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Unpacking Kony 2012

Traduzido para o Português por Natália Mazotte e Bruno Serman

This Monday, March 5th, the advocacy organization Invisible Children released a 30 minute video titled “Kony 2012“. The goal of the video is to raise awareness of Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army rebel group, a wanted war criminal, in the hopes of bringing him to justice.

By Thursday morning, March 8th, the video had been viewed more than 26 million times, and almost 12 million more times on Vimeo. (Needless to say, those numbers are now much higher.) It has opened up a fascinating and complicated discussion not just about the Lord’s Resistance Army and instability in northern Uganda and bordering states, but on the nature of advocacy in a digital age.

My goal, in this (long) blogpost is to get a better understanding of how Invisible Children has harnessed social media to promote their cause, what the strengths and limits of that approach are, and what some unintended consequences of this campaign might be. For me, the Kony 2012 campaign is a story about simplification and framing. Whether you ultimately support Invisible Children’s campaign – and I do not – it’s important to think through why it has been so successful in attracting attention online and the limits to the methods used by Invisible Children.

Who’s Joseph Kony, and who are Invisible Children?

Joseph Kony emerged in the mid 1980s as the leader of an organization, the Lord’s Resistance Army, that positioned itself in opposition to Yoweri Museveni, who took control of Uganda in 1986 after leading rebellions against Idi Amin and Milton Obote, previous rulers of Uganda. Museveni, from southern Uganda, was opposed by several armed forces in the north of the country, including Kony’s group, the Lord’s Resistance Army. Since the mid-1980s, northern Uganda has been a dangerous and unstable area, with civilians displaced from their homes into refugee camps, seeking safety from both rebel groups and the Ugandan military.

Kony and the LRA distinguished themselves from other rebel groups by their bizarre ideology and their violent and brutal tactics. The LRA has repeatedly kidnapped children, training boys as child soldiers and sexually abusing girls, who become porters and slaves. The fear of abduction by the LRA led to the phenomenon of the “night commute“, where children left their villages and came to larger cities to sleep, where the risk of LRA abduction was lower.

The Ugandan government has been fighting against Kony since 1987. In 2005, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Kony and four LRA organizers. The United States considers the LRA a terrorist group, and has cooperated with the Ugandan government since at least 2008 in attempting to arrest Kony.

Invisible Children is a US-based advocacy organization founded in 2004 by filmmakers Bobby Bailey, Laren Poole and Jason Russell. Initially interested in the conflict in Darfur, the filmmakers traveled instead to northern Uganda and began documenting the night commute and the larger northern Ugandan conflict. The image of children commuting to safety became a signature for Invisible Children, and they began a campaign in 2006 called the Global Night Commute, which invited supporters to sleep outside in solidarity with children in Northern Uganda.

As a nonprofit, Invisible Children has been engaged in efforts on the ground in northern Uganda and in bordering nations to build radio networks, monitoring movements of the LRA combattants, and providing services to displaced children and families. They’ve also focused heavily on raising awareness of the LRA and conflicts in northern Uganda, and on influencing US government policy towards the LRA. In 2010, President Obama committed 100 military advisors to the Ugandan military, focused on capturing Kony – Invisible Children was likely influential in persuading the President to make this pledge.

The Kony 2012 campaign, launched with the widely viewed video, focuses on the idea that the key to bringing Joseph Kony to justice is to raise awareness of his crimes. Filmmaker and narrator Jason Russell posits, “99% of the planet doesn’t know who Kony is. If they did, he would have been stopped years ago.”

To raise awareness of Kony, Russell urges viewers of the video to contact 20 “culturemakers” and 12 policymakers who he believes can increase the visibility of the LRA and increase chances of Kony’s arrest. More concretely, Russell wants to ensure that the 100 military advisors the Obama government has provided remain working with the Ugandan military to help capture and arrest Kony.

Criticism of the Kony 2012 campaign

As the Kony 2012 campaign has gained attention, it’s also encountered a wave of criticism. Tuesday evening, Grant Oyston, a 19-year old political science student at Acadia University in Nova Scotia published a Tumblr blog titled “Visible Children“, which offered multiple critiques of the Invisible Children campaign. That site has attracted over a million views, tens of thousands of notes, and evidently buried Oyston in a wave of email responses.

The Visible Children tumblr points out that Invisible Children spends less than a third of the money they’ve raised on direct services in northern Uganda and bordering areas. The majority of their funding is focused on advocacy, filmmaking and fundraising. It also questions whether the strategy Invisible Children proposes – supporting the Ugandan military to seek Kony – is viable and points out that the Ugandan military has a poor human rights record in northern Uganda. (Invisible Children reacts to some of these criticism in this blog post.)

As a set of Kony-related hashtags trended on Twitter yesterday, some prominent African and Afrophile commentators pointed out that the Invisible Children campaign gives little or no agency to the Ugandans the organization wants to help. There are no Africans on the Invisible Children board of directors and few in the senior staff. And the Invisible Children approach focuses on American awareness and American intervention, not on local solutions to the conflicts in northern Uganda. This led Ugandan blogger and activist Teddy Ruge – who works closely on community development projects in Uganda – to write a post responding to the Invisible Children campaign titled “A piece of my mind: Respect my agency 2012“, asking supporters of Invisible Children to consider whether IC’s framing of the situation is a correct one, whether IC’s efforts focus too heavily on sustaining the organization, and whether a better way to support people of northern Uganda would be to work with community organizations focusing on rebuilding displaced communities.

