March 16, 2012

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Social Media Organizing and Kony

by Adrian Arizmendi, s0rce  


The Kony 2012 organizing campaign recently went viral, and it's bringing to light a trend. This blog post does not seek to analyze the merits of capturing Kony, or the allegations of the misrepresentation of the current Uganda situation; instead, it's a comment about social media organizing, millennials and generational differences. In the past, organizing activist has been about sustained engagement, instilling a sense of empowerment through collective action, and they are almost always fueled by passion (regardless of political affiliation). Until now, these models worked, and they continue to work, but they are starting to look a bit different.

A few weeks ago a study came out by Pew Research Center about the implications of hyper-connectivity with the millennial generation. It claimed that millennials "will exhibit a thirst for instant gratification and quick fixes, a loss of patience, and a lack of deep-thinking ability due to what one referred to as 'fast-twitch wiring,'" to be fair to millennials, they also talked about positive qualities that millennials will develop as a result of hyper-connectivity. With that in mind, when the Kony video came out (and reached never before seen viral levels), it didn't seem unrealistic to expect internet users to forget the campaign within a few weeks. But the Kony campaign embedded a few things which will sustain engagement: dates in the future which will recapture audience's attention, and instill participants with a sense of empowerment for getting something done. These dates started to shine light on a new trend and consequently implications of the constant stream of online campaigns. See, millennials have a deficit of attention, so if a model is developed that engages them by taking advantage of that deficit of attention using the tools of that generation, social media and smart phones, it makes it easier to capture them in a way that hasn't been done before...and it's happening, it's leaderless and progressives more than anything appear to be its benefactors.

Overwhelmingly, young people not only use the Internet and social media at a significantly higher rate than older Americans, but they also use smart phone at higher rates. A study by the Pew Research Center also found that younger people are also more engaged with their smart phones, using apps heavily compared to Americans of an older generation. These applications not only keep them connected to their friends and relatives, but they also keep them informed of the news that is trending. Because of this intensified engagement, young people seem to be disproportionately at an advantage when it comes to new media organizing, and getting noticed. Following the viral Kony story, naysayers said that like Occupy, Kony supporters weren't going to accomplish anything even if they captured Kony, but that seems inaccurate. A day or two after Kony took off, Fox, MSNBC, and CNN all ran stories about Kony.

Pew: Smartphone Ownership within demographic groups 2011-2012
  May 2011 Feb 2012 Change
All Adutls 35% 46% +11*
18-24 49 67 +18*
25-34 58 71 +13*
35-44 44 54 +10*
45-54 28 44 +16*
55-64 22 31 +9*
65+ 11 13 +2

The noise created by social media will always have an impact on the kind of stuff covered by the news, especially if something garners millions of hits (millions of hits for them typically bigger ratings, so it's in their best interest to cover passion fueled viral stories).

These sort of stories covered by conventional media sources, especially when they are about political movements, end up fueling the movement by bringing it free advertisement -- if an impressionable person heard about Kony via a news channel and then saw it on a social network, they might be compelled to watch the Kony video, and without looking at all the facts give into something called "slacktivism." Slacktivist are a new breed of people who engage in political discussions via social media campaigns which include changing their social network profile pictures, posting links, or images which advertise the person's political position. Without much effort, the person can create noise encouraging others to engage as well. Even if the engagement means dissenting with the position, they are making the issue relevant by making an issue trend. Facebook's newsfeed algorithms group people when a certain topic is trending, and it informs users about a trending topic. Conventional news media picked up on it, and ran stories. Kony was being covered everywhere. Regardless of the issue, these slacktivists become instilled with a sense of empowerment, because collectively they have been able to get an issue to trend, to be legitimized by conventional media, and potentially lead to action.

Despite it's critics, slativist have been able to do a number of things: The fueled Occupy, they stopped SOPA/PIPA, they got Susan G. Kolmen to overturn their decision on funding planned parenthood, and they attempted to bring down  Young people overwhelming participated-- and they tend to be politically progressive, as yet another Pew Research Center points out. But this doesn't answer the question: how are young people going to remain engaged they have short attention spans? Simple: throw something new at them. From a liberal perspective, it make sense. It doesn't really matter what the issue is, if continuous passion filled winnable rallying cries are thrown through social networks, millennials will continue responding and making issues trend, even if they disagree because trending has nothing to do with agreeing or disagreeing with an issue. It's gotten to the point that Occupy, despite not having a clear "victory," has been able to infuse the political world with it's lexicon. Prior to this year's Republican Primary, it would be unheard of to hear conservatives attack conservatives because of their business background (like Romney was attacked for his work at Bain Capital), but it happened. Romney has also been portrayed as the money candidate by conservatives, including his opponents, and no one is questioning it.

It's clear, slacktivism is changing things. Unfortunately for conservatives, they aren't moving quickly enough to catch up with super engaged young people who tend to lean progressive. All progressives need to keep doing is throwing new passion filled topics at social media, conventional media will be forced to report it because it's good for business, which will promote it further. The single example I could come up with on the conservative end is the YouTube birth of the Tea Party during the Health Care Town Halls. They created a movement, but since about early 2011 they lacked further engagement -- even though no one is controlling the online movement on the left, it just keeps going and going with no end in sight.


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