Invisible Children, a charity based in San Diego, certainly had the lash, in the form of a 30-minute video about the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army. The “Kony 2012” video, pitched to a 5-year-old’s sense of right and wrong, was an attempt to bring attention — and justice — to the case of Mr. Kony, whose violent paramilitary group has long been accused of using children as soldiers.
“Kony 2012” went viral last week and, helped by Twitter messages and endorsements by celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Mia Farrow, had exceeded 71 million views on YouTube by Sunday afternoon.
And that is when the backlash began.
The grounds for objection to the video are many. Some critics begin and end with its deep misrepresentation of the current state of play, including the fact that Mr. Kony has largely been defeated and is in hiding. Others chafe at the implicit “white man’s burden” message of the video — that Western outsiders, and only Western outsiders, can remedy the situation.
Others object to the reduction of a complex situation to the story of a single “bad guy” whose capture would magically restore harmony to a conflict-scarred region, and surely some object to the casual invocation of Hitler (is it a coincidence that the day of action promoted in the video is April 20, Hitler’s birthday?).
For some, the backlash becomes an opportunity to promote longstanding arguments. Evgeny Morozov, the author of “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom,” objects that the video is another example of a kind of low-impact concern he calls slacktivism. The journal Foreign Policy immediately lectured on what should be obvious errors of context. And African bloggers — tired of the image of outsiders coming to the rescue, or worse, sending in troops — have asked to be left alone, to be respected for their own agency in their own land.
It can all evoke George Bernard Shaw’s insight that “all professions are conspiracies against the laity.” Yes, “Kony 2012” may be crude, simplistic and shallow, but can it really be counterproductive if it prompts young people to ask why a well-known warlord with 30 years of atrocities to his name has not been caught and prosecuted?
Similarly, online protests against conditions at the factories in China that produce Apple products were asking a simple question: Is this really the best the richest corporation in the world can do in treating its workers? The response of experts was equally dismissive: Clearly you have no idea how preferable a miserable factory job is to an even more miserable existence in rural China.
And in the case of Occupy Wall Street, the movement asked why the income gap was widening and whether the trend could be reversed. Many critics — Wall Street bankers and opinion page pundits — assailed the movement, asking what precise remedies it was advocating.
The criticisms miss the point. The Occupiers, like Apple’s critics or the people behind “Kony 2012,” are arguing for the right to keep it simple. I was struck by the power of that urge when I read a thoughtful, nuanced blog post by Ethan Zuckerman, an expert on social networking and Africa, that came down against the “Kony 2012” video.
Mr. Zuckerman relied in part on research done by Séverine Autesserre, a political scientist at Barnard College. Mr. Zuckerman wrote that “the focus on rape as a weapon of war, Autesserre argues, has caused some armed groups to engage in mass rape as a technique to gain attention and a seat at the negotiating table.”
So we have gotten to the point that public outcry against the use of rape as a weapon in war can be viewed as helping spread the very thing it is trying to fight. You could understand why young people, who are connected globally in ways that were unthinkable even five years ago, might resist that kind of nuanced, professional reasoning.
Something changed with the Kony video. Watch the nearly 30-minute video, and you will note that so much of it is not about Mr. Kony, but about the viewer, especially the untapped power of the viewer.
The millions who watched the “Kony 2012” video — and donated or contacted a legislator — acting individually and however naïvely, might collectively force some big decisions. Already, some have credited efforts by Invisible Children before the video with spurring the United States government to send 100 advisers to help capture Mr. Kony.
We are entering an age when the shallow political power of the public — including those too young to vote — will increasingly help shape our policy debates. And yes, that is scary to professional foreign policy experts, much in the same way reference book authors with graduate degrees were rattled by the idea of an online encyclopedia created collectively by amateurs.
Navid Hassanpour, a researcher working at the Yale political science department whom I came to know from his work on the role of social media in the Arab Spring uprising, said he was currently studying questions raised by efforts like “Kony 2012.” Undoubtedly, the effort is getting more people involved in world politics — spreading “information” about remote areas.
His initial thought, he said in an e-mail, is that by creating advocates for one side in an internal struggle in a foreign land, it could lead to more intervention by the United States and other Western powers.
“I can say that we might get ourselves involved in more and more of them as private entities like the I.C. campaign enter the picture,” he wrote, referring to Invisible Children.
And that might be the biggest backlash of them all.