Daily Archives: November 17, 2011

Publicizing Complexity: Methods of Communicating a Multifaceted Conflict

A cause as complex as conflict minerals in the Congo requires many types of action, from both activists and governments, in order to create stability and peace. Institutions and individuals alike are being faced with the challenge of how to best communicate such a multifaceted matter.

In an era in which there are seemingly unlimited resources available on the Internet, it is easy to become overwhelmed by such an influx of stimuli. It is easy to feel that no matter how much you read there is always more information available. Therefore, it is important for those individuals who publish articles, photos, or videos on the web to present a clear and concise message that is all the while comprehensive and detailed.

This need for balance is one that environmental and human rights activists face everyday. How can one article, one video, or one photo both capture a reader’s attention as well as keep him or her engaged?

This question is one worth exploring, for the effectiveness of an advertising or marketing campaign can determine whether that cause gains advocates or creates critics instead. The Los Angeles-based human rights organization Jewish World Watch has a unique approach that is effectively parceled into three different areas: education, advocacy, and refugee relief. Their Activism Certification and Training (ACT) program for high school students helps develop activism on high school campuses by focusing on these areas one at a time. By doing so, students understand the importance of each distinct area, as well as the important chronology of these three components; you cannot advocate for a cause without being educated on the matter first, and you cannot raise funds for refugees—or for any others in need—without first advocating for why someone ought to support the cause.

This three-pronged approach, however, can get lost when trying to communicate with the general public outside of a formal program like the ACT program. Thus we return to the above question: how can one article, one video, or one photo both capture a reader’s attention and keep him or her engaged?

Richard Downie, Deputy Director and Fellow of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C. proposed in an interview that the best approach is to “do your best to come out with [a] clear, concise balance…having maximum impact while also protecting the truth of what is actually happening and making sure you are not misleading people.” CSIS a non-profit organization that “provides strategic insights and bipartisan policy solutions to decision makers in government, international institutions, the private sector, and civil society.”

A "mashup" of images an individual made "after reading about the Conflict Minerals used by Nokia, Apple, Intel and many others. Which feeds the current conflict in the Congo and makes use of gang rape as a weapon in this conflict." Photo and Caption Courtesy of Daniel Crompton / Flickr Creative Commons

While Downie’s approach appears to be ideal, unfortunately it is often not utilized. For example, one tactic that counters this evenhanded and comprehensive approach is to use extremes to catch attentions. The photo to the right, for example, was created by an individual on Flickr—“almost certainly the best online photo management and sharing application in the world.” This creation combines a violent image of a rape surrounded by the Nokia logo and slogan, thereby seeking to directly connect Nokia’s purchase of conflict minerals to the rapes occurring in the Congo. The use of such a violent image produces a strong and direct message: Nokia products cause rape. As discussed in previous blog posts, such a message is certainly an exaggeration of the truth. Downie commented on polarizing advertising that uses this message saying, “Making a direct link between making phone calls on your mobile phone and impacting the conflict is a gross oversimplification.”

Because the image above portrays such a one-sided point of view, if that is the first exposure a viewer has to the topic of conflict minerals in the DRC, that individual will likely form an immediate opinion. This is unfortunate because it is misleading and does not convey the full picture. This photo does not address the fact that Nokia has taken a certain degree of initiative, as early as 2001, to try and prevent their funds from landing in the hands of ruthless militiamen in eastern Congo. It is often true that people or organizations have particular agendas they are trying accomplish. It ought to be recognized, however, that in the case of human rights campaigns, it is much more effective to keep each party involved—even the industry or entities that need improvement—so that each one can work effectively together to find a solution.

The Enough Project takes a less dramatic approach in its media. Even though the organization has also taken the approach of victimizing electronics companies, Enough Project also proposes tangible methods to try and remedy this situation. One way in which it does so is through the video below called, “I’m a Mac … and I’ve Got a Dirty Secret”—which imitates the style of the Mac commercials that sought to prove their computers were more user friendly and entertainment-focused than PCs. The video not only points out what it believes is the harmful actions committed by electronics companies that purchase minerals from conflict mines, it also asks consumers to take action by demanding electronics companies clean up their mineral supply chains.

Joel Pruce, Lecturer in International Human Rights at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at University of Denver, commented in an interview on this type of approach used in the above Enough Project video. He explains that “the strategy is to [leverage] power of average citizens when it comes to buying power…” of electronics.  He acknowledges the effectiveness of such advertising; it first captures the viewer’s attention first because of the human rights abuses it describes and then because it provides tangible action steps for consumers to take.

A New York Times audio slideshow called “A Scramble for Tin in Congo,” seen here, contains images captured by Johan Spanner and narration by Lydia Polgreen. Its approach is to be very thorough in communicating what is involved locally in Congo in the conflict minerals trade; rather than incorporate an advocacy message, it focuses on educating by providing raw facts. It documents the full process of first reaching the mines from main roads, then extracting the minerals, and finally exporting them. It does not provide the viewer or electronics consumer with concrete actions to take as a result of this provided information. However, it seeks to honestly portray the situation on the ground in the Congo. While—like in any form of communication—there could certainly be some distortion of truth, the photo evidence provided seems to bring the audio slideshow greater legitimacy.

One step beyond this video in the direction of full disclosure of the conflict is an investigative report by CBS’s 60 Minutes, seen here. It provides historical analysis, documents activism of organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Enough Project, contains firsthand interview evidence, and even goes so far as to expose the Congolese government’s involvement in actually fueling the violence. While this video serves as an educational tool and does not suggest a specific course of action for the consumer, it does convey that the above two organizations are acting and involved in the cause. Therefore, if inspired to take action after watching this report, viewers and consumers could certainly become involved with one of these two organizations.

Even as seen in the few media examples provided above, there is a wide range of methods for exposing environmental and human exploitation. Advertising and communication tactics can be polarizing, can call people to action, or can be purely educational. While in depth, historical documentation is preferred for the sake of accuracy, advocacy groups and media outlets still face the challenge of how to capture attentions quickly—since there is not often the opportunity to produce a thirteen-minutes video to fully explain a conflict, as does the 60 Minutes video—without doing so in an entirely shocking or polarizing manner. How can one article, one video, or one photo both capture a reader’s attention as well as keep him or her engaged? Unfortunately, the fact of the matter is that one source might not—and so often does not—portray an entirely evenhanded and comprehensive view of the conflict minerals conflict. It is important for each person to carry out his or her own due diligence; read or view multiple sources in order to determine the truth of the matter, as well as what tangible actions can truly make a positive impact on the cause at hand.