- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
Here’s a puzzle. A video calling for international action to capture Joseph Kony, a Ugandan guerrilla 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.