Rebels without a clue

As my work colleagues will no doubt happily confirm a number of issues this last week have managed to elicit responses from me that would be unprintable in any mainstream media.  Aside the usual frustrations of monotonous office life, I have found myself aggravated by the seemingly endless number of overnight activists who have suddenly popped up out of nowhere and found a cause célèbre hours after watching one piece of emotive propaganda.  Despite the majority having done no further research, millions of people have still felt the need to share their newly acquired moral compass and cause with the rest of the connected, mainly Western world – in the process clogging up my newsfeed with their tiresome and often fake words of support for a popular cause.  Or as American President Theodore Roosevelt once said, ‘jumping on the band wagon.’

I am of course referring to the viral video and subsequent internet phenomenon that is ‘Kony 2012.’  Produced by Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell, the Kony 2012 video and campaign has the explicit aim of stopping Joseph Kony – the real life villain of the film and leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).  Desperate for Uganda to adopt the biblical Ten Commandments as the constitution, the LRA under Joseph Kony are wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for various crimes against humanity; including being responsible for the kidnapping of an estimated 60’000 Ugandan children since 1985.  Used as child soldiers and sexual slaves, these children have been deprived of a childhood and forced to commit acts of murder, brutality and facial disfigurement against millions of ordinary Ugandans in pursuit of LRA objectives.

Before I start venting my frustrations and to avoid being lynched by an internet savvy and idealistic mob, I should probably make it clear that I am not against the very worthwhile aim of naming and shaming Joseph Kony.  By raising his profile and making him recognisable to millions Jason Russell has shone light on the dark and underreported world of Ugandan affairs.  This blog here briefly explains why ‘#stopKony’ is so powerful and potentially worthwhile.  However, this is where my support for the campaign ends.

Whilst the events in recent years in Uganda are impossible to defend and the LRA’s actions inexcusable, it is clear that the majority of people sharing ‘Kony 2012’ have done little or no further research since watching the very well written, directed and intentionally emotive 30 minute YouTube video.  Within hours, the world now suddenly has millions of armchair generals and Ugandan domestic and foreign policy ‘experts’ despite the video containing little factual information.  By simply sharing and watching one part of a link, many feel that they have done their bit towards making the world a better place.  Worryingly, many believe they are fully informed.

Blissfully unaware of other repressed people in the world and indeed Africa, many of these social media activists naively think that a successful social media campaign fought through a shady organisation and conflicting facts will enable Kony to be found and brought before the ICC.  Even more naively, some believe that the capture of Joseph Kony is the single key to unlocking the successful future of Uganda as an independent and stable country.  Sadly however, this is not the case.

Joseph Kony: Leader of the LRA, wanted by the ICC and responsible for countless atrocities committed in Eastern Africa

Formerly a British Protectorate, Uganda is a landlocked country in East Africa.  Bordered by Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda is a melting pot of different ethnic groups; none of which are sizeable enough to form a majority of the population.  Suffering from continued armed internal resistance, Uganda has been ruled by no fewer than 11 presidents since independence in 1962; the most recent being Yoweri Museveni who has held power uninterrupted since 1986.  Famed for bringing stability and economic growth to the dusty nation, Museveni has recently been criticised for harassing democratic opponents and lifting the Presidential term limit to enable him to remain in office indefinitely.  Add to this the fact that Joseph Kony and the LRA are rumoured to have fewer than 1000 members (not even in Uganda anymore), and it soon becomes clear that Uganda’s problems will not stop with the arrest, extradition and imprisonment of one man and his child army.

Simply sharing a video and a desire to remove Kony from the equation will not change any of these things.  Infact, all the attention that is currently being showered on Joseph Kony has enabled the problems with Museveni and the current Ugandan administration to be overlooked.  There is even evidence to suggest that it may even make the situation worse.  Whilst I have briefly mentioned Museveni ushering himself into a fourth Presidential term, it should also be noted that under Museveni Uganda has developed into one of the most corrupt countries on earth where social services are minimal and human rights abuses well documented.  Indeed, recently proposed legislation by Ugandan Member of Parliament David Bahati has called for homosexuality (already illegal and punishable by a prison sentence) to be met with either the death penalty or life imprisonment.

