Mar 13 2012

KONY 2012 and the Restrictions of ‘Viral’ Global Public Discourse

By Simone Datzberger, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of International Relations, LSE

When the farthest corner of the globe has been conquered technologically and can be exploited economically; when any incident you like, in any place you like, at any time you like, becomes accessible as fast as you like; when you can simultaneously “experience” an assassination attempt against a king in France and a symphony concert in Tokyo; when time is nothing but speed, instantaneity, and simultaneity, and time as history has vanished from all Dasein [Being] of all peoples; when a boxer counts as the great man of a people; when the tallies of millions at mass meetings are a triumph; then, yes then, there still looms like a specter over all this uproar the question: what for?—where to?—and what then? (Heidegger)


Early March, Invisible Children called up millions of people to take part in a global awareness campaign in order to chase one of the most notorious criminals worldwide: Joseph Kony. Reactions to this video differed enormously. The UK based INGO PeaceDirect critiques the campaign as out of context and without any local ownership. For Justice in Conflict author Mark Kersten the film doesn’t give an accurate portrayal of the actual conflict in Uganda as the problem is much more complicated than stopping Joseph Koney (for more details see also CTV News interview). On March 12th, the Guardian published a graph by Charlie Morton called ‘Phony 2012’, revealing that in 2011 about US $ 1.7 million was spent on Invisible Children staff and only 1 % of all funds raised will in fact directly reach the Ugandan people. Yet, according to Louis Moreno Ocampo (the International Criminal Courts Chief Prosecutor), the media crusade had ‘mobilized the world’ and also Angelina Jolie calls for ‘Ugandan warlord’s arrest’. However, and as also discussed by the Guardian: Could a viral video change the world?

The focus of this particular blog post is thus not on the ethics of the Kony2012 campaign as such which has been discussed already by so many others. Rather it is felt more attention should be paid to its exclusionary nature in cyberspace. Put simply, can we truly ‘mobilize the world’ for a particular cause – virtually – through social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube? In a Habermasian lens – does such thing such as ‘global’ public sphere even exist? Notably, Habermas accounts on public sphere are a reflection of societies in western liberal mass-welfare democracies. Bluntly transferring his notions to the very global level will certainly bring along some conceptual flaws. Though, in a quick experiment to explore the usefulness of the term at the very global level, one could roughly argue that a global public sphere emerges out of dialogue, discourse and exchange – also in cyberspace. Global public discourse then acquires a transformative or emanicpatory nature parallel to, and in concert with global state structures. Access to such a global and virtual public sphere would be in principle open to all citizens in that people (in re-interpretation of Habermas account):

“(…) act as a public when they deal with matters of general interest without being subject to coercion; thus with the guarantee that they may assemble and unite freely, and express and publicize their opinions freely. When the public is large, this kind of communication requires certain means of dissemination and influence; today, newspapers and periodicals, radio and television are the media of the public sphere. (1989, 231)”

More than 20 years later, his definition has gained a completely new dimension through advanced media technologies and hence social media platforms. The Internet has become a medium assumed to be non-exclusionary, equalitarian and democratic.

But is this really the case for campaigns such as the current KONY 2012? Doesn’t the euphoria to pursue international criminal justice by means of mass-civilian advocacy leave one crucial question in the margins of this endeavour: How are such virtual campaigns absorbed domestically, thus, in countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, Southern Sudan or Uganda (all areas in which Kony has operated or operates)? How can their voices be heard – virtually?

Many studies and academic literature focused on the issue of ‘aid absorption capacity’ in LDCs (Least Developed Countries). Strikingly, not much attention is paid as to how the influence of communication and information technologies is in fact absorbed and internalized in countries ranking on the bottom of the Human Development Index (HDI). In other words, how does the KONY 2012 movement next to so many other online initiatives and campaigns run by numerous INGOs (International Non-Governmental Organizations) affect domestic public discourses in the LDCs in question? Who amongst the broader population in these countries has access to social media platforms such as Facebook and can make use of advanced media and communication technology and thus launch his or her own campaign?

In a short assessment, one major indicator to begin with, is certainly the illiteracy rate within LDCs. Citing from a UNESCO fact sheet from 2011: ‘In 2009, the global adult literacy rate was 83.7%, compared to 89.3% for youth. The region of South and West Asia is home to more than one-half of the global illiterate population (51.8%). In total 21.4% of all illiterate adults live in sub-Saharan Africa.’ Notably, adult literacy rates were below 50% in the following sub-Saharan countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Sierra Leone. According to the HDI 2011, in countries in which the LRA (Lords Resistance Army) operates or operated, the literacy rate of both sexes above 15 years of age is:

-Central African Republic: 55.2 %

-Democratic Republic of the Congo: 66.8 %

-Southern Sudan: (not listed)

-Uganda: 71.4 %

One could argue now that the KONY 2012 campaign runs on the basis of a video and the issue of illiteracy is only secondary. Still, taking Central African Republic as an example, 44.8 % of the population are not able to understand written information displayed, google the video online or comment on it. In this regard, other aspects why media absorption capacity in LDCs is restricted also include:

Language barriers: Especially in rural areas not everyone is fluent or fully understands English (or in the case of other campaigns / countries French or any other western language).

Restricted access to computers and costs: Access to a computer or any other advanced media communication tool is still a privilege in all LDCs. To give an example, in Freetown, Sierra Leone the standard hourly rate to use Internet is about 5000 Leone, which is an equivalent to USD 1.35. This is 15 cents more than the average person earns per day.

Thus, if a global civilian discourse and consequently public sphere ought to exists  – it is very exclusionary in its nature. As well-intended many of these campaigns may be, they take place in a ‘virtually’ isolated global public debate from the very local civilian sphere.

The ‘what for’ is only one out of so many other important aspects. More attention needs to be paid to the ‘where to’ as marginalized civilian spheres should not be excluded from the global discourse and should have a ‘viral’ voice in this too. However, and even more essential, ‘what then’…?


Habermas, Jürgen (1986): On society and politics – a reader, edit. by Seidman Martin, Beacon Press, Boston

Habermas, Jürgen (1996): Between Facts and Norms, Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy, translated by William Rehg, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Heidegger, Martin (1959): Introduction to metaphysics, New Haven: Yale University Press

This entry was posted in Africa, IDEAS Blogs. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *