#Kony2012, Understanding Networked Symbolic Action & Why Slacktivism is Conceptually Misleading

By now, you probably know the story. A previously little-known group made a slick video with just the right mix of “the triumph of the human spirit” meets deep human tragedy about Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. The video goes super-viral.  In just a few days, it is viewed more than 60 million times on just Youtube alone. Then comes a swift backlash and many people criticize the content of the video–ranging from its factual errors, to questions about the group’s finances, to the implicit “White Savior Complex”.  That is indeed an important discussion, one that has been covered in-depth elsewhere and not what I want to focus on here. (I wrote a bit about those topics in my short op-ed in the New York Times here).

Instead, in this post, I’d like to argue that evolution of Kony2012 has revealed how useless –and indeed harmful—the concept “slacktivism” has become to understanding networked symbolic action in the 21st century. I’d like to argue that people interested in social change need to step back and analyze the specifics of what is happening in its full complexity–without dismissing it, either due to their objections to the content or because they erroneously think it means nothing.  (On the other hand, if you get your kicks from erudite snarks about how kids in this generation have unruly hair, no manners, and no respect for its elders; well, enjoy. There is a huge market for that—just as huge, if not bigger, than the one for superficial hyping of social media as traditional gatekeepers often love to complain about how the new generations don’t appreciate Little House in the Prairie.)

My argument is this: the concept of slacktivism is not just naïve and condescending, it is misinformed and misleading.  What is called commonly called slacktivism is not at all about “slacking activists”; rather it is about non-activists taking symbolic action—often in spheres traditionally engaged only by activists or professionals (governments, NGOs, international institutions.). Since these so-called “slacktivists” were never activists to begin with, they are not in dereliction of their activist duties. On the contrary, they are acting, symbolically and in a small way, in a sphere that has traditionally been closed off to “the masses” in any meaningful fashion.

In other words, slacktivism should be seen as the encroachment of politics and civics into people’s everyday worlds which tend to be dominated by mundane concerns of day-to-day existence–or dominated by the consumerism transmitted through traditional media. It’s also a step in the unraveling of the professionalization of human rights and cause advocacy. [Credit: parts of this argument were developed in discussion with Alaa Abdal Fatah of Egypt and Sami Ben Gharbia of Tunisia].

So, not only are these people not slacking, they are acting symbolically in spheres that previously had higher barriers to entry. Symbolic action is not a magic wand–and its consequences depend on how it interacts with  other kinds of power, including institutional power.  Symbolic action and symbolic power, however, are not mere “epiphenomenon” of other kinds of power—as if they were a shadow, or an afterthought.

On the contrary, narrative and symbolic action are central forces in human societies. We are a highly-symbolic, group-oriented species and signaling our preferences –to others– is a key dimension of human action. “Public” is a meta-concept; it’s not just about what you know internally, but what you express and what others know that you believe and that you know that others know… ….  Hence, the public sphere is formed not just through people’s silently held beliefs, but through overt signaling of ideology and narratives-and this signalling increasingly takes place online.

As social psychology and related fields have long shown, and as any observant person knows –and like it or not– for the human animal, there are no pure facts; instead, there are narratives.  We act differently depending on our embedded narratives–even if we seemingly profess to the same facts as others. Humans accept, reject and make sense of facts within narratives. Just the very question of how we get to define what is a fact is a complex and socially-contingent one.

If humans came with a warning label, I’d like it to say: “WARNING: MAY APPEAR MORE RATIONAL AND LOGICAL THAN ACTUAL.”

Further, all human societies operate in a world of socially-constructed norms and ideals. And the changes to those ideals are immensely important.  If norms move, than often action also moves—not always in a straight line, and not always in a simple fashion because the world is complex and narrative power is but one kind of power among many. Still, action for change is always entangled with action for norm change, i.e. symbolic action.

Hence, there is no “activism” that does not have a strong symbolic side. Thus, today’s “meaningless click” is actually a form of symbolic action which may form the basis of tomorrow’s other kind of action.  Thus, signaling preferences –even seemingly obvious ones like being against child soldiers being abused—can be crucial.

Want some proof? Look at how many obvious –and not that hard– things we do not do globally. Children around the world die of the flimsiest causes.  Lack of so little action in that front is no doubt partially due to the fact that there is no strong symbolic infrastructure that makes those children important to us in a manner that is connected to capacity for impact. Clearly, the Kony2012 video is tapping into just that gap—and I cannot imagine a human-rights advocate who thinks that this is irrelevant.

