Kony 2012 – The Ultimate Slacktivist Movement?


October 3, 2012 by The Cycling Feminist

No one can deny that we are currently living in a time where information is available to many more individuals than ever before.  Social and political issues that may not have come to the forefront of social discourse before are now openly discussed and shared among online communities and social media.  Widespread access to this type of information may lead more individuals to take a stand against certain social justice issues.  But does it do so in every case?

In Manuel Castells’ article “Communication, Power and Counter-power in the Network Society”, he argues that social movements are reaching a far larger audience on the internet, and that more often than not their aim is to bring attention to values and interests that are entrenched in certain institutions.  By reaching a larger internet audience, Castells’ states that it is possible to mobilize many people and create a shift in power relations, also known as counter-power.  Clay Shirky also sees the value in online social activism, and in his essay in Foreign Affairs, he states the importance of social media in organizing and mobilizing “nearly all of the world’s political movements”, from government protests in Moldova, Belarus, and even the use of text messaging in organizing the overthrow of the president of the Philippines.  A more recent example of the importance of social media in creating counter-power could be seen just a few years ago during the events known as the Arab Spring.

According to both Castells and Shirky, social media is the way to go if you want a social cause to turn into a movement.  But does this have a real social effect in all cases?  Take for instance the Kony 2012 campaign that was launched in March 2012.  An organization known as Invisible Children employed the use of online media by launching a 30 minute video on YouTube explaining how young children were being persecuted and recruited as child soldiers by militia in Uganda.   This campaign was initially highly successful because they found a way to convey this message simply, using images that challenged viewers to action. Taking into account what Castells says about counter-power, Invisible Children were able to disseminate their platform for change via the internet and social media, and call on Western countries to oppose abuse of power globally.  Furthermore, they launched a campaign whereby supporters could purchase bracelets, t-shirts, stickers and posters and literally “show” that they were supporting this cause.  Castells states that social movements “adopt the values…that are specific to the kind of society where they take place”, and not only did Invisible Children appeal to the masses in a capitalistic kind of way (i.e.: purchasing of goods), but they also portrayed a system of beliefs (e.g.: freedom, the right to childhood, etc) that are valued in western society.

So was this movement successful?  There are currently mixed reviews concerning the success of Invisible Children and the Kony 2012 campaign.  For starters, some say that

this movement has led to nothing more than what is known as “slacktivism”, or as urban dictionary defines it: “The act of participating in obviously pointless activities as an expedient alternative to actually expending effort to fix a problem”.  In Helen Crane’s opinion piece for the Huffington Post, she states that “It seems that social networking has encouraged a kind of armchair activism: people post links to this kind of material, often accompanied by statements of outrage and demands that their friends join them in said outrage. But the indignation stops there.”   She argues that individuals may support a cause online, but when push comes to shove, they are not likely to actually take to the streets or write their government demanding action or change.  On the other side, Zoe Fox from Mashable argues the position that “KONY 2012 explicitly states that its goal is to make Joseph Kony famous, because 99% of the world doesn’t (or didn’t  know who he is — and it has been darn successful at doing just that”.

When considering the arguments presented by Castells, Shirky, Crane and Fox, is it possible that slacktivism may actually be a powerful force for change?  As our forms of communication and sources of information become increasingly internet based, is sharing information on social media any less powerful or than taking to the streets?


9 thoughts on “Kony 2012 – The Ultimate Slacktivist Movement?

  1. […] Cycling Feminist (whom you say you drew inspiration from), posted an interesting blog post titled, “The Ultimate Slacktivist Movement” that also garnered insightful […]

  2. […] of a sudden DING DING. I should also mention that my idea for this blog stemmed from the article by The Cycling Feminist, so a thank you is in order for the inspiring blog post! Moving […]

  3. Hey, I also thought that I would leave this video as well. I really loved it. enjoy everyone!!

  4. I love this blog Cycle Feminist!! I think this is an issue we need to consider as society is becoming more dependent on technology. Historically activism was about battling it out in the streets, causing riots, picketing, you name it! Today it’s about using facebook, twitter and youtube to protest against issues that affect us in society, what fun is that!!?? Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of technology but activism only through technology is that really achievable? Shirky gives great examples of how using technology is a great tool to over powering government through text messages, getting governmental secrets out through social networks, etc, however it can only go so far.

