evidence to support this notion unfortunately.
    I will also add that, as a US citizen who resides in Latin America for almost two decades, the overwhelming perception worldwide is that the United States government and key politicians acting in its name which have committed a vastly disproportionate number of war crimes and atrocities all over the world, while refusing to subject itself to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court and other international tribunals. And where the US participates in international bodies, it has not honored the will of such bodies whenever it is not in its interest to do so. Thus it behooves those in the US who are committed to international justice to demand that the United States immediately become part of the international human rights community, including the International Criminal Court before stalking war criminals elsewhere.

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