Kony 2012 – Agit Prop on Speed

Have you seen Kony 2012? If so, you are among the 85 million people worldwide who have watched this agit prop video sensation on YouTube in the last few weeks.  What is agit prop? In documentary filmmaker parlance, it is agitation propaganda, or a video produced to effect social change. It is unlikely that any other piece of agit prop has yielded such a large viewership in such a short amount of time.

Kony 2012, directed by American filmmaker Jason Russell from Invisible Children, about the political situation in Uganda, advocates to capture Joseph Kony, accused of kidnapping children into his Lord’s Resistance Army. The film has become a viral phenomenon.Image

“The next 27 minutes are an experiment,” opens the film. Is it? Yes, but only in that it is agit prop on speed. It’s spread so fast in Internet time, though, that in writing this blog posting a few weeks after it came out, I am already behind the curve. What then, does that mean for social change, and agit prop, if digital activism has the life of an Internet meme?

To examine that question, we first have to understand what has captured the attention of people.  I doubt it’s actually the topic. In fact, many have raised issues about its accuracy or its oversimplification.

In fact, the opening of the video does not talk about Uganda. The narrator, filmmaker Russell, begins by stating that that more people are on Facebook than were on the planet 200 years ago.  Later in the video, Russell states, “Arresting Joseph Kony will prove that the world we live in has new rules. The technology that has brought our planet together is allowing us to respond to the problems of our friends.”

The popularity of Kony 2012 is based on a belief that the Internet is a revolutionary agent of change. As a digital activist scholar, I study how the Internet matters for social movements.  Of course, as academics, we are generally stuck in different camps: 1) Some researchers argue that digital media have transformed activism. 2) Others argue that it has made activism more efficient.  3) A third opinion is that what still matters is face-to-face organizing. How does this piece of agit prop fit into this rubric?

I am a skeptic of the hype around digital activism absent empirical results, but in this case I would guess that the popularity (which does not equate with actual social change) fits into the first view – the utopian belief that we can change the world by watching and clicking that has sparked this incredible viewership and digital sharing of Kony 2012. This video has captured people’s faith that knowledge is power. That doesn’t mean it is, just that people are mesmerized by the prospect.

Since I went to Central Americain the 1980s during the American-funded (illegally) Contra War, I have heard the plea from marginalized people facing atrocities to tell the world of their plight. Atrocities are happening all over the world, and filmmakers have documented them, certainly posting them on YouTube in recent years, but none have captured the attention of viewers like Kony 2012. What makes this different?  It’s not the call to action on April 20, as it is no different than thousands of other films out there – that also ask people to act, such as the United Farmworkers’ video campaigns from the 1980s from which hundreds of volunteers set up house screenings. Furthermore, much like the stunning array of posters and campaign literature that Invisible Children has developed for its Kony 2012 campaign, other filmmakers have printed similar materials. What’s different is that this is a time where people believe the Internet can change the world, and Kony 2012 artfully and emotionally captured that – the bad guy in the film isn’t just Joseph Kony, it is also a world without the Internet.

The film begins with the simple text, “Nothing is more powerful than an idea.”

Near the end of the video, the narrator says, “The problem is 99% of the planet doesn’t know who he [Kony] is. If they did, he’d be stopped long ago.”   The question remains what will happen long term with this knowledge.

However, I believe that this piece of agit prop also fits into the second academic opinion – it is simply a faster (astoundingly so) version of those that have come before us.

What is intriguing for me about Kony 2012, not just as a scholar of social media and social movements, but as a documentary filmmaker, is: How revolutionary this film is as a potential agent of social change?

I spent many years as a filmmaker documenting injustices, from the Klan in the rural Southern United States to rebel strongholds in the Philippines. To get attention and action on the issues in my films, I used the tried and true outlets of documentary films of the time: public television (and then cable TV), film festivals, college campuses and art house theaters. I also organized national film tours going from city to city, working with local organizations to set up community screenings. I usually made short films, often the length of Kony 2012, so these groups could use it as an organizing tool to educate their members and the general public about the issues. I even taught a course at the Bay Area Video Coalition on “Grassroots distribution of social issue documentaries” just as the Internet was beginning to spread throughout the world. We, as filmmakers, were fumbling and stumbling as how to integrate this new distribution tool. In fact, distributors and festivals would often prevent Internet streaming (and still do).  While I was relatively successful at getting my latest film, The Golf War, for example, out to various distribution outlets, it pales in comparison to the audience that Invisible Children has generated.  I never imagined an audience of the size and scope of Kony 2012.

But the filmmakers of “Invisible Children” do not have their eyes on the Oscars documentary short category (or perhaps they do). Instead, their distribution strategy is the topic of their documentary, not so much Kony’s capture. That is what, in turn, has captured the attention of the world.

Of course, there are a few important caveats to this argument. First is that this agit prop video sensation did not spontaneously come out of thin air. It was the sixth documentary generated by the filmmakers, and they have a six million dollar organization behind them, which most agit prop filmmakers lack. This money does not simply buy slick campaign literature or inspiring b-roll. Instead, it can fund organization. These folks are organized – on the ground, face-to-face, offline. So it is not simply the luck of the YouTube sleeper lottery that made Kony 2012 so popular, or the topic or even the nerve it touched on the power of the Internet, it is the organization of Invisible Children.

So in that sense, Kony 2012 also fits into the third viewpoint of digital activism – what still matters is traditional organizing.  How is it possible for me to argue in this case that the Internet simultaneously transforms social activism, simply makes it more efficient, and has no effect whatsoever?  Ah, it’s the object of study. In other words, this social media film has inspired a lot of viewers to watch it yet it is simply being distributed at a faster rate because they have a solid organization.

Unfortunately, none of these arguments address whether or not giving people outside a country simplistic knowledge about a complex situation is the right solution to the people living in that country.

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