Armchair Activism and What We Learned from Kony 2012
A video of a cat falling off a table, and a campaign aimed to take down a child kidnapping despot in Africa. At first glance the two seem incongruous. The former is a joke, meant to be digested and forgotten in the span of a few minutes. The latter, on the other hand, is a pressing matter that concerns a social issue happening in real time. In fact though, the general public invests the same amount of interest in both, each having a shelf life of approximately one week. Less if the Leafs are having a good run. (Pause for wild laughter.)
Internet friends, I’m here today to talk to you about a social phenomenon called armchair activism, or in more hip terms, slacktivism. It’s a trend that’s been around for ages in various forms. Signing a petition form, but using a fake name or phone number so they can’t bug you further. Dropping thirty-six cents of loose change into a vagrant’s empty coffee cup. It’s a well-meaning intention, but ultimately does very little to change the larger picture. There’s no accountability, just the feeling of being a part of something.
With the advent of the Internet it became easier than ever to help without actually helping. The years before the burst of the dotcom bubble brought us chain emails that would promise great things in exchange for simply passing the message along. “Send this to 15 people and you’ll send a volunteer team to feed a third world village,” they proclaimed. “Send it to 30 and you’ll end world hunger.”
But things got even easier. Social media allowed for the issues to be brought right to our digital doorstep. There were good intentions everywhere! “Share this photo to save these babies.” “Like this photo to save all the babies in Canada.” “CHANGE your photo and save all the babies IN THE WORLD.” But of course, these messages weren’t the only thing being shared. For every crusade to end domestic violence, there were two stories about the latest celebrity wardrobe malfunction, and three videos of kids high on dental medicine. And on this day two years ago, this all converged in the form of a viral campaign called Kony 2012.
The details of the campaign were fuzzy at best, considering most who shared the video didn’t bother watching it. After all, it was like, an hour long! There’s no time for that. But there was time for everyone and their mothers to post the video, retweet the link, change their profile picture to a support banner, and suddenly become the world’s foremost experts on Uganda. Had they bothered to do –any- sort of research, they’d find that the issue was far more nuanced than just “there is a bad man stealing a million kids in Africa.” But the nature of slacktivism is get in, get out. Share a link, save the world.
The days following March 6th were not kind to the campaign. Google searches dropped from hundreds of millions to just millions in two days, and virtually zero by the end of the week. There was no sustained interest. Compassion fatigue had set in; apathy reigned supreme. Everyone had hopped off the bandwagon, but not before preaching about issue awareness, because for a few days the grinning mug in their profile picture was replaced by a company logo. Those who had donated to the charity found their funds did not go to Uganda, but rather towards merchandise that would spread MORE awareness. At this point I think everybody –might- have been aware though. On April 16th, the organization behind the campaign, Invisible Children, put out a sequel video, which in 11 days received less than 2% of the views the first video had in its first few days.
The digital celebrity telethon was over. Justin Bieber did not tweet about this follow-up video to his 300 million followers. The White House did not address this as a legitimate concern. Kony 2012 had come and gone as quickly, and as meaninglessly, as Rebecca Black’s Friday song the year before. It was just a meme, a distraction falsely inflated with words like “awareness”. The actual event in April where actual work was involved (postering and canvassing and such) brought out a scant few.
Nothing’s reached the level of that campaign, but smaller variances pop up all the time. Bullying is a perennial favorite, only becoming a relevant issue when a teary-eyed high school student posts a viral video accompanied by sad piano music. But the video is forgotten in a week, and bullying and gossip continue, often by the same people who shared the video. Campaigns to boycott companies and organizations are always empty threats, even when month long strikes damage the economy and cause job loss. The public forgives and the public forgets.
This speech is not meant to belittle efforts to better the world. I’m not criticizing any of the campaigns themselves, but the flighty, A.D.D. nature of the 24-hour internet news cycle. People tend to have a knee-jerk reaction when confronted with their lethargic form of participation, claiming that they really do care, but consider this:
In the last federal election in May 2011, Only 38.8 per cent of Canadian youth (eligible voters aged 18-24) cast a vote. The absolute bare minimum of civic responsibility, requires no commitment or investment, and 60% didn’t care about something that actually affects their own country. Not Africa, Canada. If they can’t be bothered to get involved in their own nation’s affairs, why should they care what’s happening across the ocean? If you truly care about an issue, please, let it show. But if you’re just sharing a link because you want to fulfill that mimetic need in your brain to be like everyone else, please ignore the kindergarten adage of “sharing is caring”. Get out of your chair, into the world, and change it yourself.