How Online Slacktivism and White Saviorism Undermine Social Movements: KONY 2012 and Black Lives Matter

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On: October 29, 2021
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Amina Mohamed- aminanasree@gmail.com

Geneviève Lemaire – lemaire.gen@gmail.com

Miazia Schüler – miazia.schueler@student.uva.nl

New Media Research Practices – WG4- 5

October 29, 2021

How Online Slacktivism and White Saviorism Undermine Social Movements: KONY 2012 and Black Lives Matter

In the age of ubiquitous connectivity and social media activism, it makes sense that movements can begin, thrive, or die online. Older millennials and Gen Zers have come of age in a world where online engagement is synonymous with real life action, and where political change can start with a hashtag. However, the relationship between meaningful online engagement and slacktivism requires a critical eye, as measuring the impact of a movement can depend on its intentions, organizing methods and outcomes. In 2020, the world watched as Black Lives Matter, an organization which had first come into existence in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, morphed into a global movement. However, while it is decidedly more robust in its activity, it is not the first group to experience that transition. In March 2012, Invisible Children launched the KONY2012 campaign that prompted a widespread-if short lived- campaign against an unknown African warlord. 

While both instances demonstrate a form of social media activism that successfully captured global attention, one must ask whether public engagement with activist related hashtags signify engagement with a cause, or is it an example of what Leonard describes as “apolitical consumption”, whereby “participation in such campaigns rarely brings whiteness and the role of white people in propagating violence and inequality into the spotlight” (Leonard 3)? Further, do the patterns illustrated around Black Lives Matter’s #blackouttuesday campaign echo the same trends that surrounded the KONY2012 campaign, namely widespread uninformed engagement and participation? In order to engage with these ideas we must acknowledge the differing popularity of platforms through the years, and as a result, we will examine each phenomenon as it performs on the most popular social media platform of its time. Therefore, we will examine this divide by engaging with the KONY2012 campaign on Facebook – the most popular social media app of the mid 2010’s, and the more current Black Lives Matter’s #blackouttuesday hashtag on Instagram – the most popular engagement app of the moment – as a means to interrogate the ways apoliticism is visually represented on the platform. 

The Rise of Slacktivism

In March 2013, Invisible Children, an organization whose mission is to “end violent conflict and foster thriving ecosystems in solidarity with [the] world’s most at-risk communities” (Invisible Children), published a short documentary to YouTube, profiling the alleged war crimes of  Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony. The video garnered over half a million views in the first three hours, and within six days became the fastest video to reach one hundred million views on the platform. The premise was to “make [Joseph Kony] visible” (“KONY 2012” 22:56-22:58) which later translated to making him famous (see fig 1) by identifying April 20, 2012 as a global night of action, “cover the night” (26:27), where people would put up posters and other KONY paraphernalia across their respective cities to pressure their governments to address Kony.

Figure 1: Still from KONY2012 Youtube video               

KONY2012 demonstrated one of the earliest and most widespread instances of what has come to be known as “slacktivism…[a] low‐risk, low‐cost activity via social media, whose purpose is to raise awareness, produce change, or grant satisfaction to the person engaged in the activity…[and] eviden[ced] where our digital effort makes us feel very useful and important but ha[s] zero social impact” (Chazal, Pocrnic 8). As KONY 2012 grew in popularity, and as more users shared the video and bought KONY Action Kits – which sold out “almost immediately” (Wilkerson) (see fig 2)- , the video’s virality and humanitarian tone prompted a global movement to #stopKony. 

However, as we will demonstrate later in the paper, the unprecedented amount of online engagement translated into very little, if any, real world impact facilitated by the “low risk, low cost” model of social media participation through Facebook, which, through its like and share features, exacerbated a prominent white saviour-ist mentality that “allowed for the white man’s burden to manifest without having to confront the ideological and real-life tensions that manifest within face-to-face contact between whiteness and its others” (Leonard 6). KONY 2012 highlighted slacktivist tendencies that were – and continue to be- prominent online, and was further facilitated by the saviour-ist framing that both favour a – in this case digitally- participatory public over a nuanced, factually informed public.

