Slacktivism

Kony 2012 — Most of us involved with social media have heard of it. For some, learning of Kony and his atrocities is new information. However, my students and I are well aware of the situation; last year we raised over $22,000 dollars to help rebuild schools in Uganda that were destroyed during the war between the LRA and the government. Many people know my heart for this issue, which is likely why I started to receive email. 

What do you think about what’s happening? Have you heard the backlash? To be honest, I wanted to say nothing. That’s easier. Definitely safer. But I enter the fray because I think it’s a teachable moment for our students.

What do I think? Honestly? I don’t agree with the stance Invisible Children has taken.

I have a great deal of respect for much of the work Invisible Children has done. They brought to light the injustice occuring in Uganda and the plight of the invisible children who were forced to flee to the cities every night to remain safe. I think the drive to rebuild schools to provide education and the creation of rehabilitation centers are steps in the right direction.  However, it’s incredibly easy to start in the right direction, and have the best intentions, but slowly colonialism seeps in.  Suddenly we have the “right” answer to solve the problem.  But is it? History has shown us time and again, those of us “outside” of a problem rarely see the entire view, which allows us to come up with simple answers to alleviate complex problems and ultimately do more damage than good.

I think the current campaign is short-sighted and may set a dangerous precedent for the use of social media. We can see the power of it. If you have enough voices saying the same thing, they will be heard. But we need to critically evaluate what is being said, and not just hope the social media we’ve been handed is correct or become swept up in an emotional, feel-good story.  The term for this is digital citizenship.

Here’s the problem, while the video correctly informs us Kony is a dangerous man who needs to be stopped, the solutions it offers are decidedly white, North American and ill-informed. Throwing North American money at a problem, at best, rarely solves it, and at worst, exacerbates it.

Essentially, the premise of the video is that Kony has abducted thousands of children and needs to be stopped. The solution? All of us who stand for truth and justice should be the ones to stop Kony. How? We mobilise as many people as possible to lobby influential artists and politicians to stand up for the cause, which in turn will pressure Obama to keep the 100 troops deployed to Uganda in place until Kony is caught. Once Kony is caught, or killed, all will be good.  But will it? Do we honestly believe Justin Bieber is the Ugandan people’s best hope? Doesn’t that overestimate our ability and underestimate theirs?

This brings to the forefront what is justice? And who are we, in North America, to say what that looks like for the Ugandan people?  Does the end justify whatever means necessary?

The film makes no mention that Uganda is currently enjoying its longest period of peace, since the whole thing began in 1986.  Nor does it state that Kony hasn’t been in Uganda for a number of years. Additionally, the Kony 2012 campaign seeks to finance the Ugandan government to hunt down Kony.  The problem? Some would refer to this as blood money; the government of Uganda is as guilty as Kony and his followers. Both have perpetrated and benefited from the years of violence in Uganda.  Both have raped, plundered and tortured innocent citizens.  History tells us that bolstering corrupt governments doesn’t work well in the long run.  And stepping in strips the Ugandan people of their own agency — sounds colonial to me.

So what does justice look like?  The solutions for Uganda’s problems have to come from Uganda. I doubt most people are aware that Uganda has been working through this for years when it established the Ugandan Amnesty law.  The people of Uganda have a lot at stake for this process to work. Remember, it is their own children who have been abducted into the LRA, and many Acholi people support the process that allows LRA combatants to return to the country in exchange for amnesty and entering a process of traditional justice.

The process can work. We’ve seen it in both Rwanda and South Africa.  I’m not saying it’s easy, but both of these countries have authentically entered into the risky, painful process of justice, reconciliation and forgiveness, which seems absent from the Kony campaign.

I take issue with a video that provides a solution too simple to solve a complex systemic problem. And this, I think, is part of the appeal.  In a dumbed down, Kardashian world we want to believe that by liking a video on facebook, or by retweeting, we can change the world. That activism doesn’t require hard work, determination and thoughtful problem-solving that rejects easy solutions.  There’s a term for that “slacktivism”.

According to Urban Dictionary, Slacktivism is “the act of participating in obviously pointless activities as an expedient alternative to actually expending effort to fix a problem.”  or “The search for the ultimate feel-good that derives from having come to society’s rescue without having had to actually gets one’s hands dirty or open one’s wallet.”

Examples? Liking a video. Joining a Facebook group. Signing an online petition. I’m not sure papering cities with posters of Kony supports the Ugandan people in their search for justice and reconciliation. Or making Kony the most famous killer in the world.

And if Kony is caught or killed, will we rejoice that “we did it”? Somehow we become the heroes of the story, when in reality, the heroes are the Ugandan people who stumble and suffer through the process of justice, reconciliation and forgiveness, which in the end, no viral social media campaign can help them with.

Would we be so quick to jump on this campaign if it was addressing the metals in each of our cell phones and computers that have been procured by slave labour? Yep, you read that right. The phone or tablet in your hand, that you might be reading this on, is likely the result of slave labour.  Will you boycott Apple? Or Blackberry? and tell them you refuse to buy any of their products until they address the issue?