It is well and worthy to discuss the interaction between symbolic power and other kinds of power—and how and when convergence among different kinds of power leads to change and when and how it remains confined or repressed. Still, the incorrect conceptualization encapsulated in the term “slacktivism” is making it harder to have exactly those conversations.

The power of the symbolic action to shape particular narratives is exactly why so many people felt the need to pushback against #stopkony—the video was effectively and powerfully laying down a narrative for a particular kind of action.

Indeed, go back in history, and you see these normative shifts, brought about by words and symbolic action, before or along with major social changes. History is full of such examples.  Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Anna Sewell’s animal rights story “Black Beauty.”  Or take a modern variation, like the clever video, “The Meatrix.”  These are examples of symbolic action which helps structure narratives within which further human action occurs.

And social media streams are a new and important dynamic in how those narratives are formed—and, importantly, who gets to have a say. I usually do not like to proclaim new developments as “good” or “bad”—they are often a complex interaction of both. However, contrast the swift pushback against the simplistic and dangerous narrative of #stopkony with the lead up to the Iraq War of 2003. It was clear to many people at the time that the narrative being built up in the rush to war in Iraq was erroneous, dangerous and in many ways, irresponsible.  However, opposition voices –while loud, organized and including many —were drowned out by the gatekeepers—big media, Sunday talk shows, political powers…

In contrast the swift backlash against Kony2012 was loud, organized and, most importantly, also able to command attention. In just one day, I saw more human-rights experts and African and Ugandan voices on mainstream media than I do in a month or three.  My social media stream was flooded by critical and in-depth discussion about the topic, often from Ugandans or topic experts. This is a key way in which Kony2012 differs from, say, “We are the World” campaign in the eighties in which Africans never got to be anything beyond silent victims. People can now talk back a lot more effectively. Indeed, the spread of Kony2012 is likely going to be remembered as one of the early examples how emergent networked global publics can connect amongst each other and focus their –and everyone else’s—attention in a manner that would have hard to imagine just ten years ago.

It also appears to me that this was, at least at first, spread most strongly by teenagers and young adults, at least at first. I obviously don’t have hard numbers at the moment –and hope we will at some point—but anyone with any experience in activism, organizing and social movements can immediately recognize that most lifelong dedicated activists have a “gateway” moment, often in their teens.  It would not be surprising if the intensity of the attention to this video –as well as the intensity of the backlash—did not become just such a moment for many future leaders. The kids are listening, maybe to a simplistic message, maybe to a misguided cause.  But some portion of them will keep looking, listening and learning. Such moments have long-terms consequences.

There is much more to analyze in this event in terms of content, politics of the message, the increasingly complicated interaction between our global institutions –such as the International Criminal Court—and increasingly networked global public. But here’s one thing. This is not unimportant. This isn’t about activists who are slacking. It’s symbolic action in a networked world, a complex and important topic for anyone interested in social change.


P.S. (Sorry for the linkless post: I am on a shaky Internet connection at the moment and will add more links later)



42 thoughts on “#Kony2012, Understanding Networked Symbolic Action & Why Slacktivism is Conceptually Misleading

  1. Dave Witzel

    One data point advancing the premise that it spread via young people. I learned about it via my teenagers who aren’t normally politically engaged. The video, the campaign, and the cohort that spread it all mattered. Now they are tracking the critique. They have been activated.

  2. Dave Valler

    Interesting post, thanks. I think the point about inspiring activism in young people is a good one.

    Many people have commented on the production value and simplistic message of the video being a catalyst to the viral nature of it, particularly amongst young people. I would agree with that and also argue that although social media campaigns are prevalent, perhaps there aren’t many chances to have a unified viral campaign like this one and even though it has a good root cause AND maybe given some young people a gateway into positive activism, it may have wasted a good chance for longer term change by not giving enough balance.

    I find it hard to explain but here’s a random metaphor off the top of my head! There’s a mature garden that needs care, if you bring in an inexperienced gardener then the plants will start to decline and the gardener may become demotivated and eventually give up. If you start small and train someone to look after a single plant with all it’s needs and complexities, they will grow to have a much better understanding of the whole garden and what care / change is needed.
    As a teenager, life was more black and white than the messier truth which I see now. The Kony2012 video producer is obviously talented, so I ended up thinking a less obviously viral but more detailed and balanced video may have reached fewer people, but had a deeper affect that could have resulted in a richer and longer term change in some young people’s lives.

