Engaging news is almost always contingent upon human tragedy. The journalist in question often faces ethical dilemmas depending on the location and nature of the event as well as the ethnic identity of the victims. As such, mainstream news agencies do not report a catastrophic earthquake and a terrorist attack from the same angle. Their approach vastly differs depending on whether the tragedy occurred in a first world or a developing nation.
It is certainly no secret that the nuances of death and destruction have a universal appeal, whether through empathy or curiosity. Empathy, however, can only take one so far. Not many people in the "free" Western world are able to relate to honor killings, famine, or a lack of free press. Most can scarcely imagine a life without indoor plumbing. Fortunately, human beings are social animals, who often internalize the suffering of their fellow men and women, as Jean Seaton comments: "No other species takes an equivalent interest in the misfortunes of its own members." Even if we cannot relate to a specific tragedy, we know what it means to suffer. Our empathetic inclination is why reports of tragedy, which essentially write and sell themselves, are lucrative investments for news agencies. But not all tragedy is marketed the same. All humans may suffer and bleed the same, but according to mainstream news agencies, some human suffering is more tragic than others. Thus, eager to appear metropolitan, informed, and sympathetic, citizens of the Western world are quick to rally behind reports of injustice to which they can never truly relate. The Kony 2012 social media campaign, which was by far the most infamous effort put forth in this regard, was at first hugely successful. It has now been decried by many as a scam to push an American military presence into a country with oil reserves.
News Values in Crisis Reporting
Neutrality is heralded as the most sacred value in news and crisis reporting. Sources that maintain utmost impartiality are praised as being the most trustworthy, and any inkling of bias in the media is scorned as propaganda. Nevertheless, the modern-day news media machine is far from pristine. "Journalists are turned to as defenders of liberty, but they are also contaminated by what they deal in and how it is obtained," writes Seaton. This promotes a bit of a grey area in regard to journalistic integrity, as David Edwards and David Cromwell remark, "Not only is journalistic 'objectivity' impossible, the attempt to achieve it is morally abhorrent. How can we remain neutral in a world afflicted by poverty and war? What does it mean to be 'impartial' in an age of catastrophic climate change? Is it even sane to declare oneself a disinterested spectator standing between taking action to avert disaster and doing nothing while the support systems of global life collapse?"
Using this logic, the mainstream media and news agencies can indeed choose a side when an event is deemed incendiary enough to rouse public support; in fact, they are expected to. The Archbishop Desmond Tutu famously offers the following example, "If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality."
Consequently, when tragedy and injustice occur in foreign lands, it is only natural that the rest of the world comes together to fight the oppressors. Today, this global solidarity is often achieved via social media. But hashtags do not feed starving children, viral videos cannot cure malaria, and profile banners will not resurrect the dead. Would Archbishop Tutu consider internet activism a non-action? Is it morally sound for mainstream outlets to exploit images of victims in an effort to conflate conflicts in which they have no rightful stake?
Kony 2012: The Digital Age of Propaganda
A black child with a transparent rib cage, huge head, bloated stomach, protruding eyes, and twigs as arms and legs was the favorite poster of the large British charitable operation known as Oxfam. Oxfam called upon the people of Europe to save starving African and Asian children… and never bothered their consciences by telling them that capitalism and colonialism created the starvation, suffering, and misery in the first place.
-- "How Europe Underdeveloped Africa," Walter Rodney, 1973
Tales of suffering and death rouse public opinion and incite an impetus for action, thus they are easily manipulated into effective propaganda. Kony 2012 was the perfect vehicle for this sort of propaganda. The 30-minute documentary, produced by the not-for-profit organization Invisible Children, was primarily intended to vilify Joseph Kony and to encourage the American public to support his capture using military force. The documentary intentionally misused footage of Kony and his army of alleged child-soldiers (some of it over a decade old) to agitate a situation that had been dormant for years. The organization further exploited the now archetypical images of Africa as the perpetually war-torn, hungry, and destitute dark continent. The video was viewed over 7 million times during the first 48 hours online, spreading like wildfire via Facebook and Twitter. Today, the documentary has 102 million views.
