Pop-Activism: A Mixed Blessing

Why popularising complex world crises can be problematic.

If you were a celebrity, the constant media attention would give you enormous power. Surely, if you were able to command the masses and so direct your government’s dealings with people in need, it would be the right thing to do, wouldn’t it?

George Clooney has used his star status to throw public and therefore government attention onto the conflicts in Sudan. He has succeeded in mobilising an unprecedented effort concerning a war in a previously obscure region: United Nations peacekeepers were deployed and President Bashir was taken to court and charged with ten counts of war crime, including genocide. But how much has actually changed? Bashir is still in power and there is little point in peacekeepers if there is no peace to keep.

Celebrities command more media attention than politicians, so unless they provide the public with proper information, this can short-circuit the system of governance already in place; galvanising public opinion against Bashir is destroying the delicate bargaining position with him that the American government have been working towards. Celebrity behaviour is such that they are unlikely to publicise a problem without also providing a crowd-pleasing quick fix.

George Clooney at Sudan rally DC. Photo by Christoph Koetti
George Clooney at Sudan rally DC. Photo by Christoph Koetti

A leading voice in development studies, Dr Tina Wallace, confirms that when using a celebrity as publicity for a charity ‘the fundraising messages that this organisation has the answer can become dominant… and of course the can’t have all the answers’. Experts say that solutions need to come from the ground up, addressing longstanding issues over land, water and grazing rights, and that borders need to be demarcated through dialogue, as these difficult conditions are what have produced such a leader as Bashir and could produce others to take his place.

Youtube video ‘Kony 2012’, watched by millions, implied that the more people know about an issue, the more likely it is that it will be solved. It is an attractive concept because it implies that you can help. Because of this, most of the initial viewers were thirteen to seventeen-year-olds, familiar with and optimistic about the power of the twitter phenomenon. The artificial connection between the cause and the celebrities involved mirrored the familiar simulation of intimacy between celebrities and their followers. It implied that if you keep up with Kim Kardashian, who keeps up with Kony, you become a useful part of the campaign.

But Kony has not been in Uganda for six years. The Lord’s Resistance Army currently operates in the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, and is now thought to number no more than 300 fighters. The video used out of date footage from ten years ago, insinuating that the situation remains the same today and tugging on the heartstrings of the Western public.

When Kony 2012 was shown to the villagers who had been affected by the atrocities – they had known nothing of the campaign, let alone Youtube – stones were thrown and many were too upset to watch. One woman is said to have made the comparison of selling Osama Bin Laden paraphernalia post 9/11 – which would be highly offensive to Americans. Instead of representing the real issues in northern Uganda, Jason Russell ended up belittling and commercialising their suffering. ‘Kony 2012’ is an example in which seriously misleading information was used, suggesting an over-simplified solution. Killing one man is unlikely solve the complex problems that are creating such violence, conflict and misery in that part of Africa.

Large fundraising events have their problems too: Bob Geldof raised $140m through Live Aid in 1985, and indeed the country became much richer. However, only in the last 5 years or so have Ethiopia’s poverty and AIDS issues shown any sign of turning around. This money was unlikely to help without being combined with measures to reduce corruption and adjust government so that it aids those in poverty more efficiently. Otherwise, money can end up in all the wrong pockets, and make little difference to those it was intended for.

Celebrities can be very good at tuning into sensitive topics and commanding empathy, which is something we should not want to lose entirely to an unsentimental, overly hesitant approach, or to say that all world crises are too complex to be contemplated by a supposedly unthinking public. ‘Kony 2012’ makes it seem as though highlighting a problem will equate to its solution; in fact we live in a world which doesn’t serve up easy answers. Clooney himself puts it wisely: ‘You think that the minute people know, then it’ll stop. Your assumption is that everyone just doesn’t know. The truth is, even when you know, it doesn’t stop.’

Originally pubilshed by Epigram.