By Any Media Necessary: Mapping Youth and Participatory Politics

“Watch 30 Minute Video on Internet, Become Social Activist”

In Spring 2012, Invisible Children (IC), a San Diego-based human rights organization, released Kony 2012, a thirty minute video about child soldiering in Uganda. IC anticipated that the video might reach half a million viewers over a two month campaign. Instead, it reached more than 70 million viewers over the first four days and over 100 million over the first week. The video’s rapid circulation was heavily fueled by high school and college students, coupled with church groups. By comparison, America’s highest rated television shows reach 40-45 million per week, and Hunger Games, the top Hollywood blockbuster that week, drew 15-20 million viewers. Inspired by the video’s own celebration of the power of social media to change the world, IC's young supporters had demonstrated the capacity of grassroots networks to shift the national agenda.
But, Kony 2012 drew sharp criticism from many established human rights groups and Africa experts, questioning everything from IC’s finances to its “white man’s burden” rhetoric. IC was especially challenged for being out of sync with current Ugandan realities and promoting responses some argued might do more harm than good. Critics have seen Kony 2012 as illustrating the kinds of institutional filters and ideological blinders that have long shaped communication between the Global North and South.
Kony 2012 quickly became emblematic of a larger debate concerning attention-driven activism. As the controversy surrounding the video intensified, the filmmaker, Jason Russell, had a highly public meltdown itself captured on video and widely circulated online. Cut off from the besieged leadership, many young IC supporters lacked the skills and information needed to defend their positions or for that matter, to reflect more deeply about the complexities they were encountering within the larger debate around the campaign. IC’s approach demonstrated enormous “spreadability” (the capacity to “spread” its messages) but limited “drillability” (the ability to “drill” deep into the issues.)
Using our four year plus of researching Invisible Children as an extended illustration, this chapter will introduce the core concept of participatory politics. As we do so, we take seriously the critiques leveled against the Kony 2012 campaign, but we also take seriously what participation in the movement meant to young people around the world for whom circulating and commenting on this video might have been their first expressions as citizens. While many “traditional” civic organizations enable youth to participate based on an apprenticeship model, many of our examples here exhibit a more participatory model, in which young people are taking control of and shaping their own modes of engagement. In this model, learning takes place not only vertically, from expert to mentor, but also horizontally, from peer to peer. Such sites often blend the distinction between interest-based and friendship-based networks that have informed other work in the Connected Learning tradition: Young people may enter based on shared interests, may work towards collective goals, yet in the process, they become integrated into rich social communities that often motivate and reward their continued participation. Invisible Children is a fascinating hybrid of these more established and emergent models: locating many of its chapters in schools and churches, yet creating ample opportunities for learning through participation.

Media Referenced in Chapter 2

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