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Don't scoff, Kony 2012 worked

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27 April 2012 08:30

There's been a lot of scoffing at Invisible Children's Kony 2012 campaign. It contains factual errors. It simplifies things. The group doesn't give enough of its funds in direct aid. Its filmmaker dances in the street naked.

I have never heard such accusations leveled at filmmakers or aid groups before (perhaps with the exception of naked street dancing). But ultimately, those criticisms are irrelevant, because the vast reach Invisible Children has achieved has done more to shape perceptions about an obscure, decades-old conflict than any government or NGO, ever.

Whether or not you agree with the group's portrayal of the conflict and its prescription for addressing it, this small NGO has become a major shaper of debate on this conflict. So much so that, just the other day, President Obama announced during a speech at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum that 'our advisers will continue their efforts to bring this madman (Joseph Kony) to justice and to save lives.'

Social Media wizard Clay Shirky laid a bet on Twitter on 20 March: 'I'm just going to put this here, so it's time-stamped: I bet they catch Kony in the next three months. Will follow up either way.'

This is not the first time the internet has been harnessed to give NGOs an outsized voice in foreign policy. The Ottawa Convention banning landmines is often held up as an example of web-based mobilisation of activists. Another NGO-led feat is the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

The Kony 2012 campaign is in this spirit, but also differs. This seems to be the first example I can think of that a single NGO, and a pretty obscure one at that, has come to so completely dominate discussion of a foreign policy issue.

Does this mean we should stand by for an explosion of global discussion about the plight of the Transnistrians or life in Dahala Khagrabari, the world's only international counter-counterenclave? Probably not. Invisible Children had a pretty decent network before the Kony video came out, which no doubt helped it get the word out initially. It would probably also be harder for other NGOs to capture so much attention by just copying Invisible Children's approach.

It's not going to be possible for just any NGO to sweep in and drive its agenda on every foreign policy issue imaginable. But Kony 2012 does open up a whole new scale of campaigning potential and demonstrates the consequent emerging empowerment of individuals and small groups facilitated by the internet. For foreign ministries, it's another reminder of how dramatically new connection technologies are altering the diplomatic space. So far, most have been slow to realise this new reality.

Photo by Flickr user Chun Lam.

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