A recent groundswell of support for the Ugandan government may provide Museveni with additional funds, support and military hardware that is likely to only exacerbate civil rights abuses within the country.  Endorsed by major celebrities, the #stopKony campaign looks set to grow stronger despite concerns over the transparency and integrity of Invisible Children.  And already viral, the video is likely to top 100 million views within the next week.

Let’s hope that people start to see the bigger picture.


A leap of faith

The advent of social media and dominance of the internet since the millennium has transformed the way many people gather and view information.  The term ‘Google it’ has entered the Oxford Dictionary.  YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Google are household names for many as either a first port of call for breaking news or as an avenue for further research; these sites combined with dedicated blogging servers have enabled the internet to develop into a hotbed of truths and mistruths.

Whilst the benefits of social media and the internet to modern society cannot be overlooked, a recent study by the think-tank Demos has shown an alarming number of people to be almost completely reliant upon information gathered from the first page of search results on Google, shunning traditional trusted news and academic mediums.  In a modern society where the dominance of the internet is assured, this is a worrying trend and one that needs to be confronted early so as to avoid future problems in a more politically diverse and internet driven world.

During their research, Demos interviewed a large number of students from different backgrounds.  Disturbingly, they found that around 25% of students did not validate the information they found by cross-referencing it with other more reliable sources.  Additionally, around 30% of the students believed that if listed on Google, the search results must be true – often it was not realised that such a complex search engine operates merely on algorithms which do not and cannot separate truth from mistruth without significant human intervention.

This ignorance and laziness in accepting as gospel the first search result on Google and YouTube has given conspiracy theorists a new platform from which to preach their often hateful and harmful beliefs.  For example, if you were to type ‘9/11, what happened’ into Google then on the first page of the search results there are many links to opinions and conspiracy theories surrounding the events that day; factual websites are present but they need to be identified using prior knowledge of what constitutes a trustworthy source.  The same is also true if you were to search for information about the death of Osama Bin Laden or the recent summer riots in Britain, for instance.

The presence of opinions and unverified information on the internet has its place in modern society; that is not in doubt.  To avoid being hypocritical this blog itself should be regarded as opinion only and not treated with reverence – that privilege should be reserved for trustworthy and verified sources.  For many it is a basic democratic right to speak and think freely within reason and without fear of prosecution.  Without Twitter and other social media the ‘Arab Spring’ and attempts to spread democracy in far-flung corners of the globe would have been severely hampered.  Likewise, politicians would have to find different ways in which to easily interact with the electorate, and vice versa.

However, whilst no one can yet say for certain that we are not part of the alleged ‘New World Order,’ trusted news and academic sources such as the BBC, New York Times and Reuters amongst others should be the first port of call for many people when looking for information and their daily news fix.  Social media and the first search results on Google should be treated with suspicion and regarded as opinion – not fact – until otherwise verified.  Left unchecked and uncontested, these often extreme opinions only serve to draw in more radical followers and create further mistrust of the government and traditional news sources.  In short, the increased development and use of the internet should be welcomed into modern society, but used only with the responsibility it needs.

Phone hacking scandals and bribery accusations aside, Western media and academia has a proven track record of being factually accurate, reliable and generally responsible – their reputations alone should be able to deflect the type of criticism they draw from conspiracy theorists and mistrusting activists.  Any talk of Western media being in the pocket of politicians should be viewed with contempt.  Whilst there will always be a certain marriage of convenience between politicians and the media recent critical coverage of the phone hacking scandal, fraudulent MP expenses claims and Western foreign military interventions shows that the media is largely free and does seek out the truth.

The same cannot yet be said with any guarantees for social media and search engines.  And until it is, complete trust should not be placed in what is freely available on Twitter or what appears on the first page of Google.