Let’s talk to kids about this issue.  This is an opportunity to facilitate our students learning about complex issues. But not only the Uganda issue, how about the slavery and corruption that exists in our daily consumption, and let’s begin to do something about it.  Kony using child slavery as part of his army is an atrocity, but so is child slavery to procure chocolate and coffee.

If we’re going to lobby governments, then let’s appeal for debt forgiveness for the poorest nations, whose economies are crushed and are kept in perpetual debt by the IMF and World Bank.

And let’s help our students think through the truth about what’s going on in Uganda, while steering away from feel good, yet meaningless actions.

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About shelleywright

I love education & learning, which likely explains why I'm a teacher. My areas are ELA, Sr. sciences, and technology. My classroom is best described as a student-centred, tech embedded pbl/inquiry learning environment. I am currently a PhD student in the area of Curriculum and Instruction. My focus is play-based learning in high school, and it's impact on brain development.
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23 Responses to Slacktivism

  1. dwees says:

    I’ve been similarly concerned by slacktivism. So much so that I made an effort to participate in something more meaningful before I send off a tweet or post something to Facebook promoting it. I’m appalled by the Robocalls scandal, for example, but instead of just posting how appalled I was, I went downtown and participated in a protest. This was an action that was noticed by the media, and helped (I think) change how the Conservative party is dealing with this issue.

    Thank you, Shelley. I read the post you linked to about Invisible Children’s current social media campaign, and when I watched the presentation, as powerful as it was, I felt a bit uneasy. I decided to wait on sharing the presentation until I could figure out why I felt uneasy. I’m glad I followed my instincts on this issue.

  2. Interesting commentary. I agree but think that really, we’re doing the same here, in our education systems, for example. We’re liking, tweeting, campaigning to change/flip or whatever. We have “twitter stars” and speakers who travel around telling us how to “fix” our schools who have limited experience with actually be in schools or who haven’t been in classrooms in the past 5 years – the time of the greatest changes in schools in history – but who will teach us how because they have the social media know how and social media technology is somehow the answer. If you have the time and social media know-how, you will become someone to whom others listen. Twitter is the new water cooler, I learn more in 10 minutes on twitter than a month of PD, etc. We perpetuate the illusion that joining chats, liking tweets, and all the other things we do will replace the hard work that is needed to create change because so few people really understand how hard the work is to change the culture of a school or bring about change that will have, at its core, the idea that continual change is the the new continuum.
    I agree with you but it’s easy to point fingers at something like this. Too often, we’re doing the exact same thing, disguising it, and allowing it to happen. Apple? Blackberry? For sure. But why stop at big corporations. What about our NA society? All the atrocities that are committed everyday right here? What are we doing to stop them? Are we? Or, right here, do we fundraise to give money to groups so that we don’t have to do the hard work ourselves or because it releaves the guilt we feel. Can we change this? Can we change the mindset that one needs to be an active part of the solution, right here? Truthfully, I’m not sure I have the energy to devote to that, raise my family and continue to do my job nor do I really want to give up the convienciences of our NA lifestyle. Since, really, that’s what it takes – change – and, as one can see, watching others change and telling others how to change is much easier than living that change.

  3. biancah80 says:

    The comment above by Kelly has captured something that I have been trying to articulate into a blog post for a while – too many people are being ‘put on stage’ when it comes to education, or even worse – ripped out of schools to be ‘put on stage’. Really what we need for meaningful change is for people to STAY in schools as much as possible and to generate change at a grass-roots level. I for one am terribly missing being in my class full-time because I have been asked to work on a professional learning project.
    I agree that there are organisations we can target that are closer to home and maybe more likely to make a real change. I also agree with Shelley – social media campaigns like this can be REALLY dangerous as they result in rash decisions by politicians trying to cash-in on the latest meme. Sad, really. I worry that many of the people who ‘viewed’ it didn’t see the whole thing and certainly didn’t go and find other articles or opinions on the issue. I didn’t watch the video because I felt that as an individual I would (in all truth) do nothing about the issue and simply watching and sharing a video does nothing. It’s like re-tweeting a blog post link without reading the post or commenting. Pointless.

  4. Thank you for this post.

    I felt like a pariah yesterday when I tweeted some thoughts along these lines – and really should have written a blog post instead! This tweet is where I left it last night and sooooo glad that even that is echoed in your post.

    I’ll end it at that as I really have nothing to add to what you’ve beautifully written.

    • I can understand that. It’s difficult to convey our thoughts on such a complex issue in only 140 characters. I love the Ghandi reference, so often we forget that violence doesn’t really solve the worlds problems.

  5. Well said Shelley! I have felt increasingly uneasy since I started noticing all the follows and shares that were happening with the Kony 2012 video. I have learned by experience not to click share automatically – just because everyone else is doing it. I just haven’t had time to do the research this week and so the only share I did was one from an organisation, Plan International (au), and the message they were posting was caution, which I felt one couldn’t go wrong with.

