#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


Dareyou Topublishthis
Dareyou Topublishthis says:
March 12, 2012

"So what does a more ethical version of this type of work looks like?...We like to think that EngageMedia is working exactly on that issue." I bet you like to think that, and would like your funders to think it too! Ass-covering is one thing (which you are clearly concerned with and good at - perhaps your organizations best quality?), but you should be spending verbiage on supporting and trying to understand this new effort to make good on the here-to-fore wasted online fervor of millions. And if it means your model needs to be rethought, then rethink it rather than defending it. Yes, some criticism of the video is accurate, it needs to be studied as the, ahem, most ETHICAL NGOs are doing.

Andrew says:
March 13, 2012

It would be helpful if you engaged with the ideas I expressed as to what I believe is a more ethical approach to video advocacy, rather than just canning it. Is the white-hero film maker off to rescue the Africans really the right approach here? Plenty of NGOs are disputing that model, and some of the best of them including the link I posted from WITNESS. It's worth revisiting.


I think there is much to learn from this campaign, but it's as much about how to do things as it is about how not to do things.

Pres says:
March 13, 2012

To the first commenter: I'm sorry, but I don't think your point gets across when you frame it that way. Perhaps you'd like to offer some alternative ideas?

kd says:
March 13, 2012

I teach undergraduates and I'm not at all surprised its done so well. The key here is not so much about how well the video maker understood Africa as how well the video maker understood his audience. I suspect the tour of US universities that has been so harshly criticised for its budget may have played a role in that learning curve. What is irritating about so much of the anti-kony2012 backlash is its blatant age-ism. Yes, the young (as represented by my students) are info-starved if they've been fed on a mainstream media diet but that doesn't make them incapable of learning, thinking or making sound moral decisions when presented with something complex - and in the last week they have explored the complexity. The video is a teaser to the internetful of info out there about Africa, the ICC and all the rest of it and yes they are going beyond the video and talking and researching and debating way beyond the bounds of whatever they are "fed" by Invisible Children. In addition, I suspect that most of the 50million people who shared the video will be more receptive to future campaigns like this because this one has taught them about something they didn't know about before, and that sharing info like this can attract attention and foster discussion. It would have been a smarter move on the part of the far left/other activists to have followed in its wake with re-edits of some of their best footage than to have tried to de-activate the newly awakened Kony2012 audience by howling down Invisible Children.
When people stand up to be counted it can't be a good idea to insult them by calling them naive, know-nothings and tell them to sit down again. (and sadly - your headline is guilty of doing this by calling the video "unethical", although the copy of your article is more reasoned.)

kd says:
March 13, 2012

To couch what I have just said in more theoretical terms:

It is about understanding narrative convergence - the idea that no single piece can possibly tell the whole story, and that the story extends beyond the boundaries of what any media can tell, and so to criticise any piece for not telling the whole story is like criticising a bucketful of water for not being an ocean. The solution to pieces that skip important details is to add to the story in ways the audience from the first piece will pick up and consume as a second course, following on from the appetiser.

Secondly, its about acknowledging the difference between the scruffy amateur and polished professional media production. Once people are tuned into a cause they will overlook camera-shake, blur and all kinds of things that newbies do to video, and they will lap up the information in those videos.

People not yet onside on the other hand are less tolerant and (as this experiment has shown) they respond to very slick production. This means that there is a need for both in video activism. Your local video may achieve the push and pull, but you need your slick version to get the squeeze happening.

I love the empowering work you do and that the technology is now around making indigenous story telling easier but it is important to think specifically about audiences and to target your videos, and not expect what works for one audience to work for all. Kony2012 tells you that there is a huge international audience there willing and waiting for you, if you can speak its language (in a culturally respectful way).

Wishing you all, all the best.

AC says:
March 14, 2012

Thanks for comments. I really appreciate the above comments from kd, and the very reasonable explanations of your opinions. I also think that framing this argument in terms of 'what is happening' and then 'ethical alternatives' is problematic. There is a lot of knowledge intersecting here and people need to get used to viewing it, filtering it, and understanding where it comes from. .. It is like that argument around the value of something like Harry Potter, that any book that gets kids reading is a good book. .. . any online video that gets a political discussion going is...

