American Advocacy in the Information Age

By Emily Best

Recently, two stories of American advocacy have been making the news, but not in the way their PR teams would have wanted. PBS’ This American Life (TAL) programme retracted contributor Mike Daisey’s story on Apple’s FoxConn factory in China due to exaggerations uncovered in his report, and Invisible Children’s (IC) Kony 2012 media blitz was derailed by criticism of the group’s methods and the arrest of its most visible figure, Jason Russell. These stories captivated American audiences because of the parties involved, but subsequent coverage has focused heavily on the scandals. This has overshadowed the issues at the heart of these stories, and detracts from a larger discussion of modern American advocacy.

The fact that Daisey’s story was about Apple was what made it sensational, partially because the media love Apple and because many Apple users fancy themselves global citizens who would never want to profit from unfair labour standards. In many factories in developing countries, and especially in China, there are working conditions that would be horrific to Americans, and when the FoxConn story was sweeping the news in January/February, there was talk of boycotting Apple. But most high-end electronics are made in China (using conflict minerals from the Congo) because the supply chains are there — it is actually not about labour, or even cost. It is about efficiency of production.

That is not to say there are not solvable problems at these factories. There are definitely avoidable tragedies, like the build-up of aluminium dust leading to explosions and rampant employee suicides. But then there are what Americans consider tragedies, like employees working too much. But on some level, this is a manufactured problem. On the TAL retraction show, The New York Times’ Charles Duhigg explained that part of the problem with the overtime issue is that people WANT to work a lot - they are at those factories for a reason: to make money to send home to their families. The Bloomberg Tech Blog writes that the “biggest gripe” they found visiting workers at FoxConn was that “they do not get enough overtime”.

The problem here is something that Evan Osnos in the New Yorker writes about in his blog post on this topic, Mike Daisey's Mistakes in China. Osnos makes an interesting point about modern communications: “Daisey’s fiction was predicated on the notion that China is essentially unknowable, that reporters never go to factory gates, that highways exit to nowhere. And he might have gotten away with it twenty years ago. But these days, it is no longer so far away at all”.

This is where the story starts to segue into the Kony 2012 story, but not because of Jason Russell’s recent arrest. What these two stories have in common above everything else is that they are about "others" upon whom "our" actions will have a "result". We used to be able to think about these "others" as completely unknowable, as different, as voiceless. How can we know those people across the ocean who look different and speak in different languages? But now, with the Internet, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, we can know these "others", and they can know us.

These stories have spurred a lot of discussion about the value of advocacy — what does it accomplish to have thousands and thousands of people viewing a video and buying bracelets, as in the case of Kony 2012, or, in the case of Daisey and Apple, seeing a semi-fictionalized theatre show? One major criticism concerns the White Man's Burden argument: that Americans, especially young Americans, feel that they are going to swoop in and save these helpless people. But that misses the point. They are the ones buying iPhones filled with conflict minerals and made by labourers they never see. Why should not they care about these things?

Part of the reason Kony 2012 was so terribly panned by many in the development world was the lack of Ugandan voices in the video. It removed the agency from the Ugandan communities that suffered the terror. We never heard what they wanted, and when some Ugandans were shown the video, they were not happy. Invisible Children was doing the exact same thing as Daisey: assuming that Uganda was so unknowable, exotic and unverifiable, that the easy falsehoods and exaggerations in the video would never be noticed.

Felix Salmon, a blogger at Reuters, compares the two issues, but in a slightly different way: “One of the reasons why Daisey’s show has proved so popular … is that it combined great storytelling with a feeling that this is happening now and we should do something about it. It is exactly the same formula used by Kony 2012”. But his point is not actually that damaging. There is nothing wrong, per se, in raising awareness of a problem, and combining "great storytelling" with a feeling of urgency. The biggest problem here is that human rights advocates can no longer pretend that whatever they say about what is "happening" to "others" will not get back to those “others”, and that they might have something to say about it.


Emily Best holds an MA in Global Environmental Policy from American University and a BA in English from the University of Pittsburgh. She is currently completing a year working in community development in northern Senegal. Her research interests include food security, environmental sustainability, and the intersection of communications and development.


4 April 2012