Why Kony 2012 Brought Out the Cyber-Skeptic in Me

I spend most of my time on this blog defending digital activism, but when I heard about the Kony 2012 video, even before I watched it, I decided toexpress my opinion by posting this picture on my Facebook page:

After posting it I was immediately shocked at my self. The message in the image was exactly the kind of snide digital-doesn’t-matter nay-saying that I constantly criticize on this blog.

I know that reposting the Kony video does matter. As Amy Sample Ward of NTEN has pointed out, even tiny acts of digital activism like re-tweeting, re-posting, or joining a Facebook group are a way of 1) identifying oneself publicly as caring about the issue, which can be useful to online organizers and 2) spreads the message to others within one’s social network.

This kind of activity also falls squarely within the first activist function of digital technology: shaping public opinion. People who were previously unaware of the situation in Northern Uganda now are. They are also aware of what it might be like to be a child living in a war zone, what the International Criminal Court is, what it does, and the importance and possibility of taking action to address a distant and intractable wrong. Also, given the strong positive response (the video has 97% positive feedback on YouTube), it made people not only aware but, on some level, made them care as well.

So it’s not worthless. In many ways it is valuable. Still, it annoyed me. Why? There are rational reasons to dislike the campaign:

1) The organization that produced the film, Invisible Children, is problematic.

  • “Last year, the organization spent $8,676,614. Only 32% went to direct services with much of the rest going to staff salaries, travel and transport, and film production.” (source)
  • “Charity Navigator rates their accountability 2/4 stars because they haven’t had their finances externally audited.” (source)
  • “In their campaigns, such organizations [as Invisible Children] have manipulated facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders.” (source)

2) The solution proposed in the video won’t work.

  • The video demands the arrest of Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, but the situation is more complex. Arresting Kony will not have the dramatic impact the video creators propose.
  • “It is no longer clear that the LRA represents a major threat to stability in the region.” (source)
  • “The LRA is now reduced to about 200 fighters…. Rather than occupying villages, as the LRA did when they were stronger, they now primarily conduct 5-6 person raids on villages to steal food.” (source)
  • “Finding Kony isn’t a simple thing to do. The areas in which he and his forces operate are dense jungle with little infrastructure.” (source)
  • “Russell argues that the only entity that can find and arrest Kony is the Ugandan army. Given that the Ugandan army has been trying, off and on, since 1987 to find Kony, that seems like a troublesome strategy.” (source)
  • “Kony continues to rely on child soldiers. That means that a military assault… would likely result in the death of abducted children.” (source)
  • The big action they propose in the video, blanketing the cities of the world with Kony posters, supports this oversimplification of the problem. It proposes a fun and slightly deviant action, but in pursuit of an ultimate goal that has more symbolic than practical value for Ugandans.

3) The video and campaign are unintentionally racist.

  • It robs Ugandans of agency. (source)
  • Invisible Children has no Africans on its board of directors and collects money for itself rather than for Ugandan organizations. (source)
  • The heroes of the film are white young people and adults from the US and Europe, particularly video narrator and campaigner Jason Russell.
  • The victims are Ugandan children. Ugandan adults appear in the film to validate the work of Invisible Children, not to represent their own work.
  • The video embodies the outdated idea of the “white man’s burden,” that white people improve the countries of the global south by intervening and enforcing their values, that the people who live in these countries cannot improve their countries alone.

These are the rational reasons for disliking the video, though, to be honest, my reaction was visceral and emotional. I think what bugs me the most is my own culture, the fact that the most successful recent attempt to raise awareness about a human rights abuse in Africa starred and was narrated by a handsome white man, came in the form of a high-concept, high-cost video with a booming rock soundtrack, titled to hook the 2012 US presidential race, and happily simplified its cause for the sake of an easy-to-absorb and appealing emotional narrative (protagonist, antagonist, easy solution, your role).

And it worked. Or is so far. If this is the new recipe for engaging Americans in the problems of the rest of the world, this makes me sad. Are we only able to engage with others’ suffering through the glitzy flashing lens of our own popular culture?

