“Nothing is more powerful than an idea.” This is the refrain of viral activist campaigns, the roaring sentiment of collective action. Of one in particular —
It was March 2012 when social media was abuzz with KONY 2012 mentions. The movement started with a video that exposed the story of Joseph Kony, the leader of guerilla group Lord’s Resistance Army, and the “invisible children” he forced into battle. The half-hour video urges viewers to donate in an effort to find and capture Joseph Kony in a culminating moment of global justice on April 20, 2012.
But of course, April 20, 2012 came and went and Joseph Kony remained uncaptured. I was on a service San Miguel, Guatemala at the time, and 4/20 passed with little impasse save for a lackluster search for Guatemalan weed. The day after, we trolled our news feeds and were reminded of this false-pinnacle that we had forgotten. “Oh well, guess Kony’s still out there,” we shrugged. Even this group of idealistic, liberal 18 year-olds from Seattle could not be persuaded to act, or even to remember. If the KONY 2012 effort was meant to emblematize the power of collective compassion, it was a whopping failure.
Why did KONY 2012 fail? Indeed, the build-up metrics point to a success. Initially, it looked as if the filmmakers would reach their goal – the video became the fastest growing viral video of all time, reaching 100 million views in just six days and garnering 3.7 million individual donations. The movement was on course to be a big f-ing deal. But the impact grew stale, and media posts further apart. The intent was sound, the momentum was there (until it wasn’t) — was the movement doomed from the start? Was capturing a guerilla warlord far too extreme a goal?
Yes, yes it was. No amount of shares (or video views, or even donations) could put the necessary infrastructure in place to help this team of social justice-minded filmmakers to capture a war criminal. Of course it couldn’t.
By all accounts at the time, KONY 2012 was a failure. The movement had the intention and potential to win big, but they lost big – they did not achieve what they set out to do. When we look at other, higher profile, “more successful” activist movements, assessing the “did-they-win-or-did-they-not-win” question usually ends in a sad face emoji.
Seriously, I mean it, bear with me to play with this nihilist outlook: Sure, Occupy prompted protests in 951 major metropolitan areas worldwide, but we have yet to see a drastic wealth redistribution. #BlackLivesMatter gained traction through on-the-ground protests up through current political rhetoric, but has racism been obliterated in the United States? No it has not been, and that’s more than clear.
If we all subscribed to this win/lose binary, we’d be crotchety old misers holed up in our parents’ basement stuffing our face with Cool Ranch Doritos because we’re depressed by everything, especially the food justice movement. But we’re not (I pray to your God-figure-of-choice that we’re not). People keep fighting, regardless of if they reach their stated goal.
In 2001, William Moyer wrote a book called Doing Democracy that attempted to explain the rise and “fall” of activist movements. He argues that social change is a circular 8-step process, the eighth step being “continuing the struggle.” According to Moyer, we’re never going to experience fully realized justice, no matter the amount of protests, sit-ins or online jabber. The tricky thing to wrap your head around, then, is that movement-making is still necessary for change, regardless of its immediate actionable impact.
As the Notre Dame blog Mobilizing Ideas chimes in, “a failed movement is not the absence of a movement, or a situation in which no individuals come together in any attempt at mobilization.” Rather, a failed movement is an attempt that never gains traction, a time when people do band together over a common experience, but where this band fails to increase exposure of this common experience.
The official KONY 2012 website still exists, but the founders have adjusted the narrative since the flop in April 2012. Today the story goes that KONY 2012 was “an experiment.” “Could an online video,” the authors wonder, “make an obscure war criminal famous?”
I argue that, with this framing, KONY 2012 was successful – the obscure war criminal Joseph Kony is millions of viewers more famous. In breaking down the idea that a movement can only stiffly win or not win, we’re shedding light on the importance of exposure, and the persistence of morality and the fight for justice.