    1. zeynep Post author

      I think a lot of people are thinking through how to inflect the link between simplicity of the message and its power to spread… I think we’ll likely see many variations of such efforts in the near future.

  3. Sam Storr

    I agree with Dave (Witzel). Watching the video and it’s invasion of the social web made me more than a little bit sick. But within 24-48 hours I was actually, as a cynic, impressed by how quickly people began to investigate and spread the counternarrative, aided by the new space opened up for better informed advocates in the media.

    In fact, if the Invisible Children video hadn’t been as incredibly terrible, grandiose, self indulgent (etc etc) as it was, this would not have happened. Maybe this makes StopKony unique in the slacktivism field, in that it provoked thought rather than just providing it in easily digested and displayed segments.

    I do think some of this talk of slacktivism comes from professional advocates being threatened by a widening of the space which they wish to occupy alone. They could certainly learn from this to develop a more parasitic or even constructive relationship with slacktivists. Hopefully, as you suggest, the widening ability of non-mainstream voices to ‘talk back’ will bring the new dawn for activism.

    1. zeynep Post author

      I’m usually wary of the “is this good or bad” narrative but I totally agree that the level of complexity of the discussion–and the speed with which it got there– was pretty impressive.

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    1. zeynep Post author

      Thank you! I am hearing many similar comments. Obviously, those who are affected will not be a large number but there is no society in which the category of “activists” is but a tiny number.

  6. Gil Reich

    Yes, some good may come of this, but I fear it will be overwhelmed by the negative. I’m concerned about a society where we encourage people to express an opinion before thinking things through. Science begins with a healthy skepticism, a respect for others, and a humble recognition that perhaps reading a Tweet or watching a single YouTube video doesn’t make me sufficiently knowledgeable about a subject to lecture others. We live in a society that’s so afraid of charismatic preachers. But we let our guard down regarding secular hucksterism. I wish we were teaching our kids respect and humility, not encouraging them to lecture others before listening to the other side of an argument.

    1. zeynep Post author

      I agree with the need to learn to listen and learn but I think this has the potential to be such a learning moment as many people –including the teens– are encountering a deep and complex backlash. It was no doubt quite a surprise to many of them that what they thought was an unambiguous case turned out to be complicated. And that can certainly lead to learning, one hopes, at least for some of them.

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  12. Gina Vodegel

    My curiosity comes from another source, opposite the cynics and naysayers who perhaps by forces of their own human nature and genetic design need to bring something down instead of embracing it or give it some slack, pardon the pun.

    There are those who applaud all the criticism and without a doubt accept for all of those voices to be valid. I’ve seen many many comments in which people automatically take the criticism as truth because some say so it is the truth, where others think that criticism is the equivalent of “must be good”. Or better. If there is “slacktivism”, there should also be a word to describe the opposite, or rather the movement of bringing something down with criticism or negativity and then feel good about it. Some people sway one minute and sway back the next, or no wait, sway once again after a minute or ten. In many ways, the launch of Kony 2012 has been an interesting one. An experiment as Jason Russell himself narrates as if he knew or could guess what would happen once the video would hit the virtual airwaves.

    Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are two major and recognized organizations who did not condemn the Kony 2012 video. Au contraire, they were more than pleased Kony and co were made visible by the Invisible Children crew. Their websites offer insightful reports going back years in time, because both organizations have been keeping track of Kony and others and the atrocities taking place in Uganda and surrounding countries when it comes to the activities of the LRA. A search on Google shows articles, old ones, in which is declared that Kony and his army of child soldiers and the misery attached, have somehow escaped the media at large, or dismissed as not something so important for the rest of the world to be bothered about. And because I’m Dutch, I also googled for Dutch articles on the subject.