    Race, gender, sexuality, and class are all social issues that still affect people within society, can you really effect change for these social issues over the Internet? I recently came across a Tweet I found very interesting, the Tweet was by CP24 and was titled, “New school guidelines accommodate transgender students, teachers” (http://www.cp24.com/new-guidelines-accommodate-transgender-students-1.983665)
    The conversation under the headline went as follows:
    @KennySkerrit that’s stupid soon there going to be making school for kids with only black hair
    @SonyaFuerst That’s how you want to relate gender Identity? To dark hair? They are not separating them, they are accommodating
    @KennySkerrit yeah like your gender nowadays you can change it like your hair
    @SonyaFuerst I strongly suggest you do some research what it means to be a trans person before you make ridiculous statements
    @KennySkerrityea yea yea

    This is an example of how activism over the internet is impractical because in reality the likelihood of this person stating this comment in a crowd of protesters is very low. Activism over the Internet is a lazy way to protest, it takes away from the dedication one puts into socially changing issues within society.

    In the past, social movements were about the march/protest, people thrived off marching on parliament, marching for rights, marching for reproductive rights, when did we get so lazy that we turned to liking a page on facebook. I believe we need to bring it back to the streets, stop being the technological determinist that society has become and try to do things on a physical level. Walking for rights to change policies creates unity among our citizens. Solidarity is very important because only through that can change be made. The internet is to vast, pages can be taken down, sites can be closed, however, protesting on the street, no one can take away this type of movement. It shows that humanity still exists within society.

    I found a really funny youtube paradoy video to slacktivism that I hope everyone will enjoy!

  5. Taylor says:

    On March 5th, 2012 I was busy writing papers and preparing for the end of my second semester. During these stressful times I find solace in Facebook as it becomes the ultimate form of distraction and procrastination. I am unable to tell you the actual number of times I visited Facebook that day, but by night my newsfeed was covered in links to the Kony 2012 video that hadn’t been there only hours before. I was confused to say the least and I felt a little out of the loop. What was this video and why didn’t I know about it. It didn’t take me long to figure it out. The outrage people felt towards Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army was clearly demonstrated.

    The Kony 2012 video that went viral in only a matter of hours when Invisible Children released it, demonstrates how incredibly effective social media can be. Within a number of days it had been viewed over 8 million times on Vimeo and more than 9 million times on YouTube. As of today, combining both media hubs it has been seen almost 100 million.

    That being said I wonder how many people knew about Kony before they saw the Invisible Children’s video? Further, I am curious if they know anymore about him after they proclaimed their support?

    Clay Shirky and Manuel Castells are both optimistic about the power potential that social media has in creating change. I wholeheartedly agree that social media should not be underestimated, but I also feel that there needs to be more effort on the part of people then simply ‘liking’ a page.

    Part of activism is also about knowledge. It is not just about disseminating information, but also informing yourself. It is one thing to watch a video, but to actually know what the issue is about is important. To me the Kony 2012 video was sensationalist media that trigger people’s hearts without them actually knowing what they were supporting. For example, after the release of the video many people who knew about the situation in Uganda fired back and argued the information is inaccurate and outdated and it is wrapped in American imperialism.

    So is Kony 2012 the ultimate slacktivist movement? I’d say yes, but for more then just because it didn’t take off like founder Jason Russell would have hoped. Technology has offered people a place to always be connected, to find information, and spread causes. But it has also allowed people to not be as active in change. People can post information on Facebook and call it a day, but worse then can support a cause without really knowing what it is they are backing because they were told via social media.

