EngageMedia Blog

#Kony2012 - Ethical Video Activism Alternatives

by Andrew August 21, 2012

One thing must be said - the #kony2012 campaign is one of the most successful human rights video advocacy campaigns ever. But that doesn't mean it's a good example of video advocacy.

Since the video appeared there's been a flurry of comment online regarding the ethics of the campaign - from marginalising the agency of Africans, propagating the myth of the "white man's burden", supporting US military intervention as well as supporting a Ugandan goverment with it's own dubious human rights record. Their current hash tag of #stopatnothing only emphasises this lack of clear ethics. We'd like to hope at least that they will stop at recruiting child soldiers :)

I agree with all these critiques. What I'd like to add to the discussion is what an effective and ethical video advocacy looks like, in a similar vein to WITNESS' excellent piece, Understanding #kony2012 as #Video4change.

EngageMedia's work centres on how video and internet technologies can be used as effective tools for people at the grassroots to advocate on social justice and environmental issues. In many ways the Kony campaign tell us that these methodologies can be successful. The campaign is working very effectively at raising the issue and also at mobilising people. It may even reach is very tangible goal, the arrest of Joseph Kony.

But it also shows us how these methodologies can be used in the wrong way by being manipulative, top down and denying the agency of those on the ground.

Distribution, Outreach and Engagement
In terms of its methodologies, rather than it's politics, there's a lot to learn from this video campaign. For me, the most interesting things happen after the video.

  • There are immediate and tangible actions you can take to get involved and spread the word. The actions range from signing a petition, getting an 'action kit' and giving money. They don't leave you wondering what can I do, the options are right there.
  • Social media outreach and pressure on powerful people - tweeting and facebooking is highly encouraged and the site makes it easy to "contact" powerful people to place pressure on them.
  • Materials are available for downloading to spread awareness and mobilise
  • There is a mobilisation you can join - crucial for face to face networking
  • As soon as you land on the campaign website they capture your email to build a database of supporters they can mobilise.

Interestingly the video is very long, and in fact the first 5 minutes is really quite jumbled, off-topic and confusing. I won't go too much into the video's construction, all I'll say is that the editing and graphics are slick but the story leaves much to be desired. Plus given the length of the video, 30 minutes, I'm surprised it's gone 'viral'.

These are similar techniques to what we teach people in our workshops. The difference is we want to people to do this for themselves with their own agency and autonomy. We don't do it for them as some kind of angels of salvation. But it's useful to understand the methodologies, why they work and how they could be put to better use in a more politically and ethically 'post-colonial' way.

Other Ways
So what does a more ethical version of this type of work looks like? And how do 'outside' organisations relate to the those 'inside' effected regions? We like to think that EngageMedia is working exactly on that issue. Here are some lesson's we've learnt from working in places like West Papua, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

  1. Don't 'help' - build solidarity not charity. That means working with people and coming in on an equal footing. It also doesn't mean putting other people on a pedestal. Don't agree? Express it and have a debate the fleshes out the issue.
  2. Build the skills of effected people so they can run and implement workshops with others. Build in your own redundancy.
  3. Build local voices - there's a little concept called Participatory Video that is in use by thousands of organisations worldwide. The concept is simple - work with local people to help them tell their own stories for themselves. Don't tell them what their story is. A video we helped produce in West Papua, Love Letter to a Soldier, is a good example of this. Its Director just won Best Documentary at Indonesia's leading social change film festival.
  4. Video and the internet technologies make it so much easier for first person stories to be told with all their complexity. Outsiders can bring analysis and perspectives that haven't been thought of, that shouldn't be denied, but they also bring their own biases and lack of local knowledge. Given it's now so much easier to have the people effected to speak for themselves this should be encouraged.
  5. Can't understand the language? Subtitle it! Online, crowd sourced systems like Universal Subtitles make it easy and reduce the barriers of language.
  6. Build local networks and work with local social movements that can act together and build their own agency.

All this isn't to say they outside attention isn't useful. Quite often it is very effective and bringing goverments to account, but it all depends on what kind of attention, what the demands are, how it developed and the ethics of what it's asking for. Calling foreign military intervention and support for the corrupt Ugandan government isn't a great demand.

We also need to acknowledge that not everyone can tell a good story. 'Outsiders' should still be able to speak on issues of concern in places that are not their own. An American will know how to push the right cultural buttons of an American audience. An 'outsider' in this sense is at a disadvantage.


