Lessons from Kony 2012
Tue, 08/20/2013 - 5:00pm

If participatory politics is the future, media literacy is a must

By Henry Jenkins

IN SPRING 2012, Invisible Children (IC), a San Diego–based human rights organization, released Kony 2012, a 30-minute video about child soldiering in Uganda. During its two-month campaign IC anticipated that the video might reach half a million viewers; instead, it reached more than 70 million within four days and more than 100 million in its first week. The video’s rapid circulation was heavily fueled by high school and college students, as well as church groups. By comparison, America’s highest-rated television shows reach 40 to 45 million per week, and The Hunger Games, the top Hollywood blockbuster that week, drew 15 to 20 million viewers. Inspired by the video’s own celebration of the power of social media to change the world, IC’s young supporters had demonstrated the capacity of grassroots networks to shift the national agenda.

But Kony 2012 drew sharp criticism from many established human rights groups and Africa experts, who questioned everything from IC’s finances to its “white man’s burden” rhetoric, and especially for being out of sync with current Ugandan realities. Amid this fallout, a personal tragedy incapacitated one of IC’s leaders, leaving many young IC supporters unprepared to defend their position in the face of such intense scrutiny. IC’s approach demonstrated enormous “spreadability” (the capacity to spread its messages) but limited “drillability” (the ability to “drill” deep into the issues). The media literacy movement in the United States has long been divided between those who want to foster critical-thinking skills (including a greater skepticism toward mass media content) and those who want to help young people acquire the capacity to produce their own media. The Kony 2012 aftermath demonstrates the importance of combining the two, particularly in the context of students’ ability to participate politically.

By the time they exit high school, young people’s political identities are surprisingly fixed. Those whose parents are politically involved, whose civics teachers bring current events into the classroom, who are encouraged to volunteer, and who participate in extracurricular activities are much more likely to engage in future political and civic activities than those who lack these experiences. The practices of participatory politics create new gateways into political involvement. The Kony 2012 case is one of many recent examples of grassroots movements (from Occupy Wall Street and the DREAMer movement in the United States to the Arab Spring movements) that have embraced what we are calling “participatory politics.” In a white paper for the MacArthur Youth and Participatory Politics research network, political scientists Cathy J. Cohen and Joseph Kahne (2012) define participatory politics as “interactive, peerbased acts through which individuals and groups seek to exert both voice and influence on issues of public concern.” Participatory politics welcomes diverse involvement, enables greater creativity and voice in expressing one’s views, and provides a gateway toward more traditional political activities, such as voting or petitioning. Citing data from a survey of more than 4,000 respondents ages 15 to 25, they found that those who engaged in participatory politics (roughly 40 to 45 percent across all racial categories) were almost twice as likely to vote as those who did not.

In some cases, a student’s first political exposure might come from a video (such as Kony 2012) forwarded to them by friends or classmates. According to the MacArthur survey, 58 percent of American youth forward links or share information through social networks at least once a week. A recent study released by Georgetown University suggests that people who have forwarded socially meaningful messages are significantly more likely to take the next steps, such as contributing time and money; such acts help grassroots organizations expand their “latent capacity,” identifying casual supporters they can mobilize when they need to amplify their voice.

For others, their interest might be piqued by an imaginative deployment of references from popular culture that help them connect issues to things they already care about. For example, the Harry Potter Alliance (HPA) has linked its campaigns around human rights, equal marriage, fair trade, disaster relief, and body image to metaphors drawn from J.K. Rowling’s bestselling fantasy franchise, asking young people to help form “Dumbledore’s Army for the Real World.” Do such activities represent the intrusion of entertainment into politics? Perhaps, but they also represent the hijacking of Hollywood’s publicity machine for political ends, potentially reaching people who have already shut out more conventional rhetoric. Often, traditional politics is conducted in a wonkish, insular language that only makes sense if you know what’s being discussed; by contrast, the Nerdfighters, a YouTube community organized around a young adult author and his musician brother (Hank and John Green), encourages its followers to identify innovative ways to “decrease world suck.”