  6. Sara says:

    Your blog post definitely got me thinking. Just a week ago my roommates and I were arguing about the KONY Campaign where I felt that it was just another way for the Western world to look like heroes and just showed the power of social media, whereas my roommates felt that this campaign did work and it created a change. After reading Castell’s’ and Shirky’s readings I feel that yes, social media can invoke awareness, but it stops there.
    Social change and social movements cannot be successful without some type of actual participation such as writing to the government, and protesting, if neither of these take place how on earth will the issue change? Or get better for that matter? To my knowledge the entire campaign was to bring awareness and to make KONY famous, that alone is a problem for me. This entire campaign of course definitely shed light on KONY, but shouldn’t the campaign want to somehow eradicate the recruitment of child soldiers or what is going in Uganda and in other countries as well? I felt that yes it did bring awareness, but nowhere close to a successful change. No one did any protesting, as well as no one did any research on the history of this KONY character, society just believed what they were told, and agreed with it by clicking, tweeting, and creating statuses on Facebook.
    In Shirky’s article he talks about the movement in the Philippines where mass text messages were sent out in order to protest and to remove the president of the Philippines, but that’s the how they were successful. They indeed all came together and protested, that did not take place with this KONY campaign. Dependence and faith in social media has attained an all-time high, society feels that it will create change all by itself. I felt that definitely more had to be done in order for it to be successful. This just exemplifies how strong social media is, it has the power to shape our perception and beliefs. KONY 2012 I felt personally illustrated a negative perception of Uganda, not showing any positive aspects of the country, portraying the country as a place of chaos. It was also perceived that the Ugandan government could not control the issue at hand, and that “Western” forces were needed. Even in Shirky’s article he says that there is too much overestimation on the value of access to information that comes from the West and underestimates the value of local coordination to create change. All in all, I feel that KONY 2012 campaign had great intentions, but fell short of the goal at hand. Social media cannot cure everything, it can definitely invoke awareness but that is all it can do in my opinion.

  7. #KONY2012 ?? What’s the F@#$ is that?? Ohh right I remember, when social activism was cool for like 2 days then the dude who started the movement went bonkers in the streets naked and it went viral on youtube? Oh yeahhh I remember, whatever happened to that? #NOTHING

    Apparently 2012 was the best of times and the worst of times for social movements in the digital age. The #KONY campaign made my blood boil from the get-go, even before I realized how much of a farce it truly was! I will admit it was a well thought-out video that succeeded in going completely viral within just a few hours, sensationalizing the experiences child soldiers and oppression in Uganda. It was a call to action, demanding accountability from numerous public figures and politicians in order to end to the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) operating in East Africa and most importantly to bring war criminal Joseph Kony to the International Criminal Court (ICC) . I was impressed by the video’s capacity to instantly arouse its viewers passion and emotion with such little context. When I first saw the familiar faces of George Bush and Stephen Harper on their list of suggested-sponsors I instantly knew that this an extremely sketchy new wave of internet slacktivism , proving that 99% of youtubers will believe exactly what a video tells them. Video responses from Uganda instantly surfaced indicating that this charity was some type questionable propaganda campaign, as the country has been in state of relative peace and economic growth. The peak of LRA activity and Joseph Kony’s cruel child soldier crusade in Uganda had taken place years earlier with virtually no outcry from Western media. Why now?

    I guess the question perhaps no longer matters, since a few days later mass criticism erupted against the #KONY2012 campaign stating that it is pro-war propaganda aimed at sending American troops into East Africa and Ugandan oil reserves under the guise of humanitarian intervention. Amidst this backlash, the founder of the Invisible Children’s Campaign who was featured with his little son in the #KONY2012 video appeared naked screaming in the streets of San Diego. TMZ and other tabloids reported on the event for about a day and then the rest was history. Meanwhile across the globe, the Arab world was using social media networks to overthrow dictatorships and are continuing to do so day.