Figure 2: Reddit thread discussing donations to KONY2012 

From KONY to Black Lives Matter

While the KONY 2012 campaign was the first of its kind at the time, it illustrated many troubling characteristics that are present in contemporary social media movements. By creating an online first campaign, one that relied on likes, shares, and online donations, KONY2012  “lowered involvement thresholds, preventing participants from deviating too far from everyday life practices or investing too much time, energy or resources to participate”(Chazal, Pocrnic 8 ). Invisible Children’s video claimed that “in order for the people to care, they have to know. And they will only know if Kony’s name is everywhere” (22:11- 22:19). The associative language tying fame and notoriety with care demonstrates a distinct understanding of internet culture, where recognition and attention are a form of currency, but does not set the stage for long term engagement. However, KONY 2012 was also one of the first campaigns to exemplify what would eventually become influencer culture, calling on “diverse and influential culture makers”  (23:49)  to use their platforms to amplify the movement’s message. The campaign called out “celebrities, athletes, and billionaires” as they “have a loud voice and what they talk about spreads instantly” (23:20-23:27). This initial use of celebrity endorsements is directly representative of our current discourse on influencer responsibility. 

This phenomenon is also evident in the #blackouttuesday movement, where influencers and celebrities blindly participated in a popular hashtag to remain relevant without taking the time to understand its purpose. From the Instagram infographic industrial complex to the study of influencer culture and what has come to be known as performance activism and performative allyship, contemporary academic and popular dialogue continues to engage with these intersecting patterns of saviourism and slacktivism as it concerns the evolution of online culture and its real world impact. 

Methodology 

For the comparative study of the Kony 2012 campaign and #blackouttuesday, we will examine and critically analyze various sets of qualitative data, that provide contemporarily appropriate and cross-sectional insights for an efficient approach to systemically answer the research question. Despite small sample sizes and the underlying challenge of measuring success or failures of (ongoing) decentralized movements, we nonetheless manage to accurately capture recurring patterns: White saviours engaging in slacktivism. 

First, we examine Google Trends graphs of movement-specific keywords for stability and consistency. Although Google was not the main platform to host the majority either of the movements online activistic engagement, Google is nonetheless the most popular search  engine which according to van Dijck is a “co-producer” of knowledge (575). Furthermore, we analyze a handful of contemporarily appropriate memes, that were popular and highly circulated following the days after Kony2012 and #blackouttuesday. They were selected from the top rows of intentionally brief Google searches which are ranked according to popularity (van Dijck 577) or from related critical articles. We also address the ratio of on and offline protesters for Kony 2012 rally attendances, referring to local news outlets and a study conducted by the Pew Research Center. Lastly, we identified key Twitter debates and analyzed the individual feed aesthetics of popular Instagram pages both engaging with #blackouttuesday which paint a clear picture of online performativity and physical activistic engagement, or the lack thereof.

Analysis

Google trends

The Google Trends graphs for the keywords “Kony 2012”, “Invisible Children”, “Blackout Tuesday”, and “Black Lives Matter” (Figures 3-6) show the worldwide popularity of the respective google searches in a timeline roughly ranging from of a month before and one year after the respective online protests. The steep spikes and fast declines can be observed across both campaigns and clearly demonstrate a situational interest that rapidly dropped after a matter of days.  

Additionally, the Google Trends reports show that the interest per region largely came from western, colonial, and/or predominantly White countries in North America, Australasia, and Skandinavia. Interestingly, Uganda ranked highest in google searching “Invisible Children”. While the movements did have different goals and mainstream activistic attention is typically situational, a lack of consistency and therefore a lack of stability (especially from the global north), are nonetheless evident and evidently essential for sustainable success of a movement. Fisher criticized Kony 2012, claiming that “Central African violence is the kind of issue that could benefit from a small but passionate and knowledgeable group of people, not from a 50 million-person mob with a 30-minute attention span” (Fisher).

