the powers of human rights advocacy (or, happy almost birthday, #kony2012)

It’s been almost one year since Invisible Children released its #Kony2012 video, which sparked both viral enthusiasm and visceral controversy. At the time, I published a critical perspective, which to my satisfaction was distributed widely and, for the most part, favorably. I spent much of the ensuing month assessing, reassessing, and revising my analysis, attempting to understand why #Kony2012 was both important and problematic, and what the campaign’s impact implied about the contemporary value of domestic mobilization around international human rights issues. Others asked similar questions; if their answers varied widely, I found the discussion fruitful.

I’ve learned a lot since #Kony2012’s release about defining success and failure in human rights advocacy, both experientially, through my work with STAND, and academically. Those who are familiar with my STAND work, which focuses on mobilizing domestic constituencies around atrocity prevention in U.S. foreign policy, know that I have a particular concept of the organization’s value, which despite similar origins differs widely from Invisible Children’s. In short, I see STAND’s contribution to the United States’ broader atrocity prevention community as a “leadership development” role, due to its small footprint, its student-led function, and its consciously limited access to DC’s policymaking community. This priority places a stronger emphasis on long-term capacity-building, and the creation of domestic “communities of practice” around atrocity prevention. In defining this role, I consciously omit factors that, as my colleagues have identified, are critical to domestic political mobilization: why people act, how individual activists see their role in a broader community, and what activists want to see from their actions. Where this concept has generated discursive enthusiasm among STAND’s leadership contingent, it’s received understandably limited traction within the organization’s grassroots constituency, likely for the reasons described above.

Over the course of the past year, I’ve also thought a lot about power: what it means to hold power, which types of power influence politics, and how these power structures impact organizational processes, preferences, and decision-making. As my previous post acknowledged, most of my power-related thinking has occurred in the context of my senior thesis, which examines “relational” power’s impact on mass atrocity response outcomes. Domestic human rights mobilization is tangential to this larger focus, due to the myriad of power forms that impact policy- and non-policy structures. At the same time, my post-#Kony2012 concern for advocacy impacts was indisputably formative in my analytic understanding of power–see, for example, my two-part series on whether (and how) “advocacy works.” Given my recent emphasis on relational power, as well as #Kony2012’s upcoming anniversary, I thought it might be worthwhile to riff empirical on #Kony2012, a positive case study in human rights advocacy’s power.

As I suggested in my initial post, #Kony2012’s case study applications emerged as a cross-section of the organizing and transnational advocacy literatures. #Kony2012 intentionally framed its advocacy as a “people power” movement, encouraging students, especially, to conduct targeted actions around specific, domestically-oriented asks: guerrilla flyering would “make Kony famous” among U.S. political constituencies, while Congressional actions–call-in days, lobbying efforts, a mass petition–would “build political will” for U.S. policy against the Lord’s Resistance Army. Invisible Children’s campaign actions, scheduled over the course of several months, varied intentionally in participation rates: not everyone who shared the Facebook video participated in the 20 April “day of action,” and not everyone who participated in the “day of action” joined MOVE DC, a part-lobby day, part-summit, part-dance party that convened in Washington, DC. This participatory variation, which organizers often refer to as a “ladder of engagement”, is an intentional organizing strategy: scaled campaigns acknowledge variations in social incentives, motives, and capacities for action, and often structure events and opportunities accordingly. The campaign’s purpose, as Marshall Ganz instructs, is the activation of different levels of social influence, which construct “people power” in particular ways. If singular actions produce individual results, the purpose of an aggregated campaign is the creation of intentional, escalating social change.

In addition to its “people power” role, #Kony2012 also functioned as a transnational advocacy movement: Invisible Children operates on-the-ground reconstruction, early warning, and development programs in northern Uganda, and its networks are often global, due in part to its prominent reliance on evangelical Christian communities as its organizing base. In the case of #Kony2012, transnational media networks–both “traditional” and “social”–also proved influential, as non-American constituencies, especially throughout the African diaspora, interacted with the campaign’s content, impacts, and digital platform. If hashtags are any indicator of norm diffusion–and they might be, if in an ephemeral sort of way–#Kony2012 took the cake: #StopKony, #Kony2012, and, adversarially, #StopIC were trending for days. Invisible Children proved uniquely effective at setting national, international, and transnational agendas, as well: the UN Security Council, the U.S. Congress, and “gatekeeper” human rights organizations (Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International) each brought #Kony2012 into public policy deliberations.

