From slacktivist to activist and where Kony 2012 went wrong

The first phase of Kony 2012 was a huge success. The second phase of the Kony 2012 campaign was a failure.

Invisible Children, the organisation behind the cause, had an initial objective to generate awareness of the evils of Joseph Kony. Invisible Children achieved this global awareness with the fastest growing viral video in history, reaching 70 million views within a week.

Regardless of the worldwide debate of the actual atrocities committed, such success spurned Invisible Children to think bigger, to take those 70 million plus viewers and turn them into activists. Their new aim became: “encourage a seemingly engaged audience willing to click “play” to watch up to 30 minutes of a documentary, to step away from the computer to become real world protesters”. The only problem is that clicking a mouse to play an online video is very different to actually getting a derriere off a chair and passionately believing in a cause. These people are slacktivists, passive and less engaged activists, something Malcolm Gladwell wrote about during the early social uprisings (Oct 4, 2010).

Social media is a low involvement medium

Malcolm Gladwell outlined that:

Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires.

Social media is built on weak ties where interactions on Twitter for example, can be with people you have never even met. Connections rely largely on topics over connections. Facebook on the other hand, is largely about staying connected with those people you wouldn’t normally stay in touch with, leading to the phenomena where users have 1,000+ friends. Where in the real world, no one would be able to maintain 1,000 relationships.

What does all that mean for Kony 2012?

Well yes, someone is more likely to watch a video from the comfort of their own surrounds and they are just as likely to pass the video on with the same amount of effort. The pass on effect, the amplification, within social media is high. That is the motivation to participate- to share for social kudos. But, unless there is bigger motivation to get bum off seat and take that participation in to the real world, that larger action won’t occur.

Successfully traversing online to offline

However, Gladwell’s article was well before Daphni Leef decided to take action within her own community. In July, 2011, this Israeli youth activist initially set up a Facebook page in protest when she could no longer afford the sky-high rents in Tel Aviv. She used the Facebook page to invite others to participate in a tent city, where she set up camp on Rothschild Boulevard. That one Facebook page became multiples with local derivations being created in other Israeli towns.

At the biggest day of protest, 1 person grew to a 300,000-person march with this tent city at its core (source). This is 5% of the total population where Tel Aviv is a population of only 400,000 people, indicating how widespread the country’s passion was for this cause. The protest was non violent unlike that of the London youth protests and used numerous social channels (The Activism blogroll and The Wisdom of the People portal) to coordinate people in an organised fashion and spread support physically across the country. The protests ended up morphing into numerous social issues that were plaguing the country across classes and cultures. The movement took further responsibility for their cause by issuing a list of demands to the Israeli Government, which in turn established the Trajtenberg Committee to review these demands.

Actions for success

So how is it that in one country a cause can use social media to grow one person’s frustration into a national movement and another cause can’t take 70 million video views into a global activist group?

If 5% of a population can become the voice of a cause, wouldn’t the same apply to 70 million video viewers?

Professor Fania Oz-Salzberger explains that in this case the social networks were the cement to bring the people together rather than just the vehicle to pass on links and content. This was also within a social and intimate culture that enabled strong connections to traverse between online and the real world. In this video (from the 17 minute mark) Oz-Salzberger explains certain initiatives and tactics which enabled the movement to successfully take the leap from online to real world:

  • Coordination of real world activity through centralised online networks;
  • Combining of real causes that have potential actionable solutions and where people are passionate about these causes;
  • Continuing education and discussion in real world environments for the sake of the cause; and
  • Strong cultural connections within a community that enable strangers to connect in real world scenarios

The connection between strangers in the Tent Protests differs from what Gladwell says are the requirements for successful protests,

…the Red Brigades, the Italian terrorist group of the nineteen-seventies, found that seventy per cent of recruits had at least one good friend already in the organization…Even revolutionary actions that look spontaneous… are, at core, strong-tie phenomena.

Gladwell infers that protests can only be successful if strong-tie connections exist, however the Tent Protests demonstrate that online weak-tie connections can grow into strong ones if the right coordination, passion and growth tactics are in place.

What Kony 2012 could have done

Kony 2012 could have used this information on two potential strategies:

  1. Aim low. Use the low motivational participation of these slacktivists, as Gladwell suggests, to an advantage by requesting minimal donations from everyone who watched the video to help the cause. It’s low involvement but more likely to yield action from this type of audience. The funds raised could help fund the action in option 2.
  2. Find the most engaged activists in core cities to coordinate groups on a more local level. Develop a structured program for these activists to engage and motivate locally to build into a movement based on strong-tie connections, in order to ensure greater chance of success.

Misreading social media consumers as an army of passionate loyalists who will stand up for brand or cause is a common mistake. Weak-tie connections are a part of social media and keep it alive. Knowing how to use those weak connections combined with understanding the differences between online and offline behaviours, is the key to motivating any individual to participate. Something which would have prevented Kony 2012 from being a failure.