AC says:
March 14, 2012

also good... http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/reality-check-with-polly-curtis/2012/mar/08/kony-2012-what-s-the-story?fb=native

To Andrew
To Andrew says:
March 15, 2012

NGOs are NGOs. Referring to "propagating the myth of the "white man's burden"". I believe EngageMedia is also set up by a "white" man? And going into the land of the natives, learning their cultures and languages and adopting them as something you "support" or your own? To help or to save or help built a platform? Or whatever however you want to call it, or believe it... Isn't that contradictory? To me Engage Media and Invisible Children is no different. Same shit, different language / vocabularies and saving different land or regions. A white man is a white man is a white man.

I'm Asian and I've been to your workshop. And you need to reflect and think before you say "Don't 'help' - build solidarity not charity." Think again Engage Media.

c5 says:
March 15, 2012

So basically you're saying that Andrew has no right to criticise the kony2012 campaign because like Andrew the guy who is running it 'white'. Way to over-simplify. Way to dismiss valid criticisms of a campaign.

Here's the thing, supporting communities and speaking on behalf of communities are two very different approaches. I applaud the kony2012 campaign for supporting what is happening in Uganda, but I criticise them for representing the people involved (instead of getting them to do their own videos).

I don't believe EngageMedia (or its leaders) have ever attempted to speak on behalf of South East Asia. EM is a platform for South East Asian video activists (which by the way is currently making it easier for South East Asian activists to share / translate / subtitle their videos for cross-country distribution). EM conducts training workshops to get communities to make their own videos. EM holds South East Asian camps to give video activists and independent filmmakers spaces to talk about their common and different issues, and learn from each other.

So it was set up by 'white people', so what? I have never seen EM (and Andrew, specifically) represent anything other than the work they do.

This kind of identity politics-based arguments are pointless. Worse, their sole aim is to silence people. I'm an Asian woman. Does that mean that I can only ever support issues of (or criticise / talk about) other Asian women? Does that mean that I can never support any issue that has nothing to do with Asian women? Does that mean that I shouldn't care for what's going on unless it's in Asia?

So much for international solidarity, hey?

DKay says:
March 15, 2012

I'm Asian and I've been to their workshops too, but I had a positive experience and impression. I believe they've tried their best to foster solidarity and collaboration, so I guess it's how you choose to see things.

Andrew says:
March 15, 2012

A couple of responses

KD - thanks for your thoughts, very interesting contributions and I agree with a lot of what you've said.

A few points though

> When people stand up to be counted it can't be a good idea to insult them by calling them naive, know-nothings and tell them to sit down again. (and sadly - your headline is guilty of doing this by calling the video "unethical"

My only critique was to the film maker, not the audience. I agree that there is obviously a hunger to get involved more in the world, and that is a very positive thing. But it's also quite OK to comment on someone's work (without personally attacking them) as to the limits of their approach.

I like your to "criticise any piece for not telling the whole story is like criticising a bucketful of water for not being an ocean" but I still think different approaches have different effects and in someways ICs intense focus on a young, middle class Americans has alienated some of the people they want to support. It's worth taking stock and looking at other approaches.

> Once people are tuned into a cause they will overlook camera-shake, blur and all kinds of things that newbies do to video, and they will lap up the information in those videos.

Also agree. But I did comment that I wasn't excluding professional film-makers from the process of telling other people's stories. They can bring fresh perspectives and can know better how to talk to their 'home' audiences.

> Kony2012 tells you that there is a huge international audience there willing and waiting for you, if you can speak its language (in a culturally respectful way).

Definitely. As I said, much to learn from this and it will be very interesting to see what comes next.


To the anonymous "To Andrew" poster
* EngageMedia was set up by 2 'white people', one lesbian and the other of jewish heritage - "white" can be more complex than "A white man is a white man is a white man" which only shows your own biases.
* I think there are quite significant differences between our an ICs approach, which I detailed. We don't try and represent people, 98% of our workshops are run by Southeast Asians for Southeast Asians, we provide a platform but we don't tell people what their story should be, we run our camps/events so that camp participants also run the workshops and build the event agenda. For us it's a pretty big difference.
* Interesting that "learning their cultures and languages" is a bad thing! God forbid more cultural understanding. Better to stay at home and only talk to people from your own culture I guess.