Invisible Children quickly raised these impacts to the fore, highlighting in a new video the campaign’s “people power” and policy outcomes. That #Kony2012 was influential is largely indisputable, but simply highlighting its positive consequences omits key factors in empirical analysis. How was #Kony2012 influential? Through which actors, and through which means? And, if we can use #Kony2012 as a qualitative case study, what is it about these institutions, communities, and structures that makes them especially susceptible to human rights organizations’ multi-pronged power?

As I highlighted in my previous post, Michael Barnett and Raymond Duvall’s analysis of power in international relations offers a compelling framework for understanding political influence. Barnett and Duvall discuss power as a relational, social phenomenon, which I adopt to mean “an actor’s ability to influence organizational processes, preferences, and decision-making through interactive means.” As a social phenomenon, power is multi-directional, which means it can have an impact on its target, the target’s respondent actor, or the respondent actor’s component members. Barnett and Duvall identify four forms of relational power, each of which interact with one another to shape change in their proximate and distant environments: compulsory power, which functions through an institution’s political “technologies”; institutional power, which functions by changing, creating, and defining an organization’s standard operating procedures, processes, and rules; structural power, which defines social hierarchies (who rules/is ruled, who leads/follows, who is included/excluded, and so on) through existing norms; and productive power, which constructs new norms and identities for social communities and organizations. If these four power types impact diverse social interactions, their implementation relies on the type of actor, the actor’s context, and the community of actors participating in social exchange. That is, human rights advocates’ application of Barnett and Duvall’s taxonomy looks very different, and functions through different mechanisms, than mass atrocity response efforts’, writ large.

In Invisible Children’s context, we can differentiate between target and respondent actors. Three subtypes, in particular, comprise Invisible Children’s respondent constituencies: “in-group” activists, who participate in the organization’s campaign; “out-group” activists, who oppose the organization’s campaign; and “elite” movement leaders (Ben Keesey, John Prendergast, Kenneth Roth, Michael Poffenberger, among others), who function as “gatekeepers” of policymaker access, expertise, and, for the purposes of our domestically-focused case study, legislative outreach. Obviously, we can further disaggregate these actor subtypes, as attempts to classify individuals carry inherent observational problems. For example, there’s a quantitative and qualitative difference between an “in-group” activist who posts a video on Facebook, and one who participates in a Congressional action. Under the logic of community organizing, however, grassroots actions are “effective” at an aggregated level–after all, the term is “people power,” rather than “person power.” Accordingly, while discrete categories may exist within “in-group” activist constituencies, as well as “out-group” activists and movement elites, these empirical categories are not entirely off-the-mark.

As for target actors, #Kony2012’s was singular: the U.S. government. In theory, we can subdivide this further: the campaign included both legislative and executive branch-oriented components, and actively devoted resources towards both target actors. All other target actors, however, were indirect, at least on a publicly observable level: Invisible Children devoted financial resources towards “catching” Kony, in keeping with its programmatic priorities, but those efforts were tangential, rather than central, to the advocacy campaign’s messaging, resources, and design. The UN, too, was a secondary, rather than primary actor: Invisible Children sought to influence UN Security Council priorities through U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, rather than through, say, the Togolese consulate. Accordingly, we can restrict our target analysis to the U.S. government’s executive branch–in particular, the National Security Council/Staff–and the legislative branch.

Over the next week, I will assess the influence of Barnett and Duvall’s power taxonomy on Invisible Children’s advocacy outcomes. While acknowledging the influence of pre-#Kony2012 outcomes on #Kony2012’s relational power, I will restrict my timeframe to post-video events, in keeping with Invisible Children’s public analysis of the campaign’s success. By success, I refer to a publicly apparent shift in the target actor’s processes, preferences, or decision-making. This is not to suggest a coercive model of power, as Robert Dahl implies, but merely to view change as the logical outcome of a “successful” human rights advocacy campaign. I will conclude my analysis with a fifth post, which highlights “lessons-learned” for domestic mobilization around international human rights issues.


* For various reasons, I confine my empirical analysis to matters domestic, and will refrain from comment on U.S. foreign policy actions towards the LRA. Additionally, as scholars, activists, and practitioners have critiqued the campaign’s factual, ethical, and discursive elements, this analysis also omits those subjects.

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