The Kony 2012 campaign raised $26 million by selling 'action kits,' – packages with bumper stickers, posters, and bracelets that boasted Kony's name and image. The campaign organizers were not, however, transparent when it came to the distribution of the funds. This, coupled with the explosive backlash from Ugandan citizens, who claimed that Joseph Kony was either dead or missing but, above all, not an immediate threat to anyone, resulted in a public relations disaster for the campaign. "Joseph Kony is not in Uganda and hasn't been for 6 years," wrote journalist Michael Wilkerson, who lived and worked in Uganda. "Unfortunately, it looks like meddlesome details like where Kony actually is aren't important enough for Invisible Children to make sure its audience understands." Shortly after the public relations debacle, Kony 2012's charismatic leader, Jason Russell, suffered a mental breakdown during which he paraded naked about the streets of San Diego.
Kony 2012 is a classic example of citizen crisis reporting gone horribly awry. None of the actions taken by Jason Russell or his team were implemented without any prior research. Joseph Kony was portrayed as the "world's worst" after Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden. The video was marketed to a young, impressionable, and above all, privileged generation by means of social media. It exploited images of human suffering, specifically involving Ugandan children, to incite a reaction from people who could not possibly identify with the images on the screen. However, they knew human suffering when they saw it. They empathized. They also knew that neutrality was not an option, so they chose the side of the oppressed. The video depicted numerous images of the people in its target audience – American teenagers – wearing T-shirts, bandanas, and other regalia adorned with Joseph Kony's face – gathered in a configuration resembling a giant peace sign. How are we to interpret this? Where do we even begin?
The White Savior and The Dark Continent
Take up the White Man's burden, The savage wars of peace--
Fill full the mouth of Famine And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly Bring all your hopes to nought.
- The White Man's Burden, Rudyard Kipling (1899)
Unavoidable issues concerning race and class arise when one further analyzes the Kony 2012 marketing campaign. When scrutinizing the film, there are very clear racial and cultural markers embedded from the very beginning. Jason Russell's then 5-year-old son, Gavin Danger, is featured heavily in the film. His image is intercut with footage of Ugandan children in various states of despair. Many saw this tactic as manipulative and indulgent. "I found there to be something unbelievably white and creepily narcissistic about the Invisible Children produced movie. Why did I have to share the movie? Why did the movie 'expire' at the end of the year?" asks blogger Michael Murray, who is also critical of Russell for using his child as "a self-promoting prop." At the 09:54 mark in the film, Gavin Danger is presented with a picture of Joseph Kony and told that he is "the bad guy." Russell goes on to explain to his son that "[Kony] has an army, and he takes [children] away from their homes, gives them a gun, and makes them shoot." Murray, like many viewers who were older than the target audience, was largely unmoved by this tactic, "Seemingly oblivious to the ironies implicit in the blatant manipulation of a child in pursuit of the arrest of a man who horribly abuses and destroys children, it actually seemed like Russell was planning on creating a kind of holy child army to stop the existence of an unholy child army."
The exchange between the charismatic white campaigner and his impressionable white 5-year-old sets an unsettling undertone for the video. Russell is marketing this to young adults, but he addresses them as children. "This is for babies," remarked perpetually skeptic radio host Alex Jones in a broadcast dated 14 March 2012. "This is Sesame Street."
Nevertheless, many high-profile celebrities were quick to endorse the cause, including Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Oprah Winfrey, and Bono. This accessible, childish approach, as well as the endorsements of famous faces, proved to be exceedingly effective rhetoric. More effective was Russell's adamant plea to Millennials – they could "make a difference." They could do this by liking Invisible Children on Facebook, purchasing the $30 action kit, wearing a bracelet with Kony's face on it, and participating in a mass protest entitled "Cover the Night," in which participants were encouraged to plaster their cities with Kony 2012 materials. These young people were convinced that they could push the matter to Congress and save the African children. None of this occurred by chance. "Media organizations put together the suffering we see by a complicated process that includes thinking carefully about what we would like to see - and what they want to do with us" explains Seaton. It was no happy accident that Kony 2012 was packaged and sold to Millennials instead of their parents. Baby Boomers and Gen Xers are all too familiar with telethons and fundraising rackets. They donated to 'Live Aid' and were moved to tears by 'We Are The World' long before the Kony 2012 crowd was conceived. Kony 2012 was not, and could not have been marketed to Baby Boomers because they understand that such campaigns are fundamentally useless. They raise awareness, cause a lot of fuss, and generate tons of capital, but they don't fill empty bellies.