    In spite of the dubious intentions of this video, I do think it embodied both the strengths and weaknesses of Castell’s notion of counter-power through media politics. The #KONY2012 Campaign provided an eloquent framework for social media as resistance. The methodology of combining communications technology with public protest and dissent by “making Kony famous” is quite brilliant if you ask me. This short-lived trend showed the capacity to share knowledge and incite action at a rapid pace whether that meant changing your profile picture or putting up posters. Personally, I understand #KONY2012 to be a social experiment, funded by whom and for what purposes I am not sure, but it reinforced what the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement has already proved: social media can be both a tool and a weapon depending on who has power over it

    In Solidarity,


  8. sarahgm says:

    Good evening! I’m gonna take a few words here to entertain a thought.

    The Defense of Slactivism
    Your post correctly narrows in on the Western ‘issue’ of slactivism, of folks who are socially aware, but not socially active. I’m hoping to show the power that this has as a type of (in)action in itself.
    The sharing of the Kony video, the RTing of Occupy tweets, and any other instant actions to share these social justice issues do accomplish a very important task which you yourself touched upon in your opening sentence.
    Information is more widely available than ever before. This is partly thanks to the numerous slactivists who disseminate information and share knowledge across boarders and throughout the web. These folks may not be the creators, or the actors, but they care enough just to share information, possibly out their name on an online petition, or change a profile pic in solidarity with a cause.
    The way that some of our campaigns and movements, even within the student movement, are tailored for this type of action. The inability, and yes, sometimes unwillingness of people to show up to direct action needs to be taken into account. The Drop Fees actions run by the Canadian Federation of Students is a great example of this. There is a collective Day of Action held across the country, but in addition to this there are social media campaigns, petitions and postcards for students to sign and support. Especially in communities like the student population, people always don’t have the privilege of protest. Sometimes the action of what someone can do online is all the time they can afford to give to a cause.
    All in all, I think that the limited actions taken by many people online at times are out of laziness, but not out of apathy, someone cares enough to re-post, to disseminate that information to another couple hundred people, and to voice their opinion on social justice issues. Slactivism is a necessary part of the knowledge culture that we live in and is a dirty word for the actions taken by people who do not have the option to participate any further.


  9. Thank you, Cycling Feminist for a very interesting blog post! I am going to write something similar about this topic in my own time.

    To begin, it is hard to imagine, but I am an optimist when it comes to pretty much everything: life, technology, school, etc. But after taking some time to think about the readings by Castell and Shirky, it’s hard for me to be so optimistic about technology, social media, and activism.

    When it comes down to it and in my honest perspective, activism is all about participation. Without 100% commitment and active involvement, activism and activist movements would not have the impact that they have. When it comes to social networks creating a sense of activism, there have been successful accounts. For example, Shirky mentions in his article the use of text messaging being used to overthrow the Phillipines president. However, as you have mentioned in your blog, there have also been in my opinion “unsuccessful” campaigns.

    In my view, the Kony 2012 movement that spread like wildfire on Facebook and Youtube was not a success. As some articles have stated (such as the one by Zoe Fox) it has been successful by making Kony a recognized individual. But the overall movement itself, in my opinion was not successful. It does not require a lot of “effort” and “commitment” to join a group or to “like” something on Facebook, it just requires a push of the button. Let us compare the social movement in the Phillipines to the Kony 2012 activist movement. Many would argue that sending a text does not require a lot of work, and it doesn’t. You look at the screen, you read the text message and then you reply by pushing some buttons, and then send! The effort and commitment part came from those individual activist who sent the text forward, but who ALSO WENT TO THE DESIGNATED PLACE TO ORGANIZE THE PROTEST!! (Sorry I felt capitals were needed.) Those (most) people who “liked” the Kony 2012 movement were in a sense cowards, not willing to express their true opinions on the matter in public spaces, but rather on a social network that can only be seen as friends, family, and acquaintances. So my next question is, is where are people’s true intentions when they join movements such as Kony 2012. Are they doing it just to be on the bandwagon like everyone else? Or are they doing it to impress others?! I’m not sure really…I guess it varies for everyone. I guess that is where I will leave off, I would love to hear your thoughts on my opinions 🙂

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