Celebrity Activism: Helping or Harming?

Unless you were born in 2013 you’ve either watched or at least heard about the above video. In 2012 the American NGO Invisible Children produced a 30 minute movie calling everyone to “make Kony famous” in the hopes to eventually find and arrest him. Initially 20 celebrities including Angelina Jolie, Justin Bieber and Ellen Degeneres were recruited to use their voices in order to spread awareness of the initiative, and due to it’s widespread success many more joined the cause. The video spread motivation and inspiration; finally it seemed we could do something about the horrors of the world.

One share on Facebook and all was right with the world… except it wasn’t. What the video and cause failed to do was actually portray the complexity of the issue in Uganda, and even misrepresented facts on the issue. Not only this but it perpetuated this Western idea that awareness is what will ultimately solve the world’s problems. Jimenez (2013) writes:

“The tragedy behind these sorts of campaigns is that they are motivated by the belief that problems around the world remain unresolved due to the lack of international awareness of their existence or global commitment to resolve them. If only enough people knew and cared about a certain conflict or problem, the assumption goes, then the combined energy and support could be harnessed in order to trigger an immediate flood of solutions. “

This mindset, however is highly problematic. While awareness is important for raising funds, more complex solutions are essential in providing aid to developing countries.

The issue with a celebrity putting their name on a cause is that the reputation of said cause could rely on that of the celebrity. If the celebrity loses credibility or respect from the public, so too could their charity or cause. The founder of Invisible Children, Jason Russell, rose to celebrity status after the success of the Kony 2012 video. However after suffering from a psychotic breakdown and the resulting events of the below video (apologies for the source), many lost faith in the Kony cause. Russell was quoted saying:

“The thing that sucks the most is that it gives people an excuse not to do anything.

“People are like, ‘Didn’t that filmmaker take all the money and then go crazy naked in the street?’”

So while I’m not questioning the good intentions of celebrity activism, there certainly are some implications. It’s important to mention that Kony still hasn’t been captured, three years on, and there are still existing problems in Uganda. While celebrity-spread awareness may placate our “white saviour complex” for a couple of weeks, it may not be the most effective solution in providing aid.

Deibert, M 2012, ‘The Problem with Invisible Children’s “Kony 2012″‘, Huffington Post, 7 May, viewed 1 September 2015, <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-deibert/joseph-kony-2012-children_b_1327417.html?ir=Australia&gt;

Cole, G, Radley, B & Falisse J B 2015, ‘Who Really Benefits From Celebrity Activism’, Guardian, 10 July, viewed 1 September 2015, <http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/jul/10/celebrity-activism-africa-live-aid&gt;

Jimenez, A 2013, ‘Why Celebrity Activism Does More Harm Than Good’, Waging Nonviolence, July 29, viewed 1 September 2015, <http://wagingnonviolence.org/feature/why-celebrity-activism-does-more-harm-than-good/&gt;

Piotrowski, D 2014, ‘What ever happened to African warlord Joseph Kony?’, news.com.au, June 12, viewed 1 September 2015, <http://www.news.com.au/world/africa/what-ever-happened-to-african-warlord-joseph-kony/story-fnh81gzi-1226951404637&gt;

Invisible Children 2012, Kony 2012, online video, 5 March, YouTube, viewed 1 September 2015, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4MnpzG5Sqc&gt;

TMZ 2012, New Jason Russell Video — UP CLOSE Naked Meltdown — Kony 2012, online video, March 18, YouTube, viewed 1 September 2015, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TjdH2LDH5LM&gt;

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4 thoughts on “Celebrity Activism: Helping or Harming?

  1. “Finally it seemed we could do something about the horrors of the world”. I think this quote from your blog post really captures how social media and activism work together. Its interesting to think that its social media that ties concepts and motivation together. But is it all an illusion? Social media gives us the impression that its activism, that something is being done. But in reality, is anything more than some tweets, and some awareness being done? Great blog post and you really analysed it well.

  2. It’s interesting how you projected both the obvious benefits of the Kony video being spread viral online, but also the negative aspects and the issues of celebrity activism from social media. Like, it may spread awareness and create a huge frenzy, but it doesn’t mean that it actually does anything. It also questions where we actually start classifying something as being helpful or not. I think you did a great job in assessing the aftermath and the result from the spread of the viral video. Great work!

  3. I was waiting for someone to use the example of Kony to sum up the negative effects of online activism. I completely agree, social media is a difficult tool to gain success in activism campaigns if what you are seeking is actual change, rather than mere support. Because if people are given this information and not pressured directly to act upon it, nothing will come of these online campaigns except a hoard of likes and shares. Celebrity activism on the other hand I never thought of, and I agree comes with problems of its own. I think you reflected on the lecture content well and integrated a variety of excellent sources throughout to bring me and engaging and informative post. Well done.

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