9 thoughts on “Why Kony 2012 Brought Out the Cyber-Skeptic in Me

  1. I understand your concern, especially when looking at the financial figures, but you need to take the counter argument. The staff at Invisible Children need to make a living as well. Traveling to Africa isn’t exactly the most inexpensive thing either. Not to mention, before this, I have not heard of a major Ugandan agency before this to use to donate money towards such a cause.

    In terms of using the Ugandan army to arrest Kony, how long did it take the US to find and kill Osama bin Laden? 10 years and we are supposedly the most advanced force in the world and we have been searching constantly.

    Of course I do not support everything about Invisible Children, but there are definitely counter arguments that need to be taken into consideration. This is just one step to inform others of the actions in Uganda and surrounding areas.

    • Hi Ted, I do give credit to IC for raising awareness of human rights abuses in Africa in a way that effectively engaged Americans who are often apathetic to these issues. However, I disagree with your reasons for supporting them. Here’s why:

      1) If it is expensive to fly to Africa then maybe the way to resolve these problems is not the have white people buying expensive airline tickets and flying to Africa. Maybe the answer is to empower Ugandans to solve these problems themselves by giving them financial and educational resources directly.

      2) “Major agencies” are not always the most effective. In fact, they often waste money on huge overhead. I’d rather see 100 grassroots Ugandan NGOs funded than 1 big American NGO.

      3) The problem is not with time but with the capacity of the army to work effectively. If the Ugandan army was unable to find Kony in twenty years while Kony was *in their own country* (unlike our search for Bin Laden), there are likely deeper problems of management and effectiveness.

      • Look I totally agree we need to impower the Ugandan people
        To solve their own issues and that is why,at least by my
        Understanding, we are sending small numbers of troops.
        However I became a bit confused on how you managed to bring race
        Into this this is supposed to be a good thing people helping people it’s not about
        Any burden of the white man or anything like that! I understand that maybe IC should
        Have their spending monitored more closely to ensure they are doing what they say they are, but could you please explain to me why everyone feels the need to resist everything these days! It seems to me that all people want to do is pick this company apart! I think it’s great people are starting to think for themselves and not believe everything they are told but it makes me sick how there seems to be this mentality to be against everything. I’m just do sick of everyone only seeing the negative in things.

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  3. Thanks for posting this, Mary! I admire your honesty and openness. I, too, felt a little uncomfortable when I first saw information on this campaign a few days. I think it was mostly because of what I have heard and seen of the Invisible Children org (I lived and worked in Kampala/Gulu in 2007). I was also confused by the campaign’s objective because the US has already sent 100 military consultants to support the Uganda military’s mission.

    Then I watched the video and I thought “this could be in incredibly powerful tactic to add to the efforts being done to achieve justice in Uganda and the region.” I have to applaud IC for keeping this issue on the radar in the US. I now realize that it might be because of IC’s advocacy efforts that the US sent those military consultants to Uganda. The way that the IC has engaged youth all over the United States is admirable. The impact is a bit unclear – but they have definitely built awareness among Americans around this issue. It would be great to see more collaboration between IC and regional organizations on the ground (or maybe they already exist but it isn’t clear to the rest of us). This campaign needs to be one of many coordinated efforts to achieve justice

    I have been impressed with the amount of media attention it has received and I can only hope that this awareness and interest will translate into something positive for the survivors of the LRA. I really think there is a place for this campaign. This is a tactic that fits in with a coordinated strategy, where many different groups are collaborating to achieve a common goal. Let’s hope that this is what’s happening!

  4. I’m prepared to run with the IC concept, because I can appreciate the work that those people have put into this. Yes they are advocates, not an aid group, and much of their resources go into advertising and advocating. Big business do that all the time, and its considered sound practice.

    Possibly Kony and his followers are less of a threat now, but the point is that if he’s brought to justice, that sends a strong message to other despots and criminals, that they can’t act expecting impunity.

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