Social Media, Legacy Media, and the Future of Policy Debate

March 14, 2012 in debates





On March 5, the NGO Invisible Children uploaded a video to Youtube campaigning for the capture and arrest of Joseph Kony, a Ugandan warlord charged with conscripting tens of thousands of child soldiers for his Lord’s Resistance Army.  Promoted by celebrities including Angelina Jolie and Oprah Winfrey, KONY2012 was watched over 70 million times over the course of a single week, a record-breaking number of views for an advocacy video.1 During the same time period, over 500,000 viewers purchased Invisible Children’s “action kits” (a packet containing a bracelet, t-shirt, brochures and posters), raising $15 million for the organization. U.S. President Barack Obama and ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo praised Invisible Children’s efforts and expressed their support of efforts to bring Kony to justice.

But while it has been hailed by supporters as an example of the power of social media to raise global awareness, the KONY2012 video has also been the focus of a wide-ranging backlash in the blogosphere. Critics have raised significant questions about Invisible Children’s spending priorities, pointing out the group spends more money on “raising awareness” than on actual work in Africa.  African observers have accused Invisible Children of paternalism, noting that there are no Africans on the group’s board.  Area scholars have pointed out that the video’s focus on Ugandan victims obscures the fact that Kony is no longer in the country.  Even those who embrace the use of social media for political change have expressed concern about KONY2012’s oversimplification of a complex political reality in Central Africa, worrying that the video might do more harm than good by telling only part of the story.  Responding to critiques of its practices and goals, Invisible Children has produced a forceful defense and posted it to its website, including a data visualization of their budget, detailed description of their work in Uganda, and a policy paper supporting their plan of action.

For journalists, the KONY2012 campaign and its backlash reflect what has become an increasingly prevalent reality: a social media campaign emerges out of nowhere and captures broad public interest, leaving legacy media scrambling to find the ‘story’ among the scattered bits.   But KONY2012 seemed to step things up a notch: both the campaign and its blogosphere backlash were well underway by the time reporters became aware of the existence of Invisible Children’s viral video.  Indeed, some of the critiques had already become social media milestones in their own right, including the blog posts of Canadian college student Grant Oyston (the first to post a critique, and now the auhor of a Tumblr blog with over 2 million hits in the past week), and the tweets of Nigerian author Teju Cole (whose widely circulated mini-essay on KONY2012 was posted on his @tejucole account in 140-character installments).

Trying to cover a story like the KONY2012 campaign can thus leave journalists feeling at once rushed to the table and late for dinner.  Given the ever-abbreviating news cycle prompted by social media, and the logistical difficulty of reporting complex international stories, the default approach to KONY2012 has been curation of the pre-existing debate.  Though such curation can be quite illuminating, a thorny ethical and political conundrum such as KONY2012 reveals the limits of curatorial journalism.  Curation accretes: it does not take a position, and its taxonomic approach to controversy leaves the reader stranded in a morass of ever-proliferating perspectives.

If KONY2012 usurped journalism’s interpretive function, it likewise preempted journalism’s role in shaping policy debate.  The power shift between new media and old becomes achingly clear when a 29-minute video manages to attract more public interest in a week’s time than the life’s work of some foreign correspondents.  One can argue  — like David Lamb of CBC News — that KONY2012 is successful precisely because it is not journalism, but advocacy work not burdened by journalist’s commitment to truth.  But given the impact of KONY2012, one is left wondering what this might suggest about the future success of journalism as a force in shaping foreign or domestic policy.  Whether or not one believes that the CNN effect was ever as influential as some have argued, it seems we may be observing its moment of decline. As Noam Cohen of the New York Times argues, social media campaigns, not televised images, may increasingly shape our policy debates.

For a Canadian example of this trend, one need only think back to November of 2011, when MP Charlie Angus brought a camera to Attawapiskat and posted a video to YouTube depicting substandard housing in that First Nations Community.  That video, and Angus’ accompanying blog post in the Huffington Post, quickly led to national media interest in Attawapiskat’s housing crisis, despite the fact that this ‘crisis’ (like Joseph Kony and the LRA) was a longstanding problem that the media had largely ignored.  And as with KONY2012, some of the best discussion of the complex financial and political causes of the Attawapiskat housing crisis took place in the blogosphere.  Most notably, a Montreal Metis blogger named Chelsea Vowel wrote a post that became the touchstone of many conversations about Attawapiskat finances; it was widely reposted and Vowel was interviewed by the CBC.

Five months after Angus posted his video to YouTube, Attawapiskat has new modular housing: there has even been a promise of a new school for the community, something that Attawapiskat residents have lobbied for unsuccessfully for twelve years.  Though this is promising news, the situation in Attawapiskat is far from resolved. Against their wishes (and despite a legal challenge), the community has been placed under third party management by the Harper Government.  What happens next in Attawapiskat — whether the housing provided by the Federal Government stands the test of the harsh northern climate, whether the promised school is actually built on schedule, whether the band is allowed to self-govern again in the near future — will ultimately be of far more consequence than what has happened thus far. And as the story continues, the legacy media needs to become more proactive than reactive, keeping Attawapiskat in the public eye without the outside prompt of a viral social media campaign and an emotional public response.  As well, they need to build on the insights gleaned from the blogosphere, without simply cataloging a conversation that is taking place elsewhere.

Obviously, there are many substantive differences between Angus’ campaign for the Attawapiskat and Invisible Children’s KONY2012, and to enumerate those would be the subject of an entirely different post. Here, I am interested in suggesting what both examples have to suggest about sustainable journalism: namely, that journalists need to think about their place in a media ecosystem in which new forms of mediation increasingly shape the actions of both states and citizens. Thus far, a preoccupation with the novelty of social media has resulting in reporting that is reactive, curatorial, or defensive.  None of these approaches are ultimately sustainable, for, as the above examples suggest, they result in a sort of second-fiddle journalism that capitalizes on the popularity of a social phenomenon while adding little to the debate.  If journalism is to thrive in this new milieu, journalists will need to redefine their own professional practice. This means considering how they might both accommodate and challenge social media phenomena — not only as a means of professional survival, but as a necessary service to a public similarly challenged by new forms of communication.

1. The most watched video on Youtube remains Justin Bieber’s Baby Baby, with over 700 million views.

Dr. Lisa Lynch is an assistant professor at Concordia University, working at the intersection between culture, technology, and political change. She is a co-organizer of the Journalism Strategies Conference.


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