Mar 9, 2012

Send in the sock puppets: social media manipulation and Kony

The ease with which people have been manipulated by the Kony 2012 video will have governments and corporations excited.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

Unless you've managed, miraculously, to avoid the Kony 2012 video, you'll understand now why the US military is investing in technology to create fake online identities with the aim of influencing social media. At least one of the armies of the future is made up of sock puppets. Sock puppets aren't much good for hunting warlords, of course, but they can potentially be very effective at manipulating tens of thousands or, in this case, millions of people, to support sending in real troops -- supposedly even though Westerners are sick of failed military interventions. The Kony video is an amalgam of every manipulative social media cliché and cyber-utopian stereotype (ruthlessly nailed in the Kony drinking game): the white paternalism, the Hollywood stars, the tightly edited graphics and edgy images (graffiti! face masks!), the earnest narration, the message that social media can change the world, the solipsism that nothing is quite real until white middle-class Westerners know about it, all in the name of justifying unilateral US intervention in Uganda. Oh, which has a lot of oil, by the way, but we won't indulge some of the more lurid conspiracy theories circulating online. Nor dwell on the gratuitous errors and omissions that litter the video. It's not as if there hasn't been an inaccurate internet yarn before, going right back to the days of the Neiman-Marcus cookie story. But the beauty is that now there can be a seamless transition from social to mainstream media. The latter now only take a day or two to catch up with what's happening online. Thus Ten ran the full video and The Project extensively, and nearly entirely uncritically, discussed it, bringing the professionally annoying Todd Sampson on to analyse it. Even when the campaign's many problematic aspects were exposed, it did little to dampen the enthusiasm of some. Fairfax blogger Sam De Brito, whose normal beat is the frustrations of having a p-nis, embraced the campaign enthusiastically, under the line "the greatest idea of our generation". Strangely, that line has since vanished from De Brito's piece as the dodgy claims and record of the group concerned, Invisible Children, came under scrutiny. De Brito was having none of it, claiming he'd never been more disgusted than about the cynicism about the campaign. "Now you know who Kony is. What is that worth?" he frothed. Well, not much. The Kony campaign is an internet meme. It'll be replaced by another meme next week, even among those who bought the wristband -- there will, after all, always be another wristband. It's only a meme because there's no organic, real-world substance to it. This isn't a campaign driven by the people of East Africa -- relentlessly infantilised in the video -- but by white Westerners high-fiving each other online about their social conscience in a giant round of moral masturb-tion. There's no communication between Westerners perched over their keyboards (or, worse yet, reclining on their sofas) and those people who've been exposed to this conflict since the 1980s. Ugandans and internet users from other African countries quickly came online to respond to the video, but chances are 99% of the however many tens of millions of people who watched the video won't bother seeking out the views of people who actually live there. That's a click too far. Compare the social media engagement in the Arab Spring, which saw protesters in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries using social media tools to organise and communicate with each other and their own communities, with the level of online engagement with the protests inside each country and within the region growing as the protests developed, but also enabling Western social media users to view first hand what was happening on the ground. The Kony campaign doesn't purport to resemble the Arab Spring, of course, but it is a compilation of every criticism levelled at "cyberutopians" in relation to the Arab Spring. Nonetheless, the sheer speed with which the cause was taken up unthinkingly by so many people must have companies and governments excited. The ease with which people can be manipulated isn't a reflection on the internet -- people have always been easy to manipulate. But the interconnectedness provided by social media facilitates manipulation like it facilitates any other form of propaganda or communication of any kind. That's why, within moments of the video appearing, there was fact-checking, analysis and criticism of it available online for those interested. But unlike the video, the scepticism wasn't viral. The internet allows you now manipulate on a larger scale, and more quickly, particularly if you give people some agency in their dissemination of your propaganda. Thus the interest of the military-industrial complex in social media as a tool of manipulation (not aimed at US citizens, the US Central Command assured the press at the time, because as we know cyberspace rigorously adheres to national borders). Imagine the Israeli government preparing a slick video about the savage treatment of women activists in Iran and seeding it online in the hope that it goes viral, lifting the pressure on the US government for an attack. The problem for would-be military manipulators of course is that next week the rage will be replaced by something else -- fawning over baby sloths, laughing at classic movies subtitled for African-Americans (so hilarious, right?), the next Rebecca Black. Keeping people emotionally aroused is the problem. One to which the finest military and intelligence minds are likely devoting considerable attention. Remember that oil in Uganda.

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26 thoughts on “Send in the sock puppets: social media manipulation and Kony

  1. Robert Barwick

    “Imagine the Israeli government preparing a slick video about the savage treatment of women activists in Iran and seeding it online in the hope that it goes viral, lifting the pressure on the US government for an attack.”

