This week, global attention has turned to wartime atrocities committed by Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony. This has been driven by a social media campaign launched by Invisible Children – in its first three days, the Kony2012 campaign’s YouTube video had been viewed over 40 million times.
While the campaign and particularly the video enjoy phenomenal global support, the organisation and campaign have been subjected to scrutiny and criticism. Critics point to the lack of transparency in Invisible Children, particularly with the proportion of funds passed on to the objects of their campaigns, vulnerable young people in Uganda. Others have pointed to the perpetuation of white colonosiation or saviourism, the focus on a single 'victim' (which itself raises concerns about casting affected people as 'victims').
Leaving these arguments to one side, this post focusses on the impact of the campaign, and the use of social media to engender social change.
Contemporary wisdom suggests that the internet supplements traditional methods of communication, rather than transforming or diminishing interaction. 
However, the #kony2012 campaign may signal a new and emerging impact of social media.
The role of social media in social change
Schipul and Keeney suggest that social media ‘can play the following important roles in any rapid change. Each is interrelated and amplifies the impact of the others’:
- Findability: ‘help[ing] us find people who have who have similar interests and experiences’;
- Education: ‘Perhaps the most profound contribution that social tools can make is to provide insight into the life experiences of others’;
- Exposure: ‘social technologies … can expose anyone interested to the energy, passion and outrage that people are experiencing on the ground … [and] speed everything up, making it difficult for existing power structures to anticipate and respond effectively to change’;
- Expansion: ‘Social technologies make it easy to send social objects to your friends who can pass it along’; and
- Virtuality: ‘Social technologies make it possible for leaders to effectively guide activities remotely’.
Jungherr suggests five uses of social networking service Twitter for political activists: spreading the word; social media campaigning; coordinating collective action; crowdsourcing; and personal security.
There is an emerging body of literature suggesting methods and tools for using Twitter (and other social network systems) that uses other concepts that essentially build on these themes.
However, it is important to note that most of this literature supports the use of Twitter,
and there are few commentators that are critical of Twitter as a ‘social change tool’. Notable critics include Evgeny Morozov
and Malcolm Gladwell, who has suggested ‘Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice’.
Gladwell goes on to say:
it is simply a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger. It shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability. It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo.
The impact of #kony2012
So how does the #kony2012 campaign reflect or challenge our current understanding of social media's role in changing the world?
Quite simply, it is too early to tell.
Others have argued that the campaign's goal, to capture Kony and bring him to trial is almost redundant, particularly given that the affected areas are no longer in immediate deanger from Kony-controlled forces.
However, the global explosion in awareness and engagement ('slacktivist' as it may be) is unprecedented. The campaign's global call to action that includes signing petitions and lobbying US lawmakers and influencers, donating to Invisible Children and a night of action on 20 April to raise awareness of Kony's crimes (and Invisible Children's work). Time will tell if the campaign is effective in achieving these goals and effecting the change it has envisioned, but certainly, its immediate scope and impact suggests that social media's role in activism and change is growing, and changing.
See eg Jessica Vitak, Paul Zube, Andrew Smock, Caleb Carr, Nicole Ellison and Cliff Lampe, ‘It's Complicated: Facebook Users' Political Participation in the 2008 Election’ (2011) 14(3) CyberPsychology, Behavior & Social Networking 107; Barry Wellman, Anabel Quan Hasse, James Witte and Keith Hampton, ‘Does the Internet increase, decrease, or supplement social capital?’ (2001) 45 American Behavioral Scientist 436; Keith Hampton and Barry Wellman ‘The not so global village of Netville’ in Barry Wellman and Caroline Haythornthwaite, eds. The Internet and everyday life (2002).
Ed Schipul and Daniel Keeney ‘War of words: Social media's role in provoking revolutionary change’ (2011) 18(4) Public Relations Tactics 10.
Andreas Jungherr, The Digiactive Guide to Twitter for Activism. http://www.digiactive.org/wp-content/uploads/digiactive_twitter_guide_v1-0.pdf
See generally Claire Diaz Ortiz, Twitter for Good: Change the World One Tweet at a Time (2011); Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith, The Dragonfly Effect: Quick, Effective, and Powerful Ways To Use Social Media to Drive Social Change (2010).
See generally Mark Pfeifle, ‘A Nobel Peace Prize for Twitter?’  Christian Science Monitor 9; Clay Shirky, ‘The Twitter Revolution: more than just a slogan’, Prospect (online), 6 January 2010; Diaz Ortiz, above n  See Evgeny Morozov, The net delusion: the dark side of internet freedom (2011); Evgeny Morozov, ‘Technology’s role in revolution: internet freedom and political oppression’ (2011) 45(4) Futurist 18. See further Jonathan Derbyshire, ‘Evgeny Morozov’ (2011) 140(5037) New Statesman 43.
Malcolm Gladwell, ‘Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted’, The New Yorker (online), 4 October 2010. See also Golnaz Esfandiari, ‘The Twitter Devolution’ Foreign Policy (online), 7 June 2010, who described the exaggerated role of Twitter in Iranian protests: ‘Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran … It's not that Twitter publicists of the Iranian protests haven't played a role in the events of the past year. They have. It's just not been the outsized role it's often been made out to be. And ultimately, that's been a terrible injustice to the Iranians who have made real, not remote or virtual, sacrifices in pursuit of justice.’