KONY 2012 (Part 2): Fear for the World’s Future

In the fall of 2006, I saw posters appearing on my college campus to advertise the screening of a low-budget documentary called Invisible Children.  The film drew small numbers and many of those who attended the screening were only looking to satisfy a class requirement or to receive extra credit.  In actuality, that tiny audience was moved by the story that they heard.  They banded together, formed an activist group code-named Project Okello, and pledged to put an end to the evils experienced in Uganda (those aroused by the now-famous Joseph Kony).  Over the next few months, “Invisible Children” became a buzzword on campus.  More posters appeared on bulletin boards, dormitory walls, and bathroom stalls.  The film was presented twice more to the public that year and shown dozens of times to individual groups or clubs.  Curious as to what the hype was all about I, too, attended one of the screenings.

Invisible Children drew me in from the start with background music by Switchfoot, a favorite band of mine but one that probably reached their peak around the same time.  Then it tugged at my heartstrings when I saw the plight of real people just like myself.    Finally, I looked around at the wide range of captivated students and heard the concern in their voice during the Q & A sessions.  When all of these sensations collided it gave me an exciting feeling that I would be a part of a movement and that, ultimately, I could change the world.  I joined the ranks of Project Okello and, whenever convenient, participated in their events or fundraisers.

Now, almost six years later, I have no connections with the former group members, no allegiance to this “higher cause,” and no output to suggest that I ever made a difference.  My interest and motivation completely disappeared, that is, until I was reminded of my history with the release of a new film: KONY 2012. What made Invisible Children so gripping before?  And why might its successor be cause to fear the future?

Consider that we live in an image-based society, one in which visuals are more powerful than words.  To cite just a few examples: In the 21st century, movie tickets generally sell faster than copies of the printed books.  Companies build entire marketing strategies around logos and symbols.  USA Today delivers news through infographics and bite-sized articles saturated with photographs. Televised news craft stories and carefully select videos to play on their viewers’ emotions.  “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

Coupled with the prevalence of image, consider also how these images are used. They are rarely haphazard.  More than words, images and motion pictures are powerful devices for propaganda.

For instance, several minutes of the KONY film are reserved for the producer, Jason Russell, to describe his relationship with his three-year old son.  He then proceeds to tell this young boy about a man who harms children and makes them soldiers for evil purposes.  When shown two photographs, the son easily points out which man is Joseph Kony and identifies him as the “bad guy” daddy is seeking to bring down.  While never explicitly stated, the message behind these images is clear: If a three-year old can tell right from wrong or separate the good guys from the bad guys, I should be able to as well.  Duh!

Images reach a broad audience and appeal to the senses, even when we are unaware.  It worked on me in 2006.  It worked on the world in 2012.  That is not to criticize the documentaries or their producer, only to explain why these films are so powerful.  In fact, I applaud Jason Russell for his skillful command of this medium in order to achieve a noble purpose.

But the downsides to this approach relate back to my own experience.  We are so saturated in images that we can lose sight of our mission quickly.  What was inspiring to people in March might not be so motivational in April, in May, or (dare I say) by December.  Within a year or even less time, the enthusiasm can die.  My point is this: If the world’s quest to bring down dictators and evil persons is driven exclusively by images or motion pictures, many of those villains will remain in power.  Regardless of whether the KONY campaign succeeds or not, many resources will inevitably be wasted in the process.

Thus leading to my next question and the second thing we have to fear: If the KONY campaign works, it will be a launching pad for future endeavors.  Jason Russell and his team have devised a system to mathematically evaluate their success.  According to the video, if you purchase one of their activism kits it will have a serial number which you can register online in conjunction with your Facebook account.  It is much like registering a new product with its manufacturer.  To sweeten the deal, you can even share your involvement with others through this means and encourage them to get involved in the cause with a click of a mouse.  That makes this campaign the first of its kind because all KONY-related activities can be tracked, identifiable to the user with nearly all users linked through social networking.

In theory, the strategy is brilliant.  If it puts an end to Joseph Kony’s reign of tyranny in Uganda I will celebrate with the next person.  But now what we have to fear is governments utilizing the same means to get whatever action out of their subjects that they want.  And it will not take much coercion.  Present the right images, prey upon emotions, and find a means to unify the masses through social networking.  I don’t wish to speculate what could be accomplished, but I can foresee a very powerful strategy playing into the wrong hands, advancing immoral or otherwise dangerous agendas.

In conclusion, do not let KONY be a repeat of Invisible Children where it seizes you with enthusiasm but dies as barely a memory.  Whatever happens to Joseph Kony, be aware that the methodology behind this campaign will endure as a new reality for us in the 21st century.  Be critically minded of what information you are fed, use sound judgment to determine whether it is worth joining the cause, and look for the cunning implementation of propaganda at every turn.