Kony2012 and the evolving marketplace for ideas

Published online March 19, 2012

After over 70 million views (100 million plus by the time this is published online) and countless tweets, the Kony 2012 video has reminded us of one thing: it is not quality alone that popularizes ideas.

Today, the marketing of your ideas matters as much or more than the content of the ideas themselves. At first blush, this seems a sorry or even scary state of affairs. But consider the evolution of the marketplace for ideas. Ideas have never found the light of day based on their merit alone. Access to bullhorns has long depended on identity – on status and class, on race and gender, on education and religion. Today technology is shaking things up, and democratizing the marketplace for ideas. The identity of the idea-producer is increasingly distanced from the idea itself. The barriers that once favored the voices of the few over those of the many are slowly fading.

Over the past week I have had countless conversations with students, friends, and even strangers about Uganda, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Joseph Kony, and of course, the campaign and video that started these conversations in the first place, “Stop Kony 2012”. This sudden and remarkable outpouring of interest about a rebel group that has been around for decades is the result of the work of a single organization, Invisible Children. There have been spirited debates about the veracity of the film, ethical questions about its content, financial issues, concerns over the stated goals of the organization and film, and a larger debate about the role and motivation of outsiders in “African affairs”. Perhaps the most maddening aspect of the Kony 2012 film is that agency is so consistently placed on the part of the three filmmakers who “discovered” the conflict in 2003. (You have heard this story before. John Hanning Speke too “discovered” the source of the Nile – this is what has been “marketed” to pupils in most schools up to today).  The version of the story told by Invisible Children tends to position the three men and their organization front and center at the expense of all other actors. It does not deal in nuance, and it shies away from complexity.

Critics of the film have struggled to put forth alternative versions of the evolution of the conflict, and the current challenges that the region faces, of which the LRA is only one. But many fear the damage has been done. They fear that Invisible Children has hijacked the conversation, pushing aside or simply ignoring the work that journalists, academics, policymakers, development workers, and ordinary citizens have been conducting for years. IC has proposed their own solutions to ending the terror of the LRA, which include sharing their video, buying an “action kit” (posters and bracelets inclusive), and raising money for the organization. They have virtually blanketed the web, at least for a period of time, with their own propaganda, their own ideas.

The phenomenal success of their campaign, at least as judged by the number of viewers, hinges not on the quality of their ideas and not on the feasibility or sensibility of their proposed solutions, as many experts will attest, but rather on their access to the platforms that get out the word. They are well equipped to execute their campaign  – trained in film production, with a snazzy website and killer social media strategy, they have the all tools to dominate the marketplace for ideas.

Is this not unfair? Wrong? Even dangerous?

If the simplistic, emotive, and well-marketed ideas are the ones that make it to the global stage, should this not give us pause? Some argue that it is the very ideas that play to our underlying prejudices and the stereotypes that we find most moving (i.e. the west must “save” Africa), amplifying rather than dispelling our biases. They argue that the vast and diverse sources of news and information allow us to further distance ourselves from ideas we don’t like and fixate instead on those that support to our prior beliefs.

To the extent that government policy is driven by the masses, whether they take to the streets or to their Twitter accounts, should we be concerned about the quality of ideas that eventually make it to the mainstream? What happens when these ideas are the products of sleek marketing rather than of cool-headed and careful deliberation? These are all important questions.

The process that brings ideas to the center stage of public debate is not fair and does not give everyone equal say. Nor has it ever. But the good news is that the very technologies that have allowed IC to kick-start the conversation on the LRA have also allowed competing voices to fight back and provide an alternative view. In fact, in a departure from days past, social media may differ from the platforms of old in that it cannot easily be controlled to produce dangerous hysteria. You cannot stifle dissenting opinion for long in this day and age of hashtags and viral videos.

Perhaps IC has not hijacked the conversation after all.

Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and other online media have allowed critics to respond to the IC campaign in real time. No sooner had the IC video come out than online posts pointing out its many flaws began to pepper the blogosphere. Within hours, IC had posted a response on their website, and the debate raged on. Journalists and ordinary citizens used online platforms to share their responses and concerns, and millions of people watched and listened. This is remarkable. The platforms that allow the dissemination of ideas are increasingly open for business. The marketplace for ideas, however flawed, is expanding.

Don’t get me wrong. There is a long way to go. The fact that most people living in northern Uganda, even capital cities like Kampala, Kigali, and Kinshasa, were not even aware of the video (not that they missed much) only highlights the disparity in global connectivity, and as such, inequality in access to arenas where their voices can be projected loudly and widely. Those who set the agenda and those who have the first say in the debate are often still the most powerful not because of the quality of their ideas but because they know how to market them. The increase in information of all kinds means that people can seek out that which will confirm their biases and prejudices. But access to the microphone stretches farther than it ever has before. And this is good news. The question is what will we do with it?

The Kony2012 social network: how a viral video spreads

A look at how pre-existing networks allowed Invisible Children to get the word out. (h/t @laurenrprather)

Source: SocialFlow

Screenings of Kony 2012 were halted in Uganda after provoking anger at a showing in Lira.

In other news, the International Criminal Court has found Thomas Lubanga guilty of recruiting and using child soldiers in the DRC. This is the first verdict handed down by the court.

