Kony 2012, a heart-pulling video, took the Internet by storm forced everyone to connect with the universal pains of human rights violations. The 30-minute long video inspired good; or, at least, made nearly 90 million people feel inspired to do some form of good. How could such a thing become the subject of massive controversy?
Invisible Children’s team, including its co-founder Jason Russell, created a campaign unlike any other, showcasing the true powers of social media as a tool to move people globally. It managed to instantly take over the web, with tens of millions of views in just the first days.
The 30-minute short set up a campaign to “make Kony famous.” Most people, upon hearing that statement, wondered who Joseph Kony exactly is. As was the point of the video and its accompanying campaign, Invisible Children sought to make Joseph Kony a household name, just like those of politicians and celebrities, but with a different purpose.
Kony is leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a militant group in East Africa known for its terrorist acts. It is thus shocking that the LRA and Kony are not so widely known, as the video projected. Furthermore, Invisible Children aimed to not only raise awareness but to use the awareness to push policy-makers to give aid and make changes in order to help the people of Uganda.
That last idea is possibly the center of the spark of controversy that the video ignited. In short, various activists and bloggers, African and otherwise, laid out a series of responses to the unbelievable wildfire the video spread. Criticisms included legitimacy of Invisible Children’s programs, the idea of Ugandan children being ‘invisible’, lack of interest in what the Ugandan people wanted, lack of coverage of what had been accomplished and outdated material. Some accused the campaign of propaganda and manipulation, aimless advocacy, false notions of eradicating such a prominent group and the Western idea of ‘white man’s burden’.
Instantly, the media was taken with the sudden prominence of Kony2012, as well as the controversy surrounding it. Invisible Children had much to respond to. Soon thereafter, Jason Russell, who’s children appear in the video alongside him, suffered a psychological breakdown including public intoxication and arrest, only adding to the organization’s publicity problems.
As the facts and history show, some of the criticisms are just. Contrary to how the original installment portrayed the LRA issue, Kony is currently not in Uganda. The LRA, which initially began as a Resistance group of the Acholi people in Uganda founded, as the name suggests, on basis of connection with the Holy Spirit of God against the President Yoweri Museveni. No one can deny the atrocity of the acts they grew to commit under Kony’s lead. These acts included recruiting tens of thousands of children and committing humanitarian and war crimes that made its leaders wanted by the International Criminal Court. The Christian militia spread to South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic. Joseph Kony has not been in Sudan for several years. The Ugandan people have also been working to put the LRA out of power, along with US aid since Bush’s presidency, and further aid just last October with Obama. And as Ugandan officials have testified, the nation is not alone in its struggle with the LRA nor is it a completely unsafe and terrifying warzone, as many have been depicted.
While a second installment by Invisible Children aimed to respond to the majority of criticisms and show that the organization was working along with Ugandans and hearing the citizens’ voices in order to help the country as a whole, it was utterly impossible for the organization to beat the initial success of Kony2012. The video cleared up a smaller portion of the responses from academics and the like, who criticize the organization for largely simplifying the decades-long issue. Invisble Children showed that their goal to ‘Cover the Night’ on April 20 would include local community service, so as to be productive while raising awareness. With millions of views, but only a fraction still of the first installment’s success, controversy lingers.
Debate still persists between people who shared the videos and were inspired to help, and others who feel that its foolish to think anyone can ‘aid’ simply by tweeting, ‘facebooking’ or wearing marked merchandise. However, the conversation should shift to the real factor that all of the criticism was founded upon—not necessarily a failure in the aims of the organization, but the lack of information and education which lead to all of the controversy. The second installment largely hoped to fix such issues by sharing more information. But altogether, the people who instantly shared did not, and in many cases, still do not know a great deal about what the LRA is, what the conditions in Uganda and other countries in which the LRA is currently more prominent are like, or what Invisible Children does, aims to do and how they do it.
Invisible Children representatives themselves came and spoke at the chapter club meeting here at UMW on April 24. The club screened both films, as well as some additional footage. After having the opportunity to speak and respond to questions, the group verified that they aim for advocacy and awareness, but obviously, as many concerns stressed, following awareness comes along with dealing with the oftentimes corrupt government and military. In addition, there are persisting struggles of poverty and education in the region. As the representative answered, now with raised global awareness, “we can’t deny that. We can’t deny [the Ugandan military’s] crimes… [but] now the eyes of the world are on them.” While he continued to reinforce that currently “the name of the game is advocacy,” he also mentioned programs such as School for School which continue to work, and will even after the aim of a peaceful capture of Kony, to develop and reform the region.
No one can deny the power of social media and the importance of raised awareness for crimes against humanity, whether or not one agrees with the legitimacy of the campaign or organization. Instead of further antagonization, debate and rightly found criticism of ‘t-shirt activism’, perhaps people should work on making more informed decisions before putting their time and money into something in order to find whatever means they feel right in order to help others. True activism must start somewhere. The question is: what follows? No one should lose sight of their ability to make a difference in any community.