The #Kony2012 campaign is remarkable as regards their ability to draw such widespread attention and engagement with a reasonably limited budget. Whilst one level they've been hugely effective at tapping bottom up social media networks, they've failed dismally at tapping bottom up participatory media. The uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa have shown us what an empowered citizen media looks like. Invisible Children's patronising, neo-colonial approach however has taken only the promotional abilities of these technologies, but none of the substance.


Some other links worth checking out


Camp Sambel 2

by Alexandra Crosby August 25, 2012
I spent the beginning of 2012 living in KL, as project manager of Camp Sambel 2. I worked closely with our partner organization KOMAS, and, in particular, with the amazing, reliable, resourceful, and delightful Anne Jacob, the local coordinator of the project. Jakarta Filmmaker Ucu Augustin says: 'It was the best activist camp I ever went to'.

On February 24th, we wrapped up Camp Sambel 2 and waved goodbye to 50 participants returning home with new video distribution skills under their belts and exciting collaborations in their futures.

The camp, named after a conflation of 'Sama-sama belajar' (learning together) was the second in a series of meetings of Malay-speaking video activists in the region. Participants came from a diverse range of organisations including the inspiring Jakarta-based LGBT news portal 'OurVoice' and the infamous Malaysian citizen journalist site CJ.MY, part of the Malaysiakini network. The Malay speaking world also includes the Pattani region of Southern Thailand, where 3 participants travelled from (see more about Pattani here ), as well as East Timor, where Bahasa Indonesia is still widely spoken.

This year the camp was held at a ranch in Port Dickson in Malaysia, about a 90 minute drive from KL. The broadband in the area was very limited so a dedicated team (Cheekay and Izhar) spent several preparatory days making sure that we had access to the internet through multiple mobile networks. They also set up a local server with Plumi installed so participants could easily publish and share files.

The program was packed with workshops, feedback sessions and discussions. The EngageMedia and KOMAS team was very busy with leading sessions and Wandi from AirPutih was super generous with his time. He conducted many great sessions including ‘Open Source Matters’ and ‘How To Make Money from Your Videos’.

We also had several plenary sessions lead by our fearless facilitator Prakkash. There were also nightly screenings of participants’ videos, curated by a charming Yogyakarta team: Cecilia of Kampung Halaman and Yudha of Festival Film Dokumenter. All of the workshop materials were made available in Indonesian, Malaysian and English.

Sambel girls

Maisarah, Cici, Amanda and Novi

Eva and Arvind

One of the most exciting skills developed at the camp related to Seelan’s work with Universal Subtitles. All participants were introduced to the Universal Subtitles system, and most had a go of subtitling videos online. A core group was very interested in being part of the EngageMedia subtitling team.

Many cross publishing occurred immediately as participants realised the Sambel network gave them access to exciting content easily. For instance, the OurVoice news piece went up on www.malaysiakini.tv and within 24 hours there were more than 3500 hits. Malaysiakini.tv also published a piece on human rights abuses in Papua. You can view it here. Loads of videos from the camp were also published to EngageMedia.org

Camp Sambel 2 made clear the possibilities of a regional video activist network in South East Asia. There is much work being carried out to ensure that activists are working securely and creatively to campaign for justice across national borders. .. And we all look forward to Camp Sambel 3 ... Sarawak? Sabah? Dili? Padang? Jayapura?

Loads of pictures here.

Universal Subtitles making rounds in Malaysia and Indonesia

by Seelan Palay August 19, 2012
Updates on the recent subtitling workshop we've had in Malaysia and the Indonesia tour to come.

It's been another exciting couple of weeks at the Lingua desk!

Camp Sambel 2In mid-Feb, we held Universal Subtitles workshops with over 30 partcipants from different organisations at Camp Sambel 2. People from Indonesia, West Papua, Malaysia, South Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia went hands-on with the Universal Subtitles utility, joining our team page and adding lots of great new videos.

By joining the EngageMedia team page, you can help subtitle and translate their amazing content, contributing to having more people around the world understand their stories.

Over the first weekend of March, we took the workshop to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Partnering with CJ.MY and MalaysiaKini, I had a fruitful workshop with 50 citizen journalists from across Malaysia.

KL WorkshopWe previously discussed a goal of having every important CJ.MY available in the 4 major languages of Malaysia; English, Malay, Chinese, and Tamil. In the months to come, look out for more collaborations between MalaysiaKini and EngageMedia.

And before I sign off, I'd like to alert everyone about the Indonesia Lingua Tour, which is a series of workshops held in Jakarta, Bandung, and Yogykarta. It kicks off at the end of March and runs for 2 weeks.

A call for participants will go out soon, so keep an eye out if you're interested or email me at lingua@engagemedia.org, and I'll see you on the Lingua Tour!

Seelan Palay
Lingua Desk