Here’s a puzzle. A video calling for international action to capture Joseph Kony, a Ugandan guerilla who commands a couple hundred men and has killed 151 civilians during the past year, has been viewed by a whopping 76 million people on Youtube. Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — who boasts 600,000 men under arms, along with almost 5,000 battle tanks, and who often kills over 100 people a day, according to activists — generates exponentially less outrage.
The imbalance is particularly striking on Twitter. According to al-Jazeera social media head Riyaad Minty, the #Syria hashtag has been used around 6.6 million times over the last three months. By comparison, the #Kony hashtag has been used 11.5 million times — in the past seven days. Obviously, there’s something about Joseph Kony that pushes an audience’s buttons in a way that Syria fails to do.
I asked Minty why he thinks that is. He said that he wasn’t surprised by the disparity in the coverage between Syria and Joseph Kony: The uprising in Syria, after all, has been dragging on for a year, and the coverage — often captured in grainy YouTube clips or dry accounts of dozens of people slaughtered in an anonymous city — isn’t favorable for attracting a wider audience.
"Syria isn’t as personal, in terms of the narrative that is being presented," Minty said. "There’s a lot of death and destruction, but it just doesn’t have that personal connection for people."
The Kony video, by comparison, is just the opposite. It was professionally produced, told a straightforward story of victims and villains, and advanced a simple message: Stop Kony. "The way it was done — it was like a Hollywood production," said Minty. "It was very slick, it was targeted to a very specific audience, and it got people’s emotions up because you could connect with it."
That’s the formula for attracting the likes of Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga to your cause, and becoming the fastest-growing viral video of all time. Syria, where the debate over intervention often seems to be a choice between a series of flawed options and journalists in the country have reportedly been targeted by Assad’s forces, will have a hard time duplicating the Kony video’s success.
The bigger question is whether any of this Internet-based sturm und drang can be translated into real-world action. Minty found that, during the peak of global interest in the Kony video, only about 140 tweets came out of Uganda regarding the story, and that Ugandans wrote only about 2,000 comments on Facebook out of a pool of 5 million — a drop in the bucket compared to the deluge of comments coming from the United States and Europe.
Sure, many Syrians would love to see a viral video bringing international attention to the Assad regime’s atrocities. But it’s going to be the hard realities on the ground, and the decisions made by calculating men in foreign capitals — not YouTube — that determines the future of Syria.
Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at email@example.com.
Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.
A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.
Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C.| The Cable |
Gordon Lubold is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He is also the author of FP's Situation Report, an e-mailed newsletter that is blasted out to more than 70,000 national security and foreign affairs subscribers each morning that includes the top nat-sec news, breaking news, tidbits, nuggets and what he likes to call "candy." Before arriving at FP, he was a senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, where he wrote on national security and foreign policy. Prior to his arrival at USIP, he was a defense reporter for Politico, where he launched the popular Morning Defense early morning blog and tip-sheet. Prior to that, he was the Pentagon and national security correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, and before that he was the Pentagon correspondent for the Army Times chain of newspapers. He has covered conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries in South Asia, and has reported on military matters in sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and Latin America as well as at American military bases across the country. He has spoken frequently on the sometimes-contentious relationship between the military and the media as a guest on numerous panels. He also appears on radio and television, including on CNN, public radio's Diane Rehm and To the Point, and C-SPAN's Washington Journal. He lives in Alexandria with his wife and two children.| Situation Report |