I won't indulge your grudge any further.

kd says:
March 15, 2012

Thanks for continuing the discussion. You focus a lot on the Ugandan people's right to be handling/calling for help (or not) with Kony but in the context of this campaign he is not being charged with crimes against Uganda, he is being charged with crimes against humanity, so his why does it matter what colour the person who arrests him is, or what country they are from ?

Also this campaign is not about helping Uganda, it's about helping the victims of this particular crime and their voices were included and consenting to the mission. Perhaps other Ugandans would like more/less help/money and are miffed that they weren't included or that their NGOs can't make such popular videos but it's not really a valid criticism, as this one just simply wasn't about them.

I have been thinking about the way we regard pedophiles in Australia and the unanimous sense of public good involved in catching and incarcerating them, and the whole Pitcairm Island story where the world was quite clear about it being ok to force Pitcairn to outlaw sex with tots, and yet in this issue there's a call for everyone to stand back and let Uganda sort this out. When really, it comes back to this being an ICC issue, meaning a breach of International Humanitarian Law, which means its about us all - and how are we, as humanity, going to enforce an international law.

This in turn means this is about very big government - and perhaps that's why it sticks in the craw of folks who like the idea of anarchy.

I think there is much to be learned from this campaign and it's great to see you

mk says:
March 16, 2012

i love the work that engagemedia is doing and i think it's necessary. just last night was watching the papuan voices films with a young friend from papua and she felt really happy to see her own people making films and telling their own stories. it's a great skill you're building.
as for Kony, I think it's a number of things that they've been irresponsible about:
- the message of catch Kony which could be calling for military intervention
- mixed up messages, i couldn't understand if this was campaign for the trial of Kony by ICC, killing Kony, fundraising for invisible children or call to action (the name invisible children itself is quite annoying name and neo-colonial as well)
- simplistic representation of the conflict, history, is Kony the only person there?
- not giving voices to the 'invisible children' themselves in the film
- i understand that the filmmaker showed a lot of himself and his own kid to appeal to the american public but i think he was manipulative there in order to try to reach his audience and it turned into paternalism instead.
but i also think invisible children is not specialising in participatory video-making. i understand that they've decided to use film as a tool for a campaign. and, they could have done that without participatory methodologies quite well, i think, by telling a story of the boy or... could be so many other angles. and then calling to action with all their toolkits, etc. if it were made responsibly with all that outreach and engagement, it would have been great. but for now, i feel the film is irresponsible for over-simpliyfing the world, the conflict and not giving voices to the people of Uganda themselves. I believe a filmmaker can give voices to people without training local filmmakers (if they trained local partners in filmmaking would have been much better, though).
I would be more interested in their distribution, outreach and engagement strategy. There is a lot to learn there! It would be great to find out more about that. I am guessing they've used a lot of social networks, but I wonder how they've reached media and key people they've contacted, how they framed things so that they could attract attention, how much intensity there was in getting the social media attention, how much time it took. How is it that Al Jazeera covered almost the next day after the video appeared online. Why was this possible for this film to get this kind of coverage? There are so many good films but none of them got this much coverage... If there is more analysis of this, would be great to learn!

AC says:
March 17, 2012

another interesting response...
'Kony 2012 and the debate around it are not about Uganda, but about America. Uganda is largely just the stage for a debate over the meaning of political activism in the US today.'... and his proposal... not surprisingly... is that we learn more about politics in Africa.

Seelan Palay
Seelan Palay says:
March 20, 2012

Kony 2012 video screening met with anger in northern Uganda: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/mar/14/kony-2012-screening-anger-northern-uganda?newsfeed=true

Sheyam says:
April 29, 2013

The Ugandan Gov are in the wrong too but a cure for poison is taikng a bit of poison..Something needs to be done an if working with a corrupt organisation overall stops these atrocities then