Inspired by the Kony 2012 fad, a group of New York University grad students has set up the wartime version of Kickstarter, where random people can bankroll new weapons and new paramilitary missions. Among the offerings: an all-seeing drone armed with “a new kind of explosive” promising to cut down on civilian casualties, or a bus packed with a rolling “enhanced interrogation” center.
Just one thing, and it’s a spoiler alert: The site, Kickstriker, is an obvious hoax — one meant to get you thinking about how a world of crowdfunded warfare might not be so far away.
“Polemically, that’s really interesting,” says Clay Shirky, the NYU professor and internet theorist, out of whose communications tech class the idea was born, “but that’s actually a thing that could happen, given that there are these guns for hire. What would it take to create a crowdsourced hire of [mercenaries]?”
Kickstriker, a site only a few days old, bills itself as a way for average citizens “who care” to support the resolution of intractable wars. “Following the massive success of Invisible Children’s ‘Kony 2012′ campaign, we found ourselves excited about the potential that crowdsourcing held for addressing global conflicts,” reads its About page. “Disappointed” by the backlash to Kony 2012′s messianism, comfort with U.S. military intervention and disquieting racial undertones, the crew of three Shirky students sought to “cut out the middleman in online activism.”
While the site is “in beta,” it’s only got a few projects ready for funding. One of them is the “Panopticopter,” the brainchild of three MIT students, a “prototype drone that has more accurate image-capture and image-processing abilities than the current generation of drones being used by the U.S. military,” plus a special, experimental explosive more advanced than the Hellfire missiles armed drones currently tote.
Another is the “Mobile Black Site,” a transportable torture chamber: “With the click of a button, an operator can alter its temperature, noise level, darkness and/or humidity. The MBS also comes equipped with a 165-decibel sound system, capable of playing music and other sounds at unprecedented levels (for reference, just 158 decibels can cause intense nausea).”
Charming. But also, not real.
Check out the “MIT students” working on the drone project: “The three of us (Brandon McCartney, Natassia Zolot and Radric Davis) can spend the summer focusing on the Panopticopter.” That would be real names of the rappers Lil B, Kreayshawn and Gucci Mane. (While I have no doubt about Gucci’s engineering prowess, I certainly doubt his ability to stay out of jail for an entire summer; and he seems to prefer working with Kreay’s awful co-conspirator V-Nasty.)
And that Mobile Black Site? It’s supposedly pushed by the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, with partnership from longtime CIA cutout Tepper Aviation. (#eyeroll) Indeed, when you click through the donation tool, Kickstriker admits the hoax before the gullible open their wallets and its creators end up arrested for fraud.
So what’s the Kickstriker crew’s real goal here?
During one of Shirky’s classes in mid-March, a discussion broke out about Kony 2012. One of the site’s founders, James Borda, mused as a reductio ad absurdum about doing a Kickstarter campaign so Blackwater could get the cash to hunt war criminal Joseph Kony. “This hush fell over the room,” Shirky remembers.
“We laughed about it, but then we said this was an idea that’s just one step removed from reality,” says co-founder Mehan Jayasuriya, who put in the rappers’ government names “as a little Easter Egg” for fans. “It’s just believable enough that people might fall for it, or some percentage of people might actually think it’s a good idea, which would be horrifying.”
After the class was dismissed, Jayasuriya and his friends decided that the way to take the critique all the way would be to build a crowdsourcing platform. A parody site was born. “We thought it was such a ridiculous and dark idea that we couldn’t not build it,” he tells Danger Room. “Kony was our starting point — that kind of focus on what James calls the commodification of altruism. The new activism that puts the reader, the donor, the viewer at the center of the story.”
And by using hot-button issues that interest war nerds (drones, torture) and internet nerds (crowdsourcing! Kickstarter!) they thought they might “get people really excited about it, to the point where maybe they wouldn’t even really think about the really damaging, horrible implications of putting something like this out into the world.”
So far, they haven’t gotten angry emails from Heritage, let alone Gucci Mane’s camp. And some reporters (who I agreed not to name) have contacted Kickstriker, credulously, to discuss the project. It’s gone around on Twitter — particularly after Shirky, who wasn’t involved in the project itself, tweeted it Thursday night — but it’s too new to have reached critical mass.
“It was probably better that we did this as a joke,” Jayasuriya says, “rather than somebody launching something like this for real.”