Faces in the Crowd – Kony 2012 and the Occupy Movement

Sometimes what you see is what you get. Other times, there’s more than meets the eye. I don’t want to talk so much about how we are manipulated by what we see on mediums like the TV and the internet, but rather what we don’t see. With so much access to information, there’s not enough time in the day for us to get all the different perspectives on a story. We could sit around a TV all day and still be ignorant of what’s happening in many places in the world. However, it’s becoming increasingly clear that in order to understand the complex events happening around us, we need to be open to the possibility that we don’t know as much as we think – especially when we’re jumping on the bandwagon like every other face in the crowd.

Kony 2012

Let’s talk about Kony 2012 – the massively popular half-hour viral video whose official goal is to raise awareness. If you haven’t seen the video, you should check it out here. Basically, African warlord Joseph Kony has been abducting children and forcing boys to be his soldiers, and forcing women to be sex slaves. The video calls for people to put posters of him up all over the world to make him well-known, so that he can finally be taken down. It’s a hopeful video that essentially says that the Facebook generation of youths have the power to make a change, and it rallies them to do so. Hating Kony has indeed become a trend in social networks.

While they did a good job of making the world know who Joseph Kony is, many people have criticized the group who made the documentary, the “Invisible Children,” for things like scamming, misinformation, hypocrisy, etc. There are a lot of people on YouTube who made their own videos, some of which I think are bordering on conspiracy theories; but others bring to light some of the less-known facets of this phenomenon.

On the popular British satirical news show “10 O’clock Live,” comedian Charlie Brooker gave an interesting insight into Invisible Children, which is actually a charity organization which raised not only awareness, but a lot of money since Kony 2012. The video I’m about to show you may (i.e., probably will) offend, because satirical British comedy shows don’t pull any punches.

“In summary, Invisibile Children are expert propagandists with what seems to be a covert religious agenda advocating military action in central Africa, while simultaneously recruiting an ‘army’ of young people to join their cause – and their weird 4th estate youth camps – and to stand around posing like this… a bit like an army of child soldiers might. And every day Joseph Kony remains at large, people will pledge them more money to do so. And if that isn’t the compelling reason to stop Kony, I don’t know what is.”

Of course, it didn’t help that the hero of the Kony 2012 video, Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell, had a break-down a week or so after the video was released; and was detained for stripping, running around naked and picking fights, public masturbating, vandalizing cars, etc. It also doesn’t help that basically everyone – everywhere – always has a mobile phone on them, ready and willing to take pictures and videos of such incidents. As one YouTube commenter wrote, “His invisible children are all over my Car.”

Wow… and I thought British satire shows didn’t pull any punches.

But still, having a mental breakdown should not affect the content and message of one’s videos. In fact, I’m not suggesting that the organization in charge of the documentary is bad or should necessarily be stopped (though some people say so), but I simply advocate always looking at the bigger picture.

When you watch videos from actual bloggers from Uganda, not just talented graduates of USC School of Cinematic Arts like Russell, then the bigger picture starts to appear. One Ugandan video blogger explains why she thinks “It’s a bunch of bullshit,” painting a completely different picture from the one in the video. Clearly, the problem is about a hundred times more complex than they are suggesting in the Kony 2012 video, and there’s a great deal of misinformation and confusion on the internet now. This makes it even more important to know what’s going on.

For example, one Youtube video entitled “Joseph Kony Interview (2012 EXCLUSIVE)” shows Kony and a British interviewer talking about the allegations against him. It’s an amazing interview, but the title is misleading – it aired on TV in 2006, more than half a decade ago. The fact of the matter is that we don’t know where Kony is. He’s almost certainly not in Uganda anymore, maybe not even Africa; and we don’t even know if he’s still alive today.

So while the youth generation may be inclined to flex their powers of aggregation and try to make a difference, they might not be fully aware of what they’re really doing or supporting. Even in the 10 O’clock Live clip above (where they talk negatively about the video), comedian Jimmy Carr admits that he re-tweeted the video to his millions of followers without having watched it. It’s easy – as Carr points out – to do what everyone else is doing. It takes a lot more effort to go out of your way to understand what’s happening and why. And if you’re investing your time and money into a cause, it’s probably worth it to know what you’re getting into.

