edit: For those of you who end up here because of this, please read it over on the Crikey link above. I’ve just copy pasta’d it here in case it gets lost somewhere. This is not my work and Crikey should be getting the love.
Unless you’ve managed, miraculously, to avoid the Kony 2012 video, you’ll understand now why the US military is investing in technology to create fake online identities with the aim of influencing social media. At least one of the armies of the future is made up of sock puppets.
Sock puppets aren’t much good for hunting warlords, of course, but they can potentially be very effective at manipulating tens of thousands or, in this case, millions of people, to support sending in real troops — supposedly even though Westerners are sick of failed military interventions.
The Kony video is an amalgam of every manipulative social media cliché and cyber-utopian stereotype (ruthlessly nailed in the Kony drinking game): the white paternalism, the Hollywood stars, the tightly edited graphics and edgy images (graffiti! face masks!), the earnest narration, the message that social media can change the world, the solipsism that nothing is quite real until white middle-class Westerners know about it, all in the name of justifying unilateral US intervention in Uganda.
Oh, which has a lot of oil, by the way, but we won’t indulge some of the more lurid conspiracy theories circulating online. Nor dwell on the gratuitous errors and omissions that litter the video. It’s not as if there hasn’t been an inaccurate internet yarn before, going right back to the days of the Neiman-Marcus cookie story.
But the beauty is that now there can be a seamless transition from social to mainstream media. The latter now only take a day or two to catch up with what’s happening online. Thus Ten ran the full video and The Project extensively, and nearly entirely uncritically, discussed it, bringing the professionally annoying Todd Sampson on to analyse it.
Even when the campaign’s many problematic aspects were exposed, it did little to dampen the enthusiasm of some. Fairfax blogger Sam De Brito, whose normal beat is the frustrations of having a p-nis, embraced the campaign enthusiastically, under the line “the greatest idea of our generation”. Strangely, that line has since vanished from De Brito’s piece as the dodgy claims and record of the group concerned, Invisible Children, came under scrutiny. De Brito was having none of it, claiming he’d never been more disgusted than about the cynicism about the campaign. “Now you know who Kony is. What is that worth?” he frothed.
Well, not much. The Kony campaign is an internet meme. It’ll be replaced by another meme next week, even among those who bought the wristband — there will, after all, always be another wristband. It’s only a meme because there’s no organic, real-world substance to it. This isn’t a campaign driven by the people of East Africa — relentlessly infantilised in the video — but by white Westerners high-fiving each other online about their social conscience in a giant round of moral masturb-tion.
There’s no communication between Westerners perched over their keyboards (or, worse yet, reclining on their sofas) and those people who’ve been exposed to this conflict since the 1980s. Ugandans and internet users from other African countries quickly came online to respond to the video, but chances are 99% of the however many tens of millions of people who watched the video won’t bother seeking out the views of people who actually live there. That’s a click too far.
Compare the social media engagement in the Arab Spring, which saw protesters in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries using social media tools to organise and communicate with each other and their own communities, with the level of online engagement with the protests inside each country and within the region growing as the protests developed, but also enabling Western social media users to view first hand what was happening on the ground.
The Kony campaign doesn’t purport to resemble the Arab Spring, of course, but it is a compilation of every criticism levelled at “cyberutopians” in relation to the Arab Spring.
Nonetheless, the sheer speed with which the cause was taken up unthinkingly by so many people must have companies and governments excited.
The ease with which people can be manipulated isn’t a reflection on the internet — people have always been easy to manipulate. But the interconnectedness provided by social media facilitates manipulation like it facilitates any other form of propaganda or communication of any kind. That’s why, within moments of the video appearing, there was fact-checking, analysis and criticism of it available online for those interested. But unlike the video, the scepticism wasn’t viral.
The internet allows you now manipulate on a larger scale, and more quickly, particularly if you give people some agency in their dissemination of your propaganda. Thus the interest of the military-industrial complex in social media as a tool of manipulation (not aimed at US citizens, the US Central Command assured the press at the time, because as we know cyberspace rigorously adheres to national borders). Imagine the Israeli government preparing a slick video about the savage treatment of women activists in Iran and seeding it online in the hope that it goes viral, lifting the pressure on the US government for an attack.
The problem for would-be military manipulators of course is that next week the rage will be replaced by something else — fawning over baby sloths, laughing at classic movies subtitled for African-Americans (so hilarious, right?), the next Rebecca Black. Keeping people emotionally aroused is the problem. One to which the finest military and intelligence minds are likely devoting considerable attention. Remember that oil in Uganda.