The Kids Are All Right (With Foreign Intervention): Kony 2012 and The Logic of Viral Video Action

Mancur Olson, in his iconic work The Logic of Collective Action, turned traditional group theory on his head. Olson posited that individuals would not collectively campaign for public goods without individual incentives to contribute. This is because there would be a tendency by many to “free ride” on the time and efforts expended by others. According to the logic of The Logic, social movements should be rare, as it would irrational for people to devote their resources for a cause without a direct and immediate benefit as compensation for their contributions.

Olson was wrong, and it is a shame he never bothered to look outside his window while he was describing the thought processes of homo economicus. In 1965, the year The Logic first saw print, the first SDS march against the Vietnam War attracted 25,000 protestors to Washington, D.C. Later that same year, Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act and the first Civil Rights Act into law, major victories for the Civil Rights Movement, a huge and multiracial movement characterized less by individual reward and more through immense courage in the face of often lethal (and sometimes state-sanctioned) prejudice. Around the world, one could witness the student and worker uprisings in France, the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, the ascendance of the “New Left” and an explosion in counterculture. Why Olson chose to focus on his abacus instead, however, is unfortunately emblematic of academia, where it is not required that an intellectual trend to be grounded in reality to be fashionable.

Olson was not just wrong in his own time, however. If anything, time has made his theory even more inaccurate, because “getting involved” is not that much of a commitment anymore. Thanks to social media sites like Facebook or Twitter and “viral videos” on YouTube, at the click of a button, you can share a link to a news story, poster or video designed to create awareness about a cause. Granted, there is no assurance that what you post will be read or watched by others – something I consider every time I write one of these things – but you still have better odds than previous generations did, armed as they were with little else besides megaphones and a copy of Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals.

Recently, the advocacy group Invisible Children proved just how irrelevant Olson is today by generating buzz around Kony 2012, a video about the brutal warlord behind the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). As of this writing, the video boasts over 70 million views. Major celebrities, like Oprah Winfrey and Rihanna, have endorsed the video. Donations to Invisible Children are pouring in, despite the mission of “Stop Kony” being one that directly benefits the mostly Western audience responding to it. So much for the “free rider problem.”

That is not to say, however, there is not a problem here. I will not touch on some of the common criticisms leveled against Invisible Children, such as that it is financially questionable organization with questionable accounting and transparency practices. I will also refrain from the much-cited Foreign Affairs article pointing out that Invisible Children and organizations like have “exaggerated the scale of LRA abductions and murders.” Quite honestly, if you have not yet read Mahmood Mamdani’s dissection of the “Save Darfur” propaganda campaign, it really deserves a look at how facts are distorted in order to frame a narrative suiting the intentions of certain deceptive (albeit well-meaning) groups. Pretty much everything that has been said about the mendacity of the “Save Darfur” movement can be said about Kony 2012, so I will not rehash it here.

I will stand Olson on his head and say that people – especially Westerners – are actually quite prone to caring about noble causes, especially when they are told that celebrity statements, wearing bracelets and sharing videos is all that is required to end a problem that has been going on for 25 years. They key is to simplify an issue so that it can be easily understood and digested, and play up your audience’s ego by assuring them that they can be the great saviors who can help poor Africans who cannot help themselves. The former takes some work; the Western mindset is soft-wired to accept the latter.

The truth is that the LRA is just scratching the surface of Uganda’s problems – and it is not even active in Uganda anymore. In actuality, Uganda is dealing with a host of other crises – a tyrant who has held onto power for almost 30 years; millions in missing funds and stolen medical supplies; a nascent oil industry sure to fuel even further corruption; and a population of young people dealing with increasing unemployment. Additionally, if you take the time to learn the history of the LRA, you will see that its roots in northern Uganda go all the way back to Uganda’s creation – the arbitrary drawing of borders by the British Empire, which intentionally exacerbated the tensions between the southern Bantu-speaking people against the Acholi and the Langi in the north. Even if Kony is captured or killed, does anyone who truly understands Uganda’s history believe that the endless cycle of warlords and rebels – Obote, Amin, Museveni – will suddenly stop? That, somewhere down the road, this huge ethnic cleavage will not produce more child soldiers, more abductions, more massacres?

Of course, groups like Invisible Children do not get into all that. It would complicate what they are trying to market to you – namely, that by pressuring Western governments to intervene, Kony can be stopped and the world will be a better place as a result. The appeal of this message too has to be understood with an appreciation for colonialism, as colonialism was justified by the “white man’s burden” – the belief that backward peoples in primitive countries were helpless and needed to be saved by enlightened, advanced Westerners. We still need to believe this today, as the scramble for Africa never stopped. The West continues to plunder Africa for its many resources (the continent is essentially a giant rock rich in minerals and petroleum) and, thanks to the “Washington consensus” and globalization, ensures that none of its countries will be allowed to develop independently on their own terms. Rather than drawing attention to this structural parameter that would be impossible to change without drastically altering the global economic system, advocacy groups present easily identifiable villains – like Kony – who do clearly terrible things – like abduct children and turn them into soldiers. If enough Westerners work together to achieve one simple goal – capturing or killing the villain – then the truth in their hearts, deep down, that the West is helping Africa more than hurting it will be affirmed. The “white man’s burden” will be a little less heavy to carry.

I realize that this post, like so many other criticisms directed at Invisible Children, will be decried as cynical nay-saying, and I will confess that the “wet blankets” dampening Kony 2012 can be as annoying as the well-meaning and naïve defenders of it. Yet my intention is more than snidely rolling my eyes and derisively shaking my head at an Internet meme that will soon be forgotten. My genuine concern is that groups like Invisible Children and the “Save Darfur” movement will engender my and future generations into viewing complex conflicts around the world in staggeringly simple terms, so as to justify future foreign interventions, continuing the neo-imperialism that has so characterized the post-Cold War era and has led to endless war. Seeing the hollowness and misrepresentations of campaigns like Kony 2012 is not about promoting apathy, but rather encouraging people to see the world as it really is, not as it is marketed to us.