Figure 3: Google Trends Screenshot for “Kony 2012”. Source: Google Trends, accessed 22.10.2021

Figure 4: Google Trends Screenshot for “Invisible Children”. Source: Google Trends, accessed 22.10.2021

Figure 5: Google Trends Screenshot for “Blackout Tuesday”. Source: Google Trends, accessed 22.10.2021

Figure 6: Google Trends Screenshot for “Black Lives Matter” (post-Floyd). Source: Google Trends, accessed 22.10.2021

Offline Engagement

Kony 2012

Following Kony 2012’s rise in March that year, attention quickly declined (as seen in Figures 3-6) and the movement eventually “failed in its attempt to go offline” (Hager). As previously mentioned, the original video reached 100 million views on YouTube. 58% of 18-29 year olds had heard of the campaign and engaged with it through social media (Rainie et al).  An estimated 10 million views came from the UK alone, of which 300,000 signed up to support the campaign and 10,000 users publicly confirmed their rally attendance on Facebook. In Birmingham however, the UK’s second largest city after London, only 35 people showed up (Walker). Similar patterns occurred globally. In Vancouver, Canada 21,000 protesters registered to attend on Facebook, but only 17 people came (Hager). This simple top-down approach hence shows the utter lack of physical engagement and speaks for a high level of performative online engagement. On the other hand, by the time rallies were scheduled, skepticism about the campaign had started circulating the web, also reaching Facebook events’ comment sections (Walker). This was quickly followed by Invisible Children’s founder Jason Russel’s very public psychotic episode which did not contribute to the non-profit’s credibility, either (Hager).

Twitter commentary

Kony 2012

Celebrities ranging from Oprah Winfery, Rihanna to Justin Bieber, came out with endorsements for the campaign, urging their followers to do the same (Flock). By March 7th, 2012, the hashtags #makekonyfamous, #kony2012, and #stopkony were trending worldwide on Twitter (Know Your Meme). By the end of the week, there were an estimated 5 million tweets about the Kony video (Walker). A whooping  66% of the conversation taking place on Twitter was in favour of the anti-Kony campaign (Walker). These statistics show the magnitude and popularity of the movement. However, as journalists began sounding the alarm and busting some of the myths surrounding Kony and Uganda’s situation, the narrative shifted and within a few days, Kony’s 15 minutes of fame were up. People had gone back to their regular programming, forgetting the movement all together. Just like that, a social movement had come and gone within a matter of days. Arguably, the design affordance of platforms such as Twitter and Facebook made it simple for people to like and share the video and other content related to the movement with their social networks. As easy as it was to engage with the movement, as easy as it was to disengage. 

#blackouttuesday 

Celebrities like Lil Nas X, Lizzo, Sadé, and Kehlani, among others, came out on Twitter, criticizing #blackouttuesday (Castillo; Welk). Their critique stemmed from the doubt on the impact this small act would have on the movement. They suggested that people should be engaged and learning, rather than logging off for the day after making their post. 

Aesthetics 

#blackouttuesday Black square analysis 

By looking at Hannah Godwin’s feed on Instagram after #blackouttuesday (see figure 5), we see that she returns to her regular programming as an influencer, posting about her lifestyle and all things aesthetically pleasing. Her feed is not unique, rather it is a symptom of a bigger phenomenon we see across several instagram accounts. Several influencers, celebrities, and everyday citizens alike only posted about BLM during the peak times when everyone else was as well. 

Figure 5. Hannah Godwin’s Instagram feed around #blackouttuesday 

Another trend that took place during this moment was people posting a more aesthetically pleasing black box on their feed (See figures 7,8,9). Influencers and celebrities, including Emma Watson, were criticised by this choice in the comment sections of their posts (See figure 10). Her decision to maintain the ‘white border’ and posting the black square three times attracted thousands of comments, suggesting “that she had focused on maintaining the aesthetic of her Instagram feed instead of communicating a message of solidarity” (Blum). 

Figure 7, 8, 9: Different types of black squares / aesthetics posted during #blackouttuesday  Source: Instagram

Figure 10. Comments under Emma Watson #blackouttuesday post. Source: Instagram

While influencers, celebrities and everyday citizens may be doing work to advance the BLM movement outside of their social media, it would appear as though their online space is reserved for aesthetics and performance activism, prompting just enough engagement to appear active during peak social movement moments.

