Kony 2012: Social Media: Helping or Hindering Child Soldiers?

Kony 2012: Social Media: Helping or Hindering Child Soldiers?

[Julie McBride is a PhD Candidate at Queen’s University Belfast, researching the development of the war crime of child soldier recruitment in international criminal law, and a member of the United Nations Global Experts, specializing in international crime and transitional justice. You can find her on Twitter @JA_McBride]

When the Kony2012 video was launched last month, I found myself, for one of the first times, discussing child soldiers outside of the context of my work. Several friends asked me what the deal was with the 27-minute video (an epic length by YouTube standards) clogging up their Twitter and Facebook newsfeeds. I gave them a general synopsis of the oft-repeated criticisms of Invisible Children that were to gain even more momentum in the following days: they had some questionable financial practices, they advocated for the military intervention, and they dramatically over-simplified a complex political scenario. Although I was pleased to see that the child soldier issue appeared to have regained its status as the cause du jour, it is difficult to imagine a close connection existing between such viral campaigns and tangible results. The idea that social media can be a tool in the arrest of warlords and those indicted by international justice mechanisms appears incredibly ambitious. It also suggests that a strong relationship exists between awareness raising and action; between so-called ‘slacktivism/clictivism’ and justice. The Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo even seems to be getting carried away, saying he thinks that Invisible Children will ‘produce the arrest of Joseph Kony this year’.

The video itself had a broad, yet simple appeal: using the son of the founder to create a distinction between the unfortunate Ugandan child soldier and the fortunate American child who describes Joseph Kony as a ‘bad guy’. But it raises the question of how social media can assist in bringing those who commit war crimes and crimes against humanity to justice. There are two competing sides to this argument: that awareness raising on atrocities is a sufficient goal in and of itself, but, conversely, that it perpetuates a false message that knowledge of atrocities will somehow stop them; that making Joseph Kony ‘famous’ will lead to his arrest. It critically negates to account for the multitude of steps required after clicking ‘share’ that will lead to Kony in a Hague courtroom. It also fails to consider that, like all trends, the sudden interest in Kony and child soldiers will not last: after a few short days of worldwide attention, Google searches on the topic quickly returned to their pre- March 7th level.

In relation to social media and child soldiers more generally, there is one critical problem with the use of the term. It must be remembered that the definition of ‘child soldier’ varies by source. UNICEF deems any ‘child associated with armed conflict ’to be a child soldier, while the International Criminal Court defines the concept as any child who either acted as a combatant, or, in providing support to an armed force of group was exposed to ‘real danger as a potential target’. There is a real value in having a narrow definition of child soldier: it ensures that those children not connected to the conflict don’t get categorised as a ‘soldier’, and thus lose the valuable protection provided to civilians by the Geneva Conventions. Yet, social media neglects to account for this concern, and uses the term ‘child soldier’ in a very loose way. Surprisingly, this is nowhere more evident than in the social media strategies of the United Nations, where the buzz word ‘child soldier’ – and particularly the hashtag #childsoldiers – is used to draw attention to the plight of all children in war zones, not just those participating:





One positive element of the Kony 2012 campaign was its timing. It reminded the public consciousness of the child soldier issue, and this newfound interest coincided perfectly with the delivery of the judgment in the trial of Thomas Lubanga at the ICC. Lubanga was found guilty of recruiting and using child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in a landmark ruling in international justice. The timing of this judgment served to illustrate the stark contrast between the delivery of justice in the Hague, and the promise of justice on Twitter. It is arrests and convictions that will deter those who recruit child soldiers, not trending topics. A recent Human Rights Watch report, ‘Selling Justice Short’, described a meeting held with a Congolese army colonel. When the topic of war crimes came up, he ‘sat up and said, “I don’t want to be like Lubanga! I don’t want to be transferred to The Hague!”’. It is difficult to imagine Kony2012 having a similarly powerful deterrent effect.

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Africa, International Criminal Law
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