An email showed up last week in my inbox with a brief subject heading, “Kony 2012.” It contained a simple message: a link to a 30 minute video with a note underneath, “Please share with all friends & family.” Clicking the link took me to a keenly edited film about an African military leader who had coerced hundreds of Ugandan boys into war. This was my introduction to what has become a national sensation.
Kony 2012 is a film gone viral, attracting millions of viewers and galvanizing them in a few short days to the cause of stopping Kony. With an easy click, people promoted the link through email, Facebook, and Twitter, and money poured into Invisible Children, the organization that produced the film, as mere viewers became generous contributors to a newly discovered cause.
As the week went on, the subject of “Kony” expanded. Various clarifications and corrections surfaced. My twitter account swelled with links to articles and blog posts unpacking not only the significance of Kony but also Ugandan politics, Invisible Children’s finances, “white savior complex,” and a wide-ranging call for people to wise up on the multiple issues so incompletely set out in the video. Following my feeds, I spent much of the past weekend thinking about our micro-attention to macro-problems.
The growing commentary began to scream that the demand to “Stop Kony” is as simple as it is potentially dangerous. Countless bursts of “retweets” and “email forward” messages only reinforced for various talking heads the chronic absence of sustained attention to any particular issue, disaster, or problem. They pointed out how the depth of analysis among the American public rarely exceeds the reading of a headline or a brief segment on nightly news. The naïve attitude toward political wranglings in other continents, the hasty call for aggressive intervention, and the lack of understanding of global diplomacy was made obvious. Clearly there is an almost shocking level of shallowness and misunderstanding in the calls to “Stop Kony.”
Yet the more I thought about it, the more I came to think the focus on “ignorance” misses the point. After watching the continued passing along of this viral video link, here’s my conclusion: The campaign to “Stop Kony” is less about removing a brutal military overlord and more about what Americans showcase as their sacred values.
When I look at the addresses and “handles” of people who forwarded the link, I find friends and colleagues who are not completely uninformed “idiots.” They are mostly parents and citizens, business owners and professionals, men and women who live meticulous and responsible lives.
Looking further, what I notice is that people who pass along the “Kony 2012” video share a few, striking similarities. At minimum, they all share notions like:
- Children should be protected
- Africa should become modernized
- Overthrow of dictators is good
More subtle, but equally present, are beliefs such as:
- Childhood should be a time of innocence and play
- The African continent is full of suffering that can and should be alleviated
- Peace is a noble goal, even if it must be coercively achieved
More importantly, I see that sharing a video link for the “campaign” to Stop Kony provides an opportunity for sharers to let others know the kinds of values they believe they possess but rarely have a chance to display. Whether young or old, online sharers are revealing a desire to affect the world positively. Forwarding the “Kony 2012” message shows friends and colleagues their concern for the hurts of the world. With compassion—even sometimes describing their tears—they vocalize their standing against brutal oppression.
Remember that emails, Facebook pages, and twitter feeds are not anonymous; people most often know the person behind the “send” button. So when the chance comes for each of us to forward a link or to “RT,” we consider whether we want to associate this link with ourselves. A message’s priority is assessed according to its ability to define for others who we see ourselves to be.
In short, we decide whether to pass along a message on the basis of how this message reflects on us.
Forwarding emails and re-posting is today’s simplest means for letting people know what we care about. Never mind the complexity of the various issues involved—the problems of the world “out there” provide bursts of conversation, a small pop of shared attention, that lets people know that our mundane, everyday life does not encompass all that we are. Sharing links may require little effort, but the ease of such actions does not deny their underlying power to exhibit our ultimate concerns.
The brief attention given to overwhelming issues through tiny flows of social media does not come with the intention to personally solve problems, but with the desire to participate in a sacred realm that polarizes what is “good” and what is “evil.” It’s a religious impulse that is operating here. Sharers are letting their community know “this is what we should care about,” and in playing out their sadness and outrage, a sacred community is being drawn closer together.
The forwarding of a message bears its own set of values. When a link comes through social media, the key questions to ask are: What values are being announced? What assumptions about the world are left unsaid? And what is being polarized so as to mobilize and reinforce the shared power of belonging to a sacred community? So, the next time a link goes viral, or a campaign to correct another injustice comes along, step back for another take. And if your gut says, “Yes, other people should know about this,” and you click to continue sending it along to family and friends, know that you are participating in a sacred community guided by a set of ultimate concerns that deeply resonate with you.