    I just said to my husband as we watched it on the Australian Network news half an hour ago, “this is one of the problems with social media.” And here it is you have a whole blog post about it. In this day and age it is more important than ever to be able to find out the backgrounds to stories like this so that you can make the best choice of action.

    Great post and as another comment above states, beautifully written! Thank you!

  6. Sarah Graham says:

    Do you know of any other programs helping with the rebuilding in the area? I’ve seen a lot of criticisms of the Kony campaign but alternative ways of helping and I was wondering is there where any groups who are directly involved in the restoration.

    • World Vision, a highly reputable organization, runs rehabilitation centres in Uganda that help to rehabilitate and reintroduce former child soldiers back into society. SOS children’s village also works in Uganda, and Save the Children does some really significant work in helping kids in Uganda.

  7. Altitude says:

    Reblogged this on Altitude and commented:
    There is a lot of buzz around the Kony 2012 media storm. Here is some fresh insight about the issue from someone I respect – definitely worth a read.

  8. Thanks for the well articulated post Shelley. All I can say is the youth of today have certainly been moved by this latest social media campaign. In one class today only 8 students out of a class of 30, had no idea about KONY2012. They were indeed open and curious to learn more; not only about KONY 2012 but covering a balanced view regarding the impact of social media, the validity of the “critics” and the devastating realisation that theses atrocities are occurring around the world. It was certainly an eye opener for many of them. So much to absorb and reflect upon-and hopefully work towards action! Action supporting our own communities as well as assisting aid overseas.

  9. Excellent post. You captured my heart on this exactly re: chocolate industry, colonialism, slacktivism/clicktivism, and the West as saviors. My students were absolutely captivated by the video, and we had excellent discussions afterwards about some of the aforementioned issues. My greatest hope is that this Kony movement will encourage our students to become socially ACTIVE and find a cause that they CAN support, whether local or international. Thanks for the great post.

    • Thanks, Brent! I agree with you whole heartedly. Classrooms should be places that engage and encourage our students to be socially active, while helping them critically evaluate global problems. There are no easy answers; at the same time I do think our students have a role to play in making the world a better place.

  10. Pingback: Facebook Slacktivism: Why I won’t be taking part in Kony 2012. – West End Singleton

  11. robcfisher says:

    Hi Shelley. I had an idea rattling around in my head that somehow I didn’t like what I saw happening with the KONY video and my students. ie. does our support really mean we support US occupation of countries? Our grade 8’s are considering doing something as a result of the video. I forwarded your post to Sophie (their teacher) to read with her kids this week. Maybe something besides slacktivism will result.

  12. Thanks, Rob. This whole Kony 2012 thing has really caused me to think. We have a generation of kids who want to help and who deeply care about others. I think we need to encourage this, but it needs to be done in a way that is thoughtful, respectful, and doesn’t cause damage. This is one of the reasons our students need to develop problem solving skills. Problems like the Uganda one aren’t easy to solve, and we need to be suspicious of any easy solution that’s handed to us by a slick social media piece.

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  15. Pingback: Kony from Multiple Perspectives | myhistoryteach

  16. Dwight says:

    Very well said Shelley. This is an opportune time to use this as a means to teach our students. Thank you for stepping up to do this.

  17. My worry is we throw the baby out with the bath water. Certainly there are problems and this is a more complex issue than a 30 minute video can address. Ethan Zuckerman wrote a nice story on the dangers of a simplistic narrative.
    http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2012/03/08/unpacking-kony-2012/

    And yet.

    Many of us can point to the power of a silly tweet or flippant comment that actually led to meaningful and important change. The goal of the video and campaign is pretty clear. It does allow degrees of participation and levels of understanding. The conversation here and ones that many are having are addressing the complexity and challenges of the situation. Certainly many are glossing over it without real thought but I suppose we’ll always have that.

    My fear is that the result is, many will dismiss the narrative entirely and the effort and then do nothing, because as you stated, it would have been easiest for you not to respond here, but you didn’t. I applaud people’s efforts and I think generally their motives are pure. That can’t be ignored. The role of both great storytelling and leveraging networks is not something we should baulk at because we disagree with the message. I’d like to see people work with the momentum and awareness and continue conversation and hard work. My guess is the folks at Invisible Children wouldn’t mind that either, even if there’s some disagreement on the approach and outcome.

    • I agree that we don’t want to throw out the “baby”, in this situation. It’s really created an opportunity for teachers and parents to talk to kids about what the world is like. It’s complex, and we need kids to begin to grapple with this reality. That’s learning at it’s finest. Maybe it is starting with the simple story at first, and then digging deeper and wider.

      This has shown us the power of great storytelling. How do we tap into that? How do we learn it? And just as important, how do we do something about the great deal of injustice that exists in our world?

  18. lisamnoble says:

    Shelley,
    Thanks so much for articulating a lot of what I’ve been feeling about the video and the “slacktivism” issue. My students were astounded at one article we read, by two U of T students recently returned from Uganda, that spoke about the Ugandan people’s desire to see their government held accountable on their actions as well. It muddied the waters for my kids, but I think that’s an important part of my job – to help them see the shades of grey.

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