Humanitarianism in the Digital Age

In March of 2012 the organization Invisible Children released an advocacy campaign on its website and on Facebook beginning with a short video titled Kony 2012. The video and campaign sought to make (in)famous indicted war criminal Joseph Kony, who was on the run from the International Criminal Court and Ugandan government for the forced enlistment of child soldiers in his Lords Resistance Army. The goal of the campaign was to expose the plight of these “invisible” children (invisible to whom?) and encourage individuals and celebrities to make Kony so famous in the US and the global north that the US government would provide military intervention to find and arrest him by the end of 2012. 

According to Wikipedia, “as of July 10, 2019, the film has received over 102 million views and 1.3 million "likes" on the video-sharing website YouTube, and over 18.6 million views and over 21.5 thousand "likes" on Vimeo, with other views on a central "Kony 2012" website operated by Invisible Children. At the time the video was the most liked on the whole of YouTube, and is the first video ever to reach 1 million likes.” Although it’s hard to imagine in our current age where the president makes declarations of war over Twitter, this was one of the first times that the virality of a social media event, distributed primarily on Twitter and Facebook, was mainstream newsworthy. TIME called it “the most viral video of all time” that, despite its criticisms, “set a new bar for all things viral.” In an age of viral cat videos and memes, it is still remarkable that the video that “set the bar for all things viral” was a campaign calling for humanitarian intervention and an end to the use of child soldiers.

Kony 2012 represents a kairotic moment in the intersections of humanitarianism, advocacy, and digital technologies that define the 21st Century thus far and sheds light on the ways in which digital media both perpetuates the problematic structures of rights as well as has the potential to enable a deeper recognition of the other across the globe. As Elaine Scarry and Susan Sontag remind us, drawing on the long legacy of Levinasian ethics, it is nearly impossible to imagine the other as fully and completely human in all of their pain, especially when they are represented as a faceless mass of migrants or refugees, or conversely and perhaps even more challengingly, in very individuated ways that perpetuate normative notions of what a victim and thus what a savior looks like. Shortly after the release of Kony 2012, people on social media and mainstream media platforms resoundingly critiqued the campaign for its participation in what became known as the humanitarian industrial complex, amongst other things (see The Guardian article for an in depth critique of the entire campaign). In other words Kony 2012 epitomizes the structure of rights and the ways in which the digital realm has mediated the epistemological and ontological framework of recognition so vital to both the humanitarian industrial complex but also to the promotion of basic human rights.

In “Righting Wrongs,” Gayatri Spivak argues that human rights is not only about having or claiming a set of rights but also it is structurally about righting wrongs, about being the dispenser of those rights. However, this structure creates a powerful benefactor or granter of rights (often manifest in humanitarian work) and a relatively powerless beneficiary or receiver of rights. Spivak demonstrates how the responsibility to act is born out of the discourse itself and is reflective of and constructs a problematic structure of rights with an embedded power dynamic. Thus, this structure of responsibility embedded in humanitarian discourse can reinforce a troubling binary of a giver and a receiver of rights that denies agency for those who suffer human rights abuses as it perpetuates a neoliberal participation in a humanitarian industry whose goal is, ultimately, to promote the industry. A well-hashed example of this is the now defunct Toms Shoes “One to One” campaign. For each pair of shoes they sold to a consumer, the company donated a pair of shoes to someone in need. While this kind of humanitarian impulse is intended only to help, it can do irreparable damage to local and more sustainable economies by flooding them with free shoes (or rice, or t-shirts, or solar panels, etc.), putting local entrepreneurs and industries out of business and sometimes even exacerbating the actual problem of poverty of which the lack of shoes is a byproduct not a cause.

When the humanitarian aid is no longer in response to a crisis it becomes a way of life and this dynamic can lead to humanitarianism being used as an alibi for political, economic and military intervention. Arguably, the Kony 2012 digital campaign traffics explicitly in this structure of rights, to the detriment of the existing local efforts on the part of the Ugandan government (Kony went into deeper hiding when the US military became involved). Additionally, the viral, digital nature of the Kony 2012 campaign, targeted specifically to young college-aged white people, infected a new generation of “activists” with what Matau Mutua calls the “savage, victim, savior metaphor” (SVS), or what Teju Cole calls the “white-savior industrial complex.” The SVS metaphor according to Mutua is a highly recognized trope in discourses of human rights and humanitarianism, particularly when talking about Africa, that positions the African subject as victim, their own culture as savage, and the “West” as the obvious and only savoir. Teju Cole’s “white-savior industrial complex,” articulated in a series of tweets in response to Kony 2012, articulates a similar critique in that these discourses draw on sentimentality that positions white liberals as uncritical participants in the very abuses they purport to save: “The white-savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening,” and “The White-savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” It is problematic metaphors like these that are obviously perpetuated by Kony 2012 when it demands uncritical consciousness-raising that discourages a close look at the structural causes of violence and how those very same target audiences may be implicated in the causes of that structural violence. After all, a contributing factor to the destabilization of the region (in addition to a history of colonialism) is the exploitation of natural resources including coltan used in all of our digital devices. 

Digital technologies may not be inherently bad, but when they too easily traffic in and perpetuate on a large scale the structure of rights, the savage, victim, savior metaphor, or the white-savior industrial complex they amplify the problems associated with those imbalances of power. This is not to say that humanitarian aid should cease, especially in times of crisis, or that easy digital means of “armchair activism” or “clictivism” should be critiqued out of existence – after all, Kony 2012 was extremely effective at doing what it set out to do, which was make Kony famous! As Spivak says, “one cannot write off the righting of wrongs. The enablement must be used even as the violation is renegotiated” (524). But, put simply, humanitarianism in a digital era requires a complex and nuanced approach as it engages in the politics of representation and recognition.

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