The internet has transformed the world into a ‘global village’, encouraging a kind of global consciousness, as messages from around the world pervade our digital world. With the most recent example of the Kony2012 video earlier this year and now the Free Pussy Riot movement, we have seen how in particular social media websites have played a particularly important role in promoting global awareness. However, in both these cases there seems to have been a dissipation of foreign interest and for most so called passionate bloggers, it has been a return to business as usual. This got me thinking, do viral global awareness campaigns really work? Or are they the product of a generation of ‘couch activists’ who are quick to get on a bandwagon, but do little to actually help a cause?
I feel as if we can draw a direct comparison between the Free Pussy Riot Movement and Kony 2012 campaign and their brilliant use of social media and online platforms to draw attention to human rights issues, as well as their inability to engage global audiences enough to take action.
On its release, there was such hope the Kony2012 video would spread it’s message to a much wider audience, using a medium which appealed to everybody in the western world in terms they could understand. Palmer, writer for the local news website Cool Perth Nights commented that “I felt as if this campaign was the next step in our exploration of what the internet is capable of, the logical progression of social media activism after the Occupy Movement…It felt like this campaign was an important point in the history of the Internet” [Cool Perth Nights, 2012].
But surely the next logical progression from awareness is action? And where are the makers of Kony 2012 now? Where are the public who were whipped up into such a frenzy over this video? Have they given the Ugandan people a second thought since the campain’s decline?
Similarly, feminist punk band ‘Pussy Riot’ was dominating the blogosphere for many weeks after their ‘punk protest’ in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral. Since its establishement in The group has become renownd for stageing brief performances in public places and then posting videos of these events to the internet.Their video reached a phenomenal 226 249 hits on youtube and has been viewed by citizens all around the globe.
Their ‘punk protest’ was seen by many bloggers as a courageous act of solidarity condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin for allowing basic rights such as gender equality and freedom of expression to come under threat. Many were demanding that the three jailed members be freed by Putin, claiming the charges of charges of ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’ were disproportionate to the offense, an act which most of the developed world has seen as a peaceful political protest.
Following the girls arrest in March, freepussyriot.org was created by a devoted international team advocating for the release of Maria Alekhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Ekaterina Samucevich. It was the platform which thousands of supporters from around the world could keep up to date with the latest news of the trial, post comments, watch videos and interact with other supporters around the world. The group even organised the ‘Global Day of solidarity for Pussy Riot’, a world-wide event which prompted supporters to take to the streets to protest against the girls imprisonment.
On this day, the group urged supporters to:
- Protest in front of Russian Embassy in your country
- Phone Russian Government
- Call press
- Wear your balaclavas & organize a gig
- Post on FB / Youtube / Twitter
- Send solidarity letters
[Free Pussy Riot.Org, 2012]
With all this support the girls were receiving around the world, there was such hope this would put enough pressure on the Russian courts to drop all charges, however in the end it had little baring on the judge’s ruling and on August 16th each of the girls were sentenced to a two year imprisonment in addition to the time already served since their arrest in March.
Initially we saw angry tweets and facebook posts condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin for allowing such basic human rights as freedom of speech and to political expression to be violated. However, since the announcement of the girls imprisonment, supporters outside Russia at least are nowhere to be seen.
Since the Kony 2012 video, there has been lots of cynicism directed towards the idea of global awareness internet campaigns and an article written by CNN guest reporter Olga Oliker expresses a similar cynasism whether the Free Pussy Riot Movement has entirely missed the point.
In her article ‘What Pussy Riot teches Us’ she expresses her concern that a lot of people, including celebrities have joined this movement with little thought to its deeper purpose. She says “Indeed, few Western musicians have taken the stage recently without making some gesture in support of Pussy Riot…But while Amnesty International has declared the three “prisoners of conscience,” Madonna got far more attention for their cause by displaying the group’s name on her back at a recent Moscow concert” [CNN World, 2012].
Oliker continued by saying: “In contrast, the broader opposition movement in Russia, reinvigorated during this past winter’s presidential election process and now under fire from the 100-day-old regime, has received dwindling press attention” [CNN World, 2012].
I think that Oliker makes a good point that many others have overlooked: that the mainstream press, celebirities and bloggers have all been very quick to jump on the bandwagon, however many have only identified with the superficial parts of this movement. Supporters have become very good at re-posting videos of celebrities endorsing the girls and sending tweets protesting against the girls unjust arrest, but have forgotten the deeper issue which the girls have been fighting for all along: Putin’s oppressive reign over Russia and denial of basic human rights such as freedom of speech. This is a reality that many Russians must face everyday, and this has been relatively forgotten by a majority of the West.
What many foreign supporters do not realise that since Putin was re-elected as president, a wider protest movement consisting of thousands of urban middle class Russians have taken to the streets to voice their frustration with a lack of representative, accountable government. Many of these protesters and activists have too been arrested and been intimidated to back down by the state. Oliker comments that ” The group’s foreign supporters, for their part, know little about Russia’s political and social context. The result was a focus in Russia and abroad on the women themselves and leniency towards them, not their message or that of the opposition as a whole” [CNN World].
However, unlike the Pussy Riot girls, the wider protest movement has failed to draw the interest of people around the world. With foreign interest in the Free Pussy Riot movement already dissipating, it seems the message of this global awareness campaign has been lost.
Oliker summarises this issue so well in her article: “The Pussy Riot phenomenon would seem to present an opportunity to draw more global attention to Russia’s opposition, help it develop a cohesive agenda, and perhaps channel foreign support toward efforts to make Russia as a whole freer. But this hasn’t happened…the Russian opposition as a whole has failed to capitalize on the attention these artists have received” [CNN World].
So what does Pussy Riot teach us? It indeed has shown us what is possible in an interconnected world. It shows us how successfully a protest movement can employ the internet to spread their message globally. However, it also teaches us the difficulties associated with raising the public’s interest on foreign issues to the point where they feel compelled to take action beyond the superficiality of a viral global awareness campaign. Ultimately both the Kony2012 and Free Pussy Riot movements are a strong reminders that protest movements need to re-think their viral campaign strategies how to better harness this powerful tool in the future.
Freepussyriot.org (Visit website here)
’On Kony 2012 and the Aftermath ‘, Cool Perth Nights (Read this article)
‘What Pussy Riot teaches Us’, CNN World (Read this article)