It would take several articles to write everything about this phenomenon, but the following is a list of some of the critiques levelled against the Invisible Children, worth watching if you want to know more: 

Various criticisms of Invisible Children »

Ultimately, here’s the big problem with Kony 2012 – it has become so popular that the biggest justification for joining is now the number of supporters itself. With such big numbers, we usually find what’s known as “Groupthink.”

People within a large enough group tend to lose their sense of self and begin to act as a unit. As historians know well, groupthink is often followed by catastrophe, because people don’t act in groups the way they would if they were not anonymous. This is what we saw last year in Canada, when thousands of Vancouverites started rioting after losing a hockey game. The ones who were later caught said things like “I don’t know what came over me.” People usually aren’t as rational in an emotionally-charged group as they are by themselves.

This brings me to my next topic…

Occupy UC Davis (“The “Pepper Spray Incident”)

If you are unfamiliar with the event, watch the following video:

Notice that the video footage of the incident is considerably brief. Likewise, pretty much every news broadcast told only a portion of the story at UC Davis. I’m not about to defend everything the police did during the Occupy Movement, but I’m going to try to explain what happened then.

The irony of this situation is that the students who were protesting against the police were acting as if they were rebelling against an ominous oppressor – “Fuck the police!” they chanted at one point – but it’s really the students who had become the nameless faces in a mob. That is, they were in such numbers that they had become anonymous. And when there’s anonymity, people tend not to act normally, because they feel that it is harder for them to be held accountable for their actions. This is part of the reason so many people went crazy during the Vancouver riots.

In fact, the whole “mic check” system of projecting a message essentially depends on the submission of critical thinking. One person yells “mic check” and the surrounding people repeat it a few times until it’s clear that a message is about to be delivered, which is when the speaker starts saying a few lines at a time, followed by the others repeating it. It’s an effective way of making yourself heard, but such kind of cult-like behaviour is always off-putting and unnerving.

Bad things tend to happen when you’re only a voice with no mind of your own. After you watch the following video, you will probably feel different the next time you hear “mic check!”

The video shows that students surrounded the police after they made several arrests to other protesters. Over the next few minutes, the video shows all the footage of what led up to the pepper spraying. Students blocked the police officers in, and the police very calmly asked them to leave, and gave them entirely reasonable warnings.

You have to watch the video to understand the real situation – if you just skipped it and didn’t watch from start to finish, then you’ll never understand what happened. In fact, it’s that kind of callous behaviour that makes it possible for anyone to be taken advantage of – we don’t want to take the time to find out everything that happened, so we’ll learn the gist of it as fast as possible. It’s a practical solution, and everyone is guilty of it (I am too). But depending on how much and how often you do so, it could be dangerous.

Two things should be said about this event:

  1. The more police there were being blocked, the less there were to keep the city safe. If you’re hindering law enforcers while they’re on the job, then you’re taking away more resources from places or people who need police assistance. So in that sense, the protestors were being unreasonable and foolish.
  2. But of course, the police almost certainly could have pushed through the line of students without violence, before things escalated. I was assuming that they didn’t want to touch them because of some legal issue, but they did make physical contact with students after they pepper-sprayed them. So the police response didn’t make a whole lot of sense.

So there was a lot of foresight lacking on that day. This is often what happens when a mob forms, and when emotions cloud judgment. But if you only watch the videos that talk about the police doing the wrong thing, then you get a totally twisted view of what happened.

[Update: I’m not recanting anything I have said, but a recent development needs to be reported. The University of California will pay $30,000 to each of the 21 students and alumni who were pepper-sprayed, and the chancellor of the university has written a formal apology to each of them.]

The Bottom Line

The real point of this article is to show that there is often more to a story than the first perspective you get. Information can be relayed to people from many sources, so different vantage points, varying degrees of access to information, and misleading editing can make things seem better or worse than they are.

The recent the killing of American teenager Trayvon Martin, was just another example of a case where there were numerous biases and faulty reporting in the media. Or another high-profile case was the Gaza Flotilla Raid in 2010, which initially had reports of Israeli commandos boarding a peaceful supply ship, and ruthlessly killing many civilians on board. But later, actual footage of that boarding showed that the Israelis were attacked with pipes, chains and knives immediately after they boarded, forcing them to take defensive (i.e., violent) action.

So it’s always good to do a little more detective work than you think is necessary. That’s what the best journalists and reporters in the world do, and that’s what anyone who strongly advocates any stance should do.

In short, the first thing you hear may not be the last; so don’t foolishly jump to conclusions.

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