Thus the conflict in Uganda was watered down to a crude dichotomy of heroes and victims with a white male savior who took it upon himself to save the children. In addition, he had rallied an army of impressionable white teenagers, who (perhaps unknowingly) also took up the 'honorable' role of savior. In no way, however, was the documentary empowering for Ugandan citizens – when it was screened in Uganda, mass riots ensued. Several Ugandan journalists and bloggers brought this backlash to light. "The simplicity of the 'good versus evil,' where good is inevitably white/western and bad is black or African, is also reminiscent of some of the worst excesses of the colonial era interventions" notes Ugandan journalist Angelo Izama. Ugandan journalist TMS Ruge also remarks on the dubiousness of the campaign and the questionable nature of the white savior rhetoric: "The scary part of this campaign is that it raises expectations too high. 'If you care enough to spend $30 on this here bracelet, we will go and get rid of this evil for you. Trust us,' it says. The world isn't that simple or easy to fix. The campaign missed a huge opportunity to instill agency in Uganda's civil society, to encourage citizens to act on their own behalf. That would have been hugely transformative. But instead, Ugandans are left wondering 'What is this?'" In the shadow of Western imperialism, under the guise of compassion, and with the impetus to solve the problems of others, nary a thought was spared for the needs or concerns of the Ugandan citizens. "Despite the group's best efforts," writes Jamilah King, "the campaign is still taking heat over its portrayal of Africans as victims whose only hope lay in the actions — and wallets — of white saviors."
The Fall of Kony 2012 and the Ethics of Citizen Journalism
The Kony 2012 campaign was likely so successful because the organizers did not present themselves as journalists or the video as hard news. Jason Russell marketed himself as a regular citizen and the video as a grassroots campaign contingent upon the collective strength (and donations) of its supporters. The campaign was therefore under no obligation to uphold the news values of neutrality and objectivity. The predetermined audience for Kony 2012 implicitly knew not to interpret the footage as investigative journalism, but rather the way it was marketed – as a heroic rallying cry to action. This sensationalized appeal to emotion held serious consequences for Russell and his team.
Online, scathing criticism travels even more quickly than bad news. Within 24 hours of the video's release, there was a widespread negative online reaction – mainly from individuals outside the film's target audience. The viral spread of the campaign was the film's biggest asset, but it also led to its demise. Many were skeptical of how the amassed funds were to be distributed and questioned how much of the money would actually be used to "save" the Ugandan children. It did not take long for tech-savvy Millennials to unearth Invisible Children's tax returns (which, as with all not-for-profit organizations, are a matter of public record). Page 6 of Invisible Children's 2011 tax return revealed that the organization spent over $8 million with only a mere 32% of that amount going to direct aid. The tax return also revealed that Invisible Children was receiving funds from far-right Christian fundamentalist groups on a regular basis, one of which supported the death penalty for homosexuality in Uganda. This comes as no surprise considering Jason Russell is a devout Evangelical Christian himself, yet none of his religious sensibilities were addressed in the campaign. If those who purchased the action kits and T-shirts were aware of Invisible Children's backers, would they have been so readily swayed? If those who "covered the night" were aware that their donations did not aid in Kony's capture, but instead kept the lights on at the Invisible Children headquarters in San Diego, would Kony 2012 have taken off so quickly?
Criticism also arose regarding Kony 2012's ultimate agenda. "…there are questions about the charity's funding, its targeting of US leaders instead of African leaders to instigate change and accusations that it is failing to criticize the Ugandan government, with its poor human rights record," wrote Polly Curtis and Tom McCarthy. As Uganda is rich in natural resources, it was quickly assumed that the charity was an excuse for the United States to send soldiers under the banner of saving the children in order to gain access to Ugandan oil. Before this discussion could come to fruition, however, on October 8, 2012, Jason Russell was spotted wandering the streets of San Diego nude and in the midst of a mental breakdown.
So, what was the ultimate purpose of this campaign? Surely not to inform – the video is rife with intentional inaccuracies and embellishments. Surely not to present itself as a piece of hard investigative journalism either, as the video is far too anecdotal and sensational for that. Then what? The video supposedly intended to pressure the U.S. government to make sure Kony was located and killed. President Barack Obama authorized the deployment of 100 American soldiers to Uganda in 2011; they did not locate the warlord. The search was officially called off in 2017.