Mahmood Mamdani on Kony 2012

I’ve been waiting for Mahmood Mamdani to weigh in on Kony 2012. His piece was finally published today in the Daily Monitor. The discussion of Invisible Children comes only at the end of the piece. Mamdani calls on the tens of millions of viewers of Kony 2012 to remember that the LRA is not just a one-man show, but comprised of many people, children and adults, who will need to be reintegrated back into their communities when the LRA is finally no more. There are no simple solutions.

“The 70 million plus who have watched the Invisible Children video need to realise that the LRA – both the leaders and the children pressed into their service – are not an alien force but sons and daughters of the soil. The solution is not to eliminate them physically, but to find ways of integrating them into (Ugandan) society.

Those in the Ugandan and the US governments – and now apparently the owners of Invisible Children – must bear responsibility for regionalizing the problem as the LRA and, in its toe, the Ugandan army and US advisers crisscross the region, from Uganda to DRC to CAR. Yet, at its core the LRA remains a Ugandan problem calling for a Ugandan political solution.”

My own two cents will be published in The Independent this week.

The curse of political inequality

“Prosperity depends on innovation, and we waste our innovative potential if we do not provide a level playing field for all: we don’t know where the next Microsoft, Google, or Facebook will come from, and if the person who will make this happen goes to a failing school and cannot get into a good university, the chances that it will become a reality are much diminished. There is a lot to worry about here. Our schools are failing and American youth is less likely to graduate from high school or college today than in the 60s. We are no longer the country of opportunity and upward mobility that we once were — largely because that upward mobility crucially depended on the expansion of mass schooling.

The real danger to our prosperity lies in political inequality. The U.S. generated so much innovation and economic growth for the last 200 years because, by and large, it rewarded innovation and investment. This did not happen in a vacuum; it was supported by a particular set of political arrangements — inclusive political institutions — which prevented an elite or another narrow group from monopolizing political power and using it for their own benefit and at the expense of society. When politics gets thus hijacked, inequality of opportunity follows, for the hijackers will use their power to gain special treatment for their businesses and tilt the playing field in their favor and against their competitors. The best, and in fact the only, bulwark against this is political equality to ensure that those whose rights and interests will be trampled on have a say and can prevent it.”

That’s Daron Acemoglu in the Huffington Post. He’s also blogging at Why Nations Fail. Another thought: the process that allows for the production of the next Steve Jobs or Larry Page also allows for the production of great political leaders.

Interview with Jason Russell on Kony 2012 and putting a man on the moon

From an interview with Jason Russell of Invisible Children, in the National Post, on the outcome of the Kony 2012 campaign.

“You really should do your research because this is a very unique and special case in which people do not have to die,” Mr. Russell said.

“We put a man on the moon. That’s what we did as human beings. People maybe should have died doing that but we figured it out.”

The key to capturing Mr. Kony is to outsmart him, Mr. Russell said in the interview.

“We have to use our technology and resources and human power to ask him to surrender because we don’t want this to end bloody,” he said, calling Mr. Kony “the world’s worst criminal.”

“We don’t want bombs being dropped. We don’t want a bullet through his head. We want him alive. That’s the win.”

Mr. Russell said he sees a “beautiful ending” to the manhunt that ends with Mr. Kony surrendering peacefully, boarding a helicopter and being tried in the International Criminal Court.

Stop Kony 2012: Debating the fight, or fighting the debate?

I am still organizing my thoughts for a response to the Stop Kony 2012 campaign and the video that has gone viral over the past few days. My initial reactions are now being subsumed by those that have come in response to the online debate (in some cases more accurately described as a virtual fist-fight) between Invisible Children supporters and IC’s critics. I am outraged by some of the accusations leveled by IC supporters at critics of the campaign — “you must not care or know as much as we do” — which would be hilarious if it weren’t so deeply offensive. I’m alarmed that such an important debate is frequently getting personal.

For now, some links:

A rant on good intentions — same debate, different campaign. My blog, April 2009

Invisible Children, the Next Chapter — Glenna Gordon

My response to Invisible Children’s campaign — Rosebell Kagumire

Invisible Children’s campaign of infamy — Angelo Izama

Joseph Kony is not in Uganda — Michael Wilkerson

Visible children — Chris Blattman

The definitive ‘Kony 2012′ drinking game — Wronging Rights

Invisible Children addresses critiques — Invisible Children

Kony 2012, viewed critically — Visible Children

On Kony 2012 — The Daily What

Viral video puts spotlight on Ugandan warlord — CNN blog

Does women’s empowerment promote economic development?

Conventional wisdom and a number of recent papers say yes, but Matthias Doepke and Michèle Tertilt have a paper out that suggests we think twice about this relationship:

“In this paper, we examine the link between female empowerment and economic development from the perspective of economic theories of household decision making. We develop models that are consistent with the empirical observation that an increase in female resources leads to more spending on children. We use these models to address two related questions. First, we focus specifically on programs that target transfers to women and aim to raise female income, and ask whether such policies really make children better off. Second, we consider a wider range of policies, and ask whether alternative forms of female empowerment have similar effects.
While at first sight it may seem that existing empirical evidence is sufficient to answer these questions, our theoretical analysis shows that this is not the case. We demonstrate that the link from the observed empirical patterns to policy implications is far from obvious: the effects of policy interventions are highly sensitive to the details of the underlying economic model, unintended consequences can arise, and different forms of female empowerment can have opposite effects.”

Full paper available here.

In related news, happy Women’s History Month! International Women’s Day 2012 is this Thursday, March 8. More on this soon.