Kony 2012: Social Media Activists as Norm Entrepreneurs

Kony 2012: Social Media Activists as Norm Entrepreneurs

I generally subscribe to a constructivist theory of international relations. On many issues I do not think state interests are fixed and this fluidity allows a space for norm entrepreneurs to alter state preferences. With any successful campaign, specific actors promote ideas that catch fire and create a norm cascade reflected in consensus on the appropriate path. That consensus often is reflected in treaties, but it need not always be the case. The final stage is typically a process of norm internalization, in which an idea that once was novel reaches a tipping point and becomes the new normal.

Individual actors have always attempted to change state behavior. Sometimes they have done so from within the state, and altered state interests through incremental changes as political actors. Other times they are prophets from outside the system, calling for change. The examples one could give of such norm entrepreneurs are legion and the modes they have employed change with the seasons.

In the 19th century, Henry Dunant’s Memory of Solferino was an international sensation, leading to the establishment of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has been one of the most instrumental forces for the development of international humanitarian law in history. In 1934 Robert Cecil promoted the Peace Ballot to rally British support for the League of Nations. The results were astounding. “Overnight, politicians of all stripes became League supporters and advocates of collective security,” wrote one historian. The photograph of Zulu Chief Albert Luthuli burning his Pass Book in response to the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 made international headlines, and for the first time in history South Africa faced overwhelming international condemnation for apartheid. Dozens of protest songs from the likes of Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and The Doors helped turn the tide of American public opinion against the Vietnam War.

The point is so obvious that it scarcely needs stating: individual actors have used all types of media throughout history to alter public perceptions and force political change.

What is different about social media activists today? Two things. First, the barriers to entry are extremely low. Anyone who can effectively communicate on a digital platform is a potential norm entrepreneur. Only those who do not have the desire or ability to effectively use new media platforms are excluded from eligibility. Second, the new media platforms can reach 2.3 billion Internet users instantaneously. Everyone who is plugged in is a potential information consumer.

It therefore should not come as a surprise that a bunch of sophisticated young activists who were completely unknown to us just one month ago were able to reach over 70 million people–approximately 3 percent of all Internet users–in less than one week. Their message and strategy were incredibly effective at reaching the masses.

Of course, there is much to criticize about the Kony 2012 video if it is viewed in isolation. But the broad sweep of their campaign is much more nuanced and detailed than one video. One should think of the Invisible Children campaign as concentric circles of outreach, with the one superficial, emotive and short video everyone knows about as the outer layer of the onion. I’m not surprised that intellectuals are criticizing the Kony 2012 video. But I’m also not surprised that it went viral.

Kony 2012 has achieved the desired result, which was to make Joseph Kony famous, or rather infamous. Whether Kony will be held accountable in an international court of law remains to be seen. In the end, that may be beside the point. The court of international public opinion has rendered its verdict.

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