Humor Is An Online Activist’s Best Defense Humor Is An Online Activist’s Best Defense

Humor Is An Online Activist’s Best Defense

by Mehan Jayasuriya

May 20, 2012

By March, the backlash to Invisible Children’s "Kony 2012" video, already the most viral piece of content in the history of the internet, was in full swing.

A number of think pieces had led the way, questioning the motives of so-called low-commitment ‘clicktivists’; the viability of assisting a military and government with a questionable human rights record of its own; and the value of capturing Joseph Kony, a man who by most accounts is greatly diminished in his power and almost surely no longer in Uganda. Jason Russell’s public breakdown a few days later eroded even more of the sympathy for Invisible Children and its mission.

Clearly, if the Kony 2012 campaign was to somehow maintain its considerable momentum, Invisible Children would have to abdicate the role of middle man.

Around this time, Josh Begley, James Borda and I were sitting in Clay Shirky’s “Political Uses of Social Media” class at New York University, attempting to unpack Kony 2012 as a piece of media, an online phenomenon, and an international activist campaign. James had a thought: “If this many people are willing to put up money just to raise awareness of Kony, why not use that money to hire Blackwater to capture him?”

As Professor Shirky told Wired, a hush fell over the room. Why not take the idea a step farther, I asked, and build a crowdfunding platform that would allow users to directly fund private militia intervention in military conflicts?

In order to answer that question, we decided to actually build Kickstriker, a satirical crowdfunding platform for military and intelligence missions. As we brainstormed, we thought about the unique form of privilege that invites Americans to intervene in conflicts overseas, the increasing privatization of warfare, and our own proclivity as technologists to buy into techno-utopianism—the belief that every problem can be solved through the creative application of technology.

Our primary goal was to raise these issues in a way that forced viewers to interrogate their own biases. We figured that dark humor would be a useful way to communicate these ideas to a group of people outside of our immediate circle.

Josh and I designed and built the Kickstriker website over the course of a week. We decided to mimic the visual language of the Kickstarter website as closely as possible, without using any of their actual code—Kickstarter had become so successful that by merely borrowing that site’s layout and aping its logo, we could effectively communicate the idea of crowdsourcing without having to explain it. This raised a number of legal questions, though, especially after we decided to skewer a few other organizations and private companies, including the Heritage Foundation, Invisible Children and Academi, the security contracting company that became notorious under its former name, Blackwater.

Before attending graduate school, I worked for a number of years as a digital rights activist, often informally advising artists on how to take advantage of “fair use,” a carve-out of copyright law that allows for the re-use of copyrighted material without permission from the rights holder.

We believed
our site stood a very good chance of being interpreted as fair use by a court because its purpose was to criticize and comment on those aforementioned organizations. We also knew that fair use had never stopped rights holders from filing takedown notices and sending out subpoenas simply to silence their critics. Almost certain that our site would receive a bogus takedown notice—a kind of legal bullying that forces a web host to remove the content in question—we worked to create a mirror of Kickstriker on servers operated by NYU.

We launched Kickstriker on the night of Thursday, May 3. We sent it to Professor Shirky first, and he immediately tweeted it to his 200,000 followers, netting us an audience immediately. We also sent the site to a few tech publications, hoping that one or two might see fit to shoot a link our way. That Friday, Spencer Ackerman at Wired published a feature on Kickstriker, pulling in a much larger audience.

Two weeks after launching, the site has been viewed by 14,000 people in 110 countries, and has been written about in at least four languages. It's even been endorsed by the likes of Arianna Huffington and science fiction author Bruce Sterling. While we’ve yet to see much discussion online about the implications that crowdfunding might have for military conflicts, we remain hopeful that Kickstriker will help encourage just such a conversation.   

Curiously, we’ve yet to receive a single takedown notice or even an informal nastygram from any of the organizations we targeted with our parody. At this point, the “they just haven’t seen it yet” explanation seems unlikely. Rather, it seems like something else is preventing these organizations from taking action.

A few weeks after our Kony 2012 discussion, Professor Shirky brought Andy Bichlbaum in to speak to our class. Bichlbaum is best known for his work in The Yes Men, a band of brand-jacking political pranksters about whom two documentary films have been made.

Following a string of performance art pieces in which the Yes Men successfully impersonated representatives from various organizations and companies in order to deliver pointed political critiques of their policies, Bichlbaum and his partners in crime founded Yes Labs in the hopes of providing an incubator for similar activities. When asked by a member of our class why the Yes Men had never been sued, Bichlbaum replied, “We’ve never been sued because suing people isn’t funny.”

Humor, in Bichlbaum’s view, provides a kind of shield when speaking truth to power—one that prevents the target of the joke from suppressing the critique, lest he or she appear to not possess a sense of humor. I’d like to think that Kickstriker benefited from this same principle, one that allows three graduate students to play a practical joke on some extremely powerful, if largely unfunny, institutions. 

Photo courtesy of Kickstriker

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Humor Is An Online Activist’s Best Defense