Social crusaders or hipsters on safari? 22

This is a guest post by Evan Siff. Follow him on Twitter @Stairway2Evan.

Social media users are most likely familiar with the name Joseph Kony as of early last week, or perhaps they’ve already watched the 30-minute documentary by Invisible Children that has been reported to be the most viral video of all time. My Facebook news feed was bombarded by friends telling me how much I had to watch and share the video and, admittedly, it was hard not to get choked up when the loveable Jacob Acaye is on screen, as the filmmakers did a terrific job playing upon the viewer’s emotions.

I remember reading about the Ugandan Civil War (which has been going on for over 25 years), Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) for the first time in 2006, when I used it as a current events lesson in an English class I was teaching. It was among the most disturbing reports I had ever read, children abducted in the middle of the night and forced to beat their parents to death and/or kill their siblings if they refused to join.

While Invisible Children attest that the purpose of the Kony 2012 campaign is to bring a sociopathic war criminal to justice, it has also drawn some skepticism. The blog Visible Children provides a very critical perspective of the campaign and its founders, and raises some issues that are very… interesting, to say the least.

I believe that Invisible Children is legit and they truly want to bring Kony to justice and raise awareness of the situation in Uganda, but shouldn’t the Ugandan story be told by the people living it every day, and not through Western eyes? Wouldn’t it make more sense to channel efforts into teaching and training people in these situations and under these circumstances, giving them the tools to tell us their stories, empowering them, enabling them to easily and directly communicate with the rest of the world?

By no means am I suggesting that people shouldn’t support or donate money to Invisible Children, but wouldn’t we be better off putting the power of social media and digital communication into the hands of the people we want to help? Groups like Barefoot Workshops, a New York City-based, nonprofit organization founded in 2004, teach individuals and organizations around the world how to use digital video and new media to transform their communities and themselves.

A long-time friend of mine, Ranjan Roy, participated in one of the workshops in South Africa and has nothing but stellar things to say about it. “Barefoot Workshops has the seemingly simple, yet extremely powerful goal of helping teach people how to tell their own stories. They provide filmmaking workshops that are fee-based for those who can afford it, with revenues covering basic costs, but more importantly, they help fund scholarships for South Africans and Ugandans to learn to tell the world about their experiences through video.”

Social media is a useful tool for people to raise awareness of a situation and start a global conversation, but slacktivists tweeting about the Arab Spring and sharing videos on Facebook didn’t foster social change or topple regimes – it was the brave souls who were living under those regimes, risking mutilation and death to organize protests and share what was happening with the rest of the world. Kony hasn’t been active in Uganda since 2005 and has evaded capture to date, while what’s left of the LRA is supposedly scattered around the DRC, CAR and South Sudan. I’m not saying he shouldn’t be brought to justice, but Kony 2012 almost seems ‘too little, too late.’ Perhaps if the Ugandans had had the training and means to capture and share their story in real-time through new media channels, the world’s attention would have been grabbed when it was needed the most.

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