Meme analysis

Kony 2012

After the ‘truth’ came out about Kony, so did a series of memes mocking those who had failed to comprehend the reality and complexity of the situation, and what ‘real’ activism it would require from participants to change things in Uganda. (See figures 11-16). 

The memes we selected capture the essence of slacktivism. We also posit these memes as a mechanism through which to understand the conception of white saviourism as many of the characters in the memes either showcase or inference white people. These memes capture a tale as old as time, that White people like to be the hero and ‘save Africa’, without over exerting themselves in the process.

Figure 11. “Share Kony Video, I fixed Africa” Source: Google images

Figure 12. “One does note simply destabilize a Ugandan warlord by liking a status” Source: Google images

Figure 13. “Supports Kony2012, can’t locate Uganda on a world map.” Source: knowyourmeme.com  

Figure 14. “Kony 2012 made you cry? You’d better donate some money to the cause without doing any further research on the matter” Source: knowyourmeme.com

Figure 15: “Shared the Kony video…I ended the war in Uganda!” Source: knowyourmeme.com

Figure 16. “Omg soooo inspiring if you don’t watch then you’re heartless!!!” Doesn’t actually do anything to help the campaign. Source: knowyourmeme.com 

#blackouttuesday 

#blackouttuesday also had similar memes to that of Kony, which mocked the concept that something as simple as posting a black square could help progress the movement and end police brutality (see Figures 17,18, 19).

Figure 17. “Posts blackout Tuesday and proud of being in part of BLM”. Source: Google images

Figure 18. “Girls on Instagram. Police brutality”. Source: Google images

Figure 19. “Is this activism?”. Source: Google images

Discussion

The main contentious debate surrounding slacktivism stems from the fact that many have opted to use social media as a replacement for traditional activism as opposed to a hybrid or heightened communicative tool. While it would be disingenuous to disregard the organizing power of social media activism, “at some point one must convert awareness into action, and this is where tools like Twitter and Facebook proved much less successful” (Morozov 190-191). Further, over-communication, discussing events on any platform can result in an information vacuum where “engaging in social causes from behind a screen can devolve into regurgitating platitudes that don’t get enough done […] social media should be regarded as a powerful tool to aid activism, not a substitute for it” (Talbot). 

The issue with “movements [that are] modeled after fast food delivery” (Morozov 196) or the “low risk, low cost” (Leonard 6) model of social media participation is that awareness and expressing solidarity are often “simply too shallow” (Garza 157) and for performative and/or saviorist reasons. Several celebrities, influencers, and everyday citizens are guilty of embodying traits of the White saviour when they engage with social movements. Approaching such matters with conditional or momentary solidarity and “empty slogans”, as opposed to practicing more “authentic solidarity”, undermines and distracts from the work it will take to build a strong and sustainable support system and foundation “in the face of oppression, dysfunction, and marginalization” (157): 

“Solidarity can never be expressed by hearing someone’s pain and then turning the conversation back to yourself. Solidarity means trying to understand the ways our communities experienced unique forms of oppression and marginalization. It means showing up for one another to bear witness and then expanding our fight to include the challenges faced by other communities besides our own.” (Garza 157)

As seen in both Kony 2012 and Black Lives Matter, public engagement does not necessarily translate into action and thereby conforms to  Leonard’s notion of “apolitical consumption”. Performative online actions and short-lived attention spans for crucial matters were largely coming from the Global North. However, much like the Central African violence, Black Lives Matter too will benefit most from long-term engagement, that is not simply practiced for narcissistic reasons. 

Bibliography: 

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Castillo, Jessica. “Lizzo, Kehlani, Lil Nas X Question Black Square Activism.” Teen Vogue, 3 June 2020, https://www.teenvogue.com/story/blackout-tuesday-lizzo-kehlani-lil-nas-x-black-squares-instagram

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Morozov, Evgeny. “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom.” New York: Public Affairs, 2011

Rainie, Lee, et al. “The Viral Kony 2012 Video.” Pew Research Center, 15 March 2012 https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2012/03/15/the-viral-kony-2012-video/ 

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