    So who are these people criticizing and condemning the work of a legitimate non-profit organization, founded by, at the time, young filmmakers and friends who embarked upon a journey and adventure that gave them direction. I see assistant professors in political science, teachers, bloggers. Somebody’s and Nobody’s, Anybody’s, just like you and me. I see green monsters at work too. Envie and jealousy speak loud and harsh words if triggered right. One assistant professor decided to write a second blog with more consideration towards Invisible Children after he had given it more time and after he looked into and found background information of the organization that also developed education programs, a tracker and protection system, a rehabilitation program for former LRA soldiers, all of this with partners in Uganda, Congo and CAR, of course. Their staff consists of 113 people, of which 71 Africans in Uganda and Congo. I don’t understand the critique of “white man coming to save poor black man”. I don’t understand articles in which people insist IC advocates or wages war with help from the US Army. When reading all the comments and criticism, most of the time I have to wonder whatever happened to common sense. All I see is the same thing those who are positively moved by the Kony 2012 video, are accused of. But then in the opposite direction. (Young) people feeding off the negativity and criticism. Have you seen their first documentary, from their travels in 2003? Invisible Children, Rough Cut? The one they travel with around the country and world apparently, to show to (highschool) students? One professor said he had sleepless nights because of it back in time when he saw it. He said the documentary was wrong on many counts. I watched it and really had to doubt that professor’s ability of assessing that 2003 film made by three inexperienced yet open-minded young human beings. Does being an academic or having lived in a region for a decade make someone an expert? How about thinking out of the box… Have you see any of their other videos on their YouTube or Vimeo channel? Have you found websites of people who were among those thousands of students attending those film screenings, to read what they decided to do with their lives after having seen Rough Cut? Here’s one https://sites.google.com/site/invisiblechildrenofafrica/home

    Surely people should look further than just the one video to get the bigger picture, right? But there’s also no complexity if we keep it simple, which isn’t insulting anyone’s intelligence or capacity to use one’s brain. But what about the heart, or the soul? I for one am moved by “Mend”. http://www.mend.co/about/ Also because years ago, I saw a documentary about former sex slaves and abducted girls, some of them raped and pregnant and giving birth to children of men who violated them. Mend and the bags made by the seamstresses is not different from other products that can be bought in Oxfam concept stores. By purchasing a product, you contribute to their means of existence.

    And there are other tasks the Invisible Children foundation has taken upon them to fulfill. Like so many other non-profit organizations do and have done, and will do. What is so different then that people have to bring down their video(s), or intent to raise awareness? To accuse them of being scammers, liars. That somehow baffles me. There is so much more to say in response to the almost endless points of criticism uttered. Kony is no longer in Uganda, the LRA activity has diminished with 80%, why go after him now? For the same reason why decades after World War II had ended, those that had committed crimes, were chased after to be brought to justice. And even though most are now in their 90s, they remain on that list. Futile? Same goes for the war criminals of the wars in Eastern Europe.

    But that’s all petty details it seems. You mention the International Criminal Court. It’s interesting to note that the current Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo is serving his last months in this position after a nine year term. Within a few months a woman will take his place. Her name is Fatou Bensouda. She is from Gambia. Africa. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-15992397

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  14. FZRiely

    “We are what we pretend to be…” Might as well pretend to be caring people. No telling where that might lead.

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  20. Shikhank Sharma

    A lot of what you say resonates with me. This is taking a person from level zero to level one of activism. Although I think that misinformation and the lack of/ignorance of/indifference towards more information can lead to mis-guided actions which can be worse. At the same time the “gateway moment” concept is so true and has happened to me personally so many times. This is a fascinating and refreshing perspective on this complex issue.
    But, had Kony 2012 not faced all the backlash it did then we would have missed the opportunity of such an intense dialog and conversation that the criticism created around this issue but also larger international development issues. The well-marketed movie also helped provide the criticism a wider audience and through that it created more awareness of activists and legitimate non-profits. So in a way, had the criticism not happened this dialog wouldn’t have occurred in the semi-mainstream manner it did.

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  22. Matt Collins

    I love your point about them not being activists in the first place, so it isn’t possible for them to be in dereliction of their activist duty. Couldn’t agree more. I’m thinking that it could actually be worth starting a community specifically for slacktivists – kind of a fun gateway into the world of light-activism, and lifestyle community too.

    My blog on slacktivism is at http://charitychap.com/2012/03/kony-2012-proves-charities-need-slacktivists/ if you’re interested 🙂

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  26. d1gi

    Thanks Zeynep. Although going about it somewhat differently, we’ve written quite similar responses to the #StopKony slacktivism / astroturfing scandal.

    I’m in the process of trying — still waiting — get any sort of response from YouTube as to when and how (only then we can ask why) the 500,000 -ish comments on the main #Kony2012 video were deleted and blocked. Between 4 March and 13 March they all disappeared:

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  36. Ivan

    Hi Zeynep, thanks for the article, very interesting!
    I was wondering, do you have any links to sources? I’d be especially interested in symbolic action and its importance. I am currently writing a master thesis for my university on slacktivism and would really appreciate this.


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