Sociologist Robert Putnam has described the role bowling leagues and other social clubs played in encouraging civic participation for the World War II generation; people gathered for fun and fellowship but forged stronger social ties and fostered deeper community involvement. For today’s youth, volunteering for a traditional organization can feel like a compulsory résumé builder. But groups like IC and the HPA work hard to intensify friendships, inspire creative expression, and combine hard work with serious play. Often, such groups combine strong, charismatic leaders with decentralized, networked structures: Local chapters set their own terms of participation. While some, like the IC, maintain strong, centralized media-production capacities, others encourage young people to create and circulate their own media, including blogs, podcasts, and videos, reframing their core message for their peers. Consider the case of “pepper spray cop,” a University of California, Davis campus policeman who deployed offensive chemicals to disperse a group of Occupy supporters. During one weekend, hundreds of Photoshop manipulations began to circulate online, many remixing the news photograph with classic paintings, photographs, or film stills, transforming a local incident into an Occupy icon.

While organizations like IC maintain sharp focus on a single issue, others, such as the HPA, see themselves as helping to connect young activists with nonprofit organizations that address diverse causes and concerns. Either way, these groups are actively recruiting and training young activists, helping them master basic practices that can support a lifetime of social change. Some of these practices reflect the values of a more participatory culture, such as helping young people construct and share their own personal narratives in ways that dramatize larger concerns. For example, young DREAMers often create videos where they “come out” as undocumented, putting a face on America’s struggles with immigration policy. Some of the practices are much more traditional (knocking on doors, manning phone banks), but these groups also create contexts in which these activities become more personally meaningful.

By the time IC released Kony 2012, it had produced and circulated 10 previous films; it had formed local clubs through high schools, colleges, and churches; it had recruited and trained thousands of young activists through internship programs, summer camps, and conventions; and it had demonstrated the capacity to mobilize those supporters through local gatherings and demonstrations across the country. Like the other groups we study, IC saw recruitment and civic education as the organization’s core mission. Kony 2012 did not “go viral,” rather, IC had developed strategies of grassroots circulation that succeeded in reaching diverse participants.

Journalist Malcolm Gladwell says that socalled “Twitter revolutions” build on weak social ties and do not motivate participants to put their lives on the line. Make no mistake: What we are describing here is not a Twitter revolution. Students stick a poster to a pole during “Cover the Night,” part of the Kony 2012 campaign by the group Invisible Children, to raise awareness about child soldiering in Uganda. These groups conduct their activities across diverse media platforms, including face-to-face conversation, but they also use social media to coordinate action across a more dispersed network. In the case of the DREAMers, there is a strong commitment to takematerial risks, with young activists facing deportation for sharing their immigration status, and some marching into immigration offices and web-casting acts of civil disobedience. That said, part of the appeal of these groups is that they create a form of politics that works more through consensus than conflict; this more sociable style of civic participation can be enormously appealing to a generation often sickened by today’s harsh partisanship. Yet, for this very reason, IC’s young supporters seemed remarkably unprepared for the criticism that Kony 2012 drew fromsomany quarters. Members of traditional, party-based and advocacy groups prepare themselves to confront oppositional perspectives. But when the core leadership turned inward to deal with a personal tragedy, IC’s young supporters were left to track down information and construct arguments against the mounting attacks. In some cases, they rose to the occasion, demonstrating a great capacity to seek and deploy information quickly. But in others, they lacked the critical skills needed to address skeptical classmates or family members. This crisis is consistent with a core finding of the MacArthur survey: 84 percent of young people interviewed said that they would “benefit from learning more about how to tell if news and information you find online is trustworthy.”

We would not consider someone literate if they could read but could not write; the core goals of the media literacy movement should be helping young people to acquire the skills and competencies they need to meaningfully and critically participate in their culture. Participatory politics represents a powerful model for how civic groups might empower young people to deploy skills they have developed as fans and gamers to make a difference in the world. But to be truly effective, those production capacities must be coupled with core training in how to assess credibility, how to weigh arguments, and how to rebut criticisms of your position. Teachers, librarians, and other educators have a core role to play in helping students foster these critical literacy skills.

Henry JenkinsHenry Jenkins is the Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts, and Education at the University of Southern California. He arrived at USC in fall 2009 after spending the past decade as the director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program and the Peter de Florez Professor of Humanities. He is the author and/or editor of 15 books on various aspects of media and popular culture, including Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture (2013, with Sam Ford and Joshua Green) and Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick for the Literature Classroom (2013, with Wyn Kelley, Katie Clinton, Jenna McWilliams, Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, and Erin Reilly). He has written for Technology Review, Computer Games, Salon, and The Huffington Post.