Intellectual laziness and the politics of cool

In 2012, Jason Russell, founder of the Invisible Children organization, made a video. Within a few days, it was viewed over a 100 million times on YouTube and shared 11 million times on Facebook. It took a 30-minute video to get people who usually fill my newsfeed with cat videos, funny memes and selfies, to be all over the subject of child soldiers in Uganda. For the next month, #Kony2012 was everywhere.

#Kony2012 was ‘hot’. Convinced that they were doing a good deed and horrified by the crimes committed by Joseph Kony such as child kidnapping and conscription, as shown in the video, people shared the 30-minute piece that called to put pressure on politicians to act and support the sending of US military troops to Uganda. Without any further background information on this topic they clicked and shared to sell this message. 

Besides being labeled as one of the most viral videos ever, the film sparked controversy beyond the surface. The organization was accused of grossly oversimplifying a rather complicated conflict that has been going on for decades. Critics claimed that they were not providing any historical background and engaging in ‘slacktivism’, a term used to describe the support of an issue or social cause that is more focused on the ego of the contributor than actually having practical effects. The call to make Joseph Kony famous to be able to raise support for US military intervention, to capture this one guy as the solution of the battle against the LRA, Kony’s rebel group, was perceived by some as a naïve narrative. As Ugandan journalist Rosebell Kagumire stated: “the war is much more complex than one man called Joseph Kony.”

Invisible Children, the organization behind the video, responded to some of the criticism with a second video where the organization tried to explain more in depth about their purpose, their achievements so far and their organization in general. Unfortunately for the organization this video did not go viral; it barely got to 3 million views as the Kony craze had already passed by for most part. As of today, 2015, Kony is still not captured and the campaign’s former proponents have long since moved on.

The #Kony2012 fiasco was an example of the ‘politics of cool’ that are ruling social media today, a trend that has the tendency to turn every serious matter into a hashtag. A trend where political-fashionistas are changing their cause on a daily basis, subjected to the trending topic, never returning and never examining the issue beyond the surface. A trend where political ideas have become a part of a ‘style’ that goes along with flawless selfies and quinoa bowls on Instagram. A trend where Selena Gomez tweets about Gaza.

In the past year we have experienced several outcries similar to #Kony2012 on social media. From #jesuischarlie to #jesuisahmed to #cecilthelion to #monsanto to the #syriancivilwar all the way to #ferguson, the political-fashionista covers it all.

Many of these topics are sensitive and complicated and require debate rather than emotional outcries and hysteria that regularly turn out not to be based on facts. The other side of the story in some of these cases was not widely disseminated. The side where the death of Michael Brown turned out not to be a clear cut act of racism (#handsupdontshoot #ferguson), where trophy hunting turned out, besides being in incredibly bad taste, to be one of the main contributors to conservation of wildlife (#cecilthelion). And last week’s viral craze where the Palestinian boy turned out not to be executed and not to be innocent (#ahmedmansrahexecution).

But at that point the hashtag has already gone viral, the sharp tweet has been sent, and the friends agreed and ‘liked’ the emotional outcry on Facebook. The narrative that won is the one that spread the quickest, the one where people were able to put themselves in a position of holding some kind of moral high ground. In each of these instances, rather than actually wanting to make a contribution or find a solution, people used a political news story and the accompanying outrage to brand themselves as the caring, righteous ones. Within ‘the politics of cool’ investigation and the seeking out of counterarguments, a core piece of critical thinking that might spark the right kind of debate is not encouraged, and the tendency to do so is likely to be labeled as ‘unfashionable’.

The ones that get into every hashtag craze might think that they are showing that they care, but they are merely showing that they are intellectually lazy. People should not spread information that calls for military intervention in Uganda because a video tells them to, when it is unlikely that they would be able to point Uganda out on a map. People should not get into the #freegaza thing when they have never cared to open a book about the region. People should not use the death of toddler to show off their ‘righteousness’ and call for open borders while they are clueless about the effects that might have and whether open borders is even a long-term solution. The same goes for the other side of the political spectrum that locks the gate before even considering helping others, driven by xenophobia.

Social media and hashtags have the ability to be very useful to spread information and awareness when, for instance, a person has gone missing. But political views should not become part of a popularity contest on Facebook. Well argued opinions are not something that you can buy along with a pair of 90s boots at Urban Outfitters. Gaza cannot be simplified into a hashtag and neither can child soldiers in Africa. Doing so can be damaging because it causes ignorance and hysteria to spread. Emotions and branding are not likely to bring out the best solutions for complicated issues. Not how we wish to brand ourselves, but proper arguments should be at the center of every debate. And most importantly, our actions should be based upon being informed on every side, choosing rationality over hysteria and emotions. 

About the Author
Kitty Herweijer is a Dutch writer holding a bachelor degree in political science. She has lived in Israel, interning at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and is currently pursuing her graduate degree in Middle-Eastern studies at the University of Amsterdam.