Thoughts on Social Activism via Social Media

In my column today I wade into the discussion on the “Stop Kony” video currently taking over the Internet.

In a nutshell, I have mixed feelings. I think this video is a powerful testament to both the power and the limitations of social media. On the plus side, it has millions of people talking about a very worthy goal: stopping a merciless warlord. Anyone who took the time to watch it spent at least a few minutes thinking beyond their own borders. And its reach is impressive.

On the flip side, the video is emblematic of all the typical shortcomings of social media: it’s glib, shallow, and slightly narcissistic.

Let’s be honest: social media is as much about us as it is about connecting with other people.  It’s an opportunity to be charming or impressive in the space of 140 characters, a status update or a clip on YouTube.  It’s a medium of sound bites and sarcastic quips, not in-depth analysis and heavy thinking. And it often leads to navel-gazing and filtering everything through our own perspective.

(And yes, I am fully aware that I’m making these arguments on my own personal blog about me and my family. Do with that irony what you will.)

I had the same thoughts on another video that recently went viral and sparked a debate, at least in my social media circles: that YouTube clip on “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus.”

The video made some good points, but ultimately it indulges in the same bad habits. It’s a surface-deep, me-focused reduction of a complex subject. It’s an OK poem and decent discussion starter but a lousy treatise on theology.

Unfortunately when it went viral a lot of people read it as the latter–including critics who indicted it with a fiery passion more vitriolic than it deserved. And to be fair, I’ve read some interviews with the kid who made that video; he comes across as very gracious and admits it’s far from perfect. But of course, he probably wasn’t expecting 20 million people to watch it.

I think most of the same problems apply to the Kony 2012 video. If I could sum it up in one sentence,  it’s this: “My adorable  son thinks we should stop the bad guy!”

In other words, it simplifies the situation hugely, and it makes it about us. “Us” meaning privileged North Americans. Filmmaker Jason Russell never says it out loud and maybe doesn’t even realize he’s doing it, but his video functions on the premise that people will care more about a cause in Africa if they hear it from George Clooney and a cute blond kid. It’s kind of patronizing, but unfortunately it’s also true.

I think it’s a good thing to inspire people that they can actually make a difference, but my concern is that people will equate buying bracelets and sticking up posters with making a difference. It’s not that simple. And we do ourselves and the entire world a disservice if we think about this for a few days, argue about it, and move on to the next viral trend.

Changing the world means stepping outside the virtual world and actually getting our hands dirty. It means wrestling with seemingly impossible questions rather than letting famous people do the thinking for us.

Other people have expressed this more eloquently than me, including author Dinaw Mengestu in this article that you really should take 10 minutes to read if this subject means anything to you at all. But here’s a quote that speaks volumes:

The doctrine of simplicity is always at war with reality. Our best, most human instincts of compassion and generosity, if they are to be meaningful, can’t come from a marketing campaign as simple, as base, as an advertisement for a soft drink that promises you the world for a single sip. If we care, then we should care enough to say that we need to know more, that we don’t have an easy answer, but that we’re going to stay and work until we find one. You can’t put that on a t-shirt or a poster. You can’t tweet that, but you can live by it.




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