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Facebook's viral activism is really good... for admen

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Open ... and Shut Normally I hang out on Facebook for casual conversation with friends and family. But not last night. Last night I settled down to browse Facebook to discover that Kony 2012 had overrun Facebook, turning it into a maelstrom of "Watch this now!" and subsequent feelings of having done something noble. One minute they were LOL'ing cat videos, and the next minute they were clicking their way to a speedy resolution to Uganda's problems.

It was bizarre, unsettling, and a stroke of genius on the part of the filmmakers.

By any measure, filmmaker Jason Russell hit the ball out of the park with his pseudo-documentary on Joseph Kony, a warlord in Uganda, which has now been watched over 11 million times and "Liked" many more. What he might not have done, however, is actually give his viewers accurate information and meaningful ways to resolve the problem.

But such is the problem with bumper sticker social activism.

There's little doubt that Kony is a very bad person, or that he has been involved in child slavery and other crimes against children and adults alike. However, this isn't exactly news, as he has been a well-known problem throughout eastern and central Africa for more than 20 years. Which is probably why the US has been involved in fighting Kony and his cronies for years, though that complicated story never hit Facebook.

What is news is that an American filmmaker has made it a cause celebre among the social-media set, with the intention to "make Kony as famous as George Clooney," so that the US will raid Uganda and "stop Kony" (which presumably is a call for state-sponsored assassination). As a social media exercise, it is brilliant. As an exercise in intelligent policy, it's not so brilliant.

First of all, many Ugandans themselves think this is bad policy, and likely to exacerbate the problem. Secondly, Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army left Uganda six years ago and are now depleted and scattered throughout remote regions.

It isn't clear how a US-led insurgency is going to fix the problem without serious casualties. Think Somalia.

Regardless of the policy implications, it's by no means clear that Invisible Children, the charity set up to make and promote the video and collect funds to stop Kony, is a good way to go about this. While it has a problem with reporting the truth, according to Foreign Affairs journal, it also has a problem with its finances.

In particular, the vast majority of funds collected won't actually go toward direct aid to the children of Uganda. A full 68 per cent of the organization's funds go toward staff salary, travel, and other such things. A paltry 32 per cent directly helps victims, just one reason the organisation's finances have come under intense critique.

Still, Invisible Children has done us a favour, right? I would guess that fewer than 1 per cent of those watching the Kony 2012 video had heard of him a week ago. So this awareness of the problem, even if not accurately told, is good, right?

Well, maybe. As The Atlantic writes: "By making [awareness] an end in and of itself, awareness stands in for, and maybe even displaces, specific solutions to these very complicated problems." Further, "we need to stop kidding ourselves that spending $30 plus shipping and handling for a Kony 2012 action kit makes us part of the solution to anything".

Ouch.

There are plenty of problems much closer to home, including poverty (rising), hate and extremist group proliferation, and other such matters. They don't come with a bracelet, and fixing them isn't as easy as clicking "share" on Facebook, but they're big problems, and we have much more power to impact these issues in our local communities than by posting a video to Facebook.

But perhaps that's the point. People want to help others. I personally believe this is in our DNA. But finding the time and means to meaningfully serve others can be very, very hard.

Hence, the push-button advocacy that Kony 2012 suggests may be just what the Western world wants: an easy way to feel like one is making a difference, even if the actual utility of the advocacy is questionable, and the group behind Kony 2012 is somewhat suspect.

For those who still want to solve Africa's problems but can't afford to be airdropped into the middle of a war zone, there are a number of highly credible organisations that operate in Uganda and throughout Africa that are likely more responsible choices for donations.

What is fascinating in all this is how fast it spread, and the demographic doing the spreading. I kept seeing it pop up on the Facebook pages of my 15-year-old daughter's (mostly female) friends, as well as my own 35- to 40-year-old female friends. Scanning the web for stories on the phenomenon, it appears to have been intentionally targeted at the 13- to 24-year-old female demographic.

For anyone pitching products to this demographic (which must surely include most advertisers), there are plenty of lessons to be taken from the Kony-2012 campaign. It will be interesting to see how other organisations - commercial and non-profit - use the Kony 2012 experience to raise brand awareness.

One lesson is that whether you're hawking deodorant like Old Spice or social awareness like Invisible Children, the content has to be good to go viral. Not necessarily true, but high quality.

Online advertisers may want to skip the dubious facts and policy prescriptions the Kony 2012 campaign promotes, but they would be foolish to overlook its impact with the young, female demographic and the general implications for advertising via social media. ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Nodeable, offering systems management for managing and analysing cloud-based data. He was formerly SVP of biz dev at HTML5 start-up Strobe and chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears three times a week on The Register.

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