The Internet Resists Simplicity (for once)

Being a well-informed citizen of the world is fucking depressing.

I’ve been on an information binge the last few days, starting with the Russian elections, and leading me on a ramblingly broad and superficially upsetting rampage across the Internet from institutional racism to rape culture to sweat shops in China to the financial crisis in Greece and the imminent collapse of the Eurozone, and back to reflection on my own experience with what is in many ways a frustrating educational system in Russia.

Somewhere in there last night, a Phillip DeFranco show sent me to the Kony 2012 video that is going viral on the Internet right now. It’s a very well-produced and moving video aimed at raising awareness about Joseph Kony, the Ugandan guerrilla leader who’s become infamous for turning children into soldiers and sex slaves.

A story like that can’t but make you want to do something, but something about the video made me uncomfortable. Maybe it was the filmmaker exploiting the emotional impact of explaining the situation to his young son, on film. Maybe it was the implication that the only way this problem could ever be solved was with the help of the U.S. government. Or the assertion that Kony’s only motivation is to maintain his power. (It can’t possibly be that simple. Nothing is that simple.) Maybe it was just the sickly sweet earnestness of the filmmaker’s voice.

But, you know what, I’m used to earnestness on YouTube. I love the earnestness on YouTube. It’s no secret I am a fervent disciple of the Internet way of the future. I love the sincerity of Dan Brown’s conversations with his viewers. I love the power of communities like Nerdfighteria, which orchestrates a goodwill takeover of YouTube once a year with the Project for Awesome to advocate for charities that individuals find worthwhile.

So, turning to the vlogbrothers, I watched John’s latest video about the history of Syria, which attempted to briefly contextualize the current situation. As always, it was a really good, compact, informational video, and John left us with the non-rhetorical question, “Should the U.S. help in Syria? And if so, how?”

With my as yet unclear thoughts about the Kony 2012 project, and the phrase “cultural imperialism” buzzing in my head from a recent conversation with a fellow Fulbrighter, and Russian criticisms of U.S. intervention in Libya all in the background, I scrolled to the comments, more out of curiosity about what others had written than because I had a coherent comment of my own to add. Half the comments were about Kony 2012. The whole comments section had been appropriated into a debate about whether it was good or right for Kony 2012 supporters to propagate their cause on this other video, devolving into a dick-measuring contest over who had the worse bad guy, the worse crimes against humanity.

Both Hank and John had already responded in their usual complexly imaginative way. They pointed out the fact that this has been an issue for much longer than the few days this video has been on the Internet’s radar, and that the transparency and honesty of the organization that made the video (Invisible Children) is in question. And Philip DeFranco’s video from today points out even more problems with the way the video presents the issue.

Part of me is overwhelmed by energy at this latest manifestation of the power of the Internet and of virtual communities that strive for real world impact. But part of me is left with a bad taste in my mouth, thinking this is at best western paternalism, and at worst an imperialistic military action condoned by a mass that is really an activist few. Hasn’t the U.S. done enough meddling in the world? The actions of Joseph Kony are crimes against that part of culture that we all share, against a human sense of justice that [should] transcend history and state lines. But he’s not the only bad guy in this situation.

In the end, though (not that this is the end), the power of the Internet and the multiplicity of the conversations there has transcended the simplicity of the story told in the original video. In just one day, the conversation has shifted to include examining the U.S.’s military history in Uganda and elsewhere and a more complex picture of the broader political situation in Uganda. Maybe this movement can have a positive impact after all.


Edit: Just to be clear, Kony is not actually in Uganda anymore. There is more, better-researched criticism of the movement here, at Foreign Policy magazine’s website.

2 thoughts on “The Internet Resists Simplicity (for once)

  1. Thank you for writing this! I feel like there are so many people blind with anger after seeing the film, or even just after hearing about it. It is so hard to draw the line of when to “help”, but as it just seems that KONY 2012 is about awareness more than anything else, seems like it’s just a nice way to get free publicity for Invisible Children, which, as you said, is not a super transparent organization…

  2. I second the first poster’s comment. No one is arguing we should just wish away these assaults on human dignity, but the sensationalism and cultual imperialism of this “awareness” campaign seems only to best serve Invisible Children.

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