    A campaign of that type happened in 2001, when an on-line petition was circulated globally, promoted by Readers Digest and others, about the terrible treatment of women in Afghanistan by the Taliban. The petition was circulated before 9/11, and very conveniently helped lay the groundwork for the public to accept the morality of the ensuing, and still ongoing, war.

  2. LunaticWaffle

    This article is superficial analysis and intellectual snobbery at its finest. The institutional left lament inactivity in the general populace then try to rip it down whenever it emerges. This article is replete with all the typical criticisms of post colonialism and the horrors of people taking guidance without left wing academics proposing the solution first. The only disingenuous campaign I almost fell for yesterday was the one perpetrated by critics of the movement.

  3. Pete from Sydney

    “The ease with which people can be manipulated isn’t a reflection on the internet ”…maybe it is…back in the old days facts were mostly checked before they ran, not after….PS why is this story related to the ‘ more managers go in news limited rationalisation’ story at the bottom?

  4. mikeb

    Bernard has managed to link some thin-lipped vitriol with conspiracy theories about accessing Ugandan oil. Amazing. In not “indulging” in these theories he manages to mention it twice – including in the last sentence. Bravo Bernard. Now that’s real investigative reporting. Now I haven’t seen the Kony video but suspect that a fair portion of it is accuracte. So what exactly is wrong with people trying to make Ugandan lives better? So what if 99.99% of the video viewers will do nothing about it but talk a lot. Some people who might be able to make a difference could be encouraged to action of some sort & if that happens then I’d say the campaign is a success. You Bernard may well have a sanctimonious smirk at white Westerners with short spans of attention, but what exactly has been your contribution to the issue apart from pouring scorn?
    ” ‘Now you know who Kony is. What is that worth?’ he frothed”. Indeed.

  5. ian milliss

    Bernard, it won’t be the end of civilisation. All that will happen is that youtube view numbers will be regarded with the same contempt as online polls. Manipulators and gullible fools will wave the numbers around and then sensible people will laugh at them. It has always been thus.

  6. Coaltopia

    King Leopold’s Ghost still haunts the region. #StopKonyalism

  7. mPrime3

    What Invisible Children has done as a campaign is incredible, and great that at the very least it has bought an unrecognized major war criminal into the limelight. The worldwide buzz about the film has taken off, and of course there will be the cynics and the naysayers, some with rival agendas, some armed with ‘facts’ and some who are far more informed than Invisible Children’s US people, which is mostly made up of Film School Graduates and Media/Tour Support staff (only 3/42 have any qualification in Politics and International Relations).

    Their website concerns me as well, designed as one long page and encourages action before knowledge:
    Sign e-petition
    watch and share propaganda
    message celebs
    message pollys
    finally READ about Kony and IC (with side notes to purchase “merch”)
    and if you make it that far without being caught up in the storm, then there is a link to the actual organisation’s page. The transparency doesn’t link the media and branding to the charity, which brings out the skeptic in me.

    The video in itself doesn’t really delve into the Ugandan problems beyond their poster boy Jacob, more camera time is spent with the CEO’s son. It mostly highlights the enormity of their global multimedia campaign and reinforces their position of making Kony bigger than Hitler and Bin Laden.

    The scariest part is the ‘Slacktivism’ movement, the viral activation of mainstream guilt which can be quickly turned into a ‘voice’ where the original message of the cause is lost due to the constant barrage of narcissism and peer pressure (not saying it’s everyone, but don’t tell me it’s not out there). Beyond that, the ‘social’ events they are planning “Cover the Night” have a potential (POTENTIAL) to become global scale London riots.

    I’m not saying Invisible Children are inherently bad for the world and don’t deserve support, but, before you donate, take a little more time to process another side of the story, find other facts away from blogs and exploitative journalism. Start the DEBATE, without continued interest in the Kony matter, he and others may be active for another 30 years.

    It’s ok to be skeptical as long as you follow through.

  8. Advokato

    I’m getting a bit tired of the old ‘White Man’s Burden’ crap being thrown around by bloggers (and in this case Bernard). How do you produce money to help people in a foreign country? You advocate by making videos and writing submissions to governments and talking about the problems and mobilising people who otherwise would have no interest in the issue and wouldn’t devote time or money to the cause.

    Charities COULD tell people the truth – that the issues are complicated, that there’s no simple way to solve problems, that much of the long-term efforts need to be owned by locals – but by doing that you lose a lot of the money that can assist these ventures, and then the people facing these problems are more-or-less on their own, ignored by the international community. But apparently that’s okay since it’s ‘white paternalism’ that’s the problem, not the recruitment of child soldiers or rape as a weapon of war or poverty or corruption or ethnic and religious clashes…

  9. klewso

    I thought a “Kony(?)” was someone who smoked ’em, or a rabbit, or even an island – till I read this.

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