The “Stop Kony” video phenomenon and George Clooney’s ramping up of his activities on South Sudan appear at first glance to have some significant commonalities. In both cases a US-activist initiative grabbed attention with respect to an African issue. Debates were reinvigorated in parallel fashion about the role of celebrities and spectacle with respect to global affairs.
Yet, on closer scrutiny, it is the differences not the similarities that stand out. The “Stop Kony” phenomenon grabbed attention because the script appeared to have been cleverly re-invented. Rather than a top-down approach in which well-known celebrities were the main players – with ordinary people as spectators – the script was reversed. Instead of a celebrity as the main actor, the celebrity (or celebrities) was targeted in an explicit fashion in a wider spectacle by an organization few had heard of, Invisible Children. Such a focus upped the ante for celebrities. Some such as Justin Bieber or Oprah could join in and highlight the extent of their Twitter following. Others joined in after they were excluded as “culture makers” at the initial stage.
This is not to say the “Stop Kony” phenomenon can be interpreted as some kind of ad hoc or spontaneous flash-mob experience. As the USC project Civic Paths that tracks social media has demonstrated, Invisible Children has been in place for a period of time with a deep and committed network that was ready and willing to facilitate its going viral. So a 29-minute video was successfully extended through — and then beyond — this network with some 100 million hits in six days.
However extensive this network was through YouTube, Facebook and Twitter (with users posting the #Kony2012 hashtag), it wasn’t animated in Hollywood or New York City and the “soft” media such as ET or even TMZ. Despite the connections of its founders including Jason Russell with California (his parents ran a Christian Youth Theater in El Cajon, a city near San Diego) and USC (where Russell and others went to university), this was mainly a Middle America phenomenon at least in its early manifestations. It was also one that was youth-generated – a combination that notwithstanding its scale and intensity (in 2006 Invisible Children held a “Global Night Commute” that brought together 80,000 American youth to camp out in 126 US cities pushing for the Northern Uganda Crisis Response Act in the US Congress) did not receive much attention from the sort of outlets that showcased the sort of celebrity activism promoted by Clooney. It is only in retrospect that the positive (a participatory culture aimed at the millennial generation) and the negative (a disconnect between the seriousness of the topic with a form of musically-inspired spectacle) aspects of the approach can be appreciated.
Clooney’s ramping up of his activities, by way of contrast, follows the script of what has become expected of a top-tier celebrity activist. Arriving back from a trip to the front lines in South Sudan with a much more of the moment albeit shorter YouTube video of the devastating conflict than the “Stop Kony” effort, with an experienced advisor (John Prendergast, the co-founder of the Enough Project) by his side, Clooney demonstrated his power of access. Not only did he appear on the Charlie Rose’s PBS show (one of the key media tests of an insider) but he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations committee and met with President Obama at the Oval Office.
Where the script took an original turn was in Clooney’s arrest during a demonstration outside the Sudanese Embassy. In the short run, the shock value of this move paid dividends, in that the story moved from Charlie Rose to TMZ and other soft media outlets. But I wonder about the motivations and the longer-term effects of Clooney’s shift in tactics. Is there a concern by Clooney that his campaign to draw attention to South Sudan is being jeopardized by new circumstances and actors?
In geo-political terms being an insider in US politics is increasingly less decisive on the ground given the ascendant role to other countries — above all, China— in Sudan as in other parts of Africa. Clooney and Prendergast referenced the Chinese factor throughout the Charlie Rose show and in other interviews.
However, there must have also been some concerns about the “Stop Kony” episode by Clooney and others in the experienced/professional camp of celebrity activists. For in many ways the instant success of the video undercuts the Clooney script. Instead of an access, advisor, knowledge and diplomatic- oriented approach geared towards the Obama administration, the emphasis was highly experiential with a mix of musical spectacle and muscular missionary thematic overtones.
It may be thought of course that the impact of this competition may be blunted by Jason Russell’s strange meltdown in San Diego — a viral boomerang as it is being termed. But I don’t think so. Increasingly the world of non-state activism involving celebrities and spectacle in either a direct or indirect manner will become increasingly fragmented — with different scripts played out by the (most often older) insiders targeting both the serious and popular media and a (commonly younger) cohort divergently and unpredictably networked through tools of social media.