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Kony 2012: Lessons for the Obama administration

Kony 2012: Lessons for the Obama administration

April 20th. That’s the day activists are urged to cover towns and cities with posters exposing the atrocities of African warlord and International Criminal Court fugitive Joseph Kony.

The predominately youth-driven movement, Invisible Children, hit the cyber world on March 5th. It spread like a marketer’s dream. In just two days, the Kony 2012 video garnered more than 43 million hits. Traditional mainstream media, including CNN, NBC, and the Washington Post continue covering it. Now at 100 million plus views and counting, it has spread to at least 204 countries and generated about 3.6 million commitments from those pledging to take action in local communities.

Regardless of your opinion on its message or depiction of on-the-ground circumstances, Kony 2012 is a case study in the reach and influence of social media. It has the attributes that evolving digital technologies can employ to connect, inform, organize and motivate. But it also provides valuable insight for President Obama and his administration on ways to advance liberty and support oppressed people around the world.

Social media doesn’t create ideas. Nor does it create political opposition in closed societies. But its ability to serve as an equalizer gives those in authoritarian countries one more avenue to hasten the changes they seek. U.S. leadership would go a long way in helping them realize those changes.

It’s no secret that fostering democracy and freedom isn’t high on the president’s agenda. Those ideals were not part of his 2009 inaugural speech. Secretary of State Clinton notably omitted democracy in her confirmation hearings, saying the three "Ds" of U.S. foreign policy were limited to defense, diplomacy, and development.

More recently, the Obama administration was largely absent in rhetoric or action on events ranging from the Arab Spring to the continuing Chinese crackdown on political dissent to widespread irregularities in Russia’s March presidential election. As the president has worked to distance himself from anything associated with his predecessor, opportunities have been lost to empower reformers in global hotspots.   

Today’s digital technologies can support democratic political movements in ways not seen before. Unlike communication methods and techniques of just a decade ago, social media makes it easy to connect, rally around a common cause, and empower people with what they need to collaborate.

If the Obama administration chooses to elevate liberty as a valued American export, Kony 2012 offers several guiding principles. Here are just a few.

First, the power of moral clarity. In his 2004 book, The Case for Democracy, Natan Sharansky dissects the chasm between free societies and fear societies. In articulating this "moral clarity," Sharansky, a former Soviet political prisoner who champions the universality of human rights, looks at the tendency over time of free peoples to lose sight of what divides freedom from fear, open from closed, and tolerant from oppressive. True to his analysis, many in today’s foreign policy apparatus, as well as many opinion leaders, have lost a collective grip on moral clarity.

Kony 2012 visualizes the face of evil on one side and those who suffer its consequences on the other. It’s a stark reminder of the fundamental freedoms and human dignity shared by all.

Understanding and embracing moral clarity — free versus fear — is a simple step. It’s easily regained, by this administration or a future one, in a world that desperately needs it.

Second, the power of a single idea. Kony 2012 isn’t burdened by diplomatic-speak, realpolitik, or convoluted posturing. It’s articulation of a straight-forward vision of what the future can and should be. Stop the brutality of Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa, in particular the abduction and abuse of children. It’s made straight-forward and personal with part of the story told through reaction of the narrator’s son, Gavin.

It brings to mind President Reagan’s signature call to rid the world of communism, which intellectual elites derided as naïve up until the day of the Soviet Union’s collapse and the Berlin Wall’s destruction.

The causes of Soviet communism’s fall fill lengthy textbooks. But activists and reformers in former authoritarian countries credit Reagan’s singular, repeated, and passionate articulation on the right of self-governance as inspiration. Imagine how social media could have accelerated the changes that eventually swept Central and Eastern Europe, just as they could elsewhere in the world today.

And, third, the power of a call to action.

Authoritarians fear social media because they can’t control the message. Given the opportunity to communicate and connect, activists and reformers wanting a better future for themselves and their country will call for change and how that change can be achieved, just as they did in 2011 in Tunisia, Syria and Egypt using Twitter, Facebook, and smartphones.

Kony 2012 told viewers exactly what they could do to help in three easy steps. More than 3.5 million signed up.

At a recent Washington conference, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio described the role the internet and social media could play "in empowering the Cuban people to reclaim their country from the Castro tyranny." He’s right.

Brian C. Keeter has provided communications assistance to democratic activists and observed elections in Central and Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. He served at the Department of Transportation in the Bush administration, and is currently director of public affairs at Auburn University.