Other criticisms have focused on more basic issues: Kony is no longer in Uganda, and it is no longer clear that the LRA represents a major threat to stability in the region. Reporting on an LRA attack in north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a UN spokesman described the attack as “he last gasp of a dying organisation that’s still trying to make a statement.” The spokesman believes that the LRA is now reduced to about 200 fighters, as well as a band of women and children who feed and support the group. 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.

Invisible Children’s theory of change… and the problem with that theory

I’d like to start an analysis of Invisible Children’s techniques by giving Jason Russell and his colleagues the benefit of the doubt. I think they sincerely believe that Kony and the LRA must be brought to justice, and that their campaign is appropriate even though Kony’s impact on the region is much smaller than it was five to ten years ago. While it’s very easy to be cynical about their $30 action kit, I think they genuinely believe that the key to arresting Kony is raising awareness and pressuring the US government.

I think, however, that they are probably wrong.

Kony and his followers have fled northern Uganda and sought shelter in parts of the world where this is little or no state control over territory: eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, eastern Central African Republic and southwestern Southern Sudan. The governments that nominally control these territories have little or no ability to protect their borders, and have proven themselves helpless when international agencies like the ICC have demanded their help in arresting Kony.

Finding Kony isn’t a simple thing to do. The areas in which he and his forces operate are dense jungle with little infrastructure. The small size of the LRA is an additional complication – with a core group of a few hundred and raiding parties of a handful of individuals, satellite imagery isn’t going to detect the group – that’s why Invisible Children and others are trying to build networks that allow people affected by the LRA to report attacks, as those attacks are one of the few ways we might plausibly find the LRA.

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. Journalist Michael Wilkerson, who has reported on the LRA for many years, notes that the Ugandan army is poorly equipped, underfed, incompetent and deeply corrupt. Past efforts to crack down on Kony have failed due to poor planning, poor coordination and Kony’s deeply honed skills at hiding in the jungle.

Complicating matters, Kony continues to rely on child soliders. That means that a military assault – targeted to a satellite phone signal or some other method used to locate Kony – would likely result in the death of abducted children. This scenario means that many northern Ugandans don’t support military efforts to capture or kill Kony, but advocate for approaches that offer amnesty to the LRA in exchange for an end to violence and a return of kidnapped children.

Invisible Children have demonstrated that they can raise “awareness” through a slickly produced video and successful social media campaign. It is possible – perhaps likely – that this campaign will increase pressure on President Obama to maintain military advisors in Uganda. As Wilkerson points out in a recent post, there’s no evidence the President had threatened to pull those advisors. And as Mark Kersten observes, it’s likely that those advisors are likely in Uganda as a quid pro quo for Ugandan support for US military aims in Somalia. In other words, the action Invisible Children is asking for has been taken… and, unfortunately, hasn’t resulted in the capture of Kony.

The problem with oversimplification

The campaign Invisible Children is running is so compelling because it offers an extremely simple narrative: Kony is a uniquely bad actor, a horrific human being, whose capture will end suffering for the people of Northern Uganda. If each of us does our part, influences powerful people, the world’s most powerful military force will take action and Kony will be captured.

Russell implicitly acknowledges the simplicity of the narrative with his filmmaking. Much of his short film features him explaining to his young son that Kony is a bad guy, and that dad’s job is capturing the bad guy. We are asked to join the campaign against Kony literally by being spoken to as a five year old. It’s not surprising that a five year old vision of a problem – a single bad guy, a single threat to eliminate – leads to an unworkable solution. Nor is it a surprise that this extremely simple narrative is compelling and easily disseminated.

Severine Autesserre, a scholar focused on the Democratic Republic of Congo, has recently written an important paper on the narratives and framings of the conflict in eastern DRC. (I know of this paper only through the good graces of Dr. Laura Seay, whose Texas in Africa blog is required reading for anyone who is interested in Central Africa, and who has been one of the prominent voices on Twitter calling for reconsideration of Invisible Children’s strategy.)

Autesserre’s paper argues that the wildly complicated conflict in eastern DRC has been reduced to a fairly simple narrative by journalists and NGOs: to gain control of mineral riches, rebel armies are using rape as a weapon of war, and they should be stopped by the DRC government. This narrative is so powerful because “certain stories resonate more, and thus are more effective at influencing action, when they assign the cause of the problems to ‘the deliberate actions of identifiable individuals’, when they include ‘bodily harm to vulnerable individuals, especially when there is a short and clear causal chain assigning responsibility’; when they suggest a simple solution; ad when they can latch on to pre-existing narratives.”

Sound familiar? The Kony story resonates because it’s the story of an identifible individual doing bodily harm to children. It’s a story with a simple solution, and it plays into existing narratives about the ungovernability of Africa, the power of US military and the need to bring hidden conflict to light.

Here’s the problem – these simple narratives can cause damage. By simplifying the DRC situation to a conflict about minerals, the numerous other causes – ethnic tensions, land disputes, the role of foreign militaries – are all minimized. The proposed solutions – a ban on the use of “conflict minerals” in mobile phones – sounds good on paper. In practice, it’s meant that mining of coltan is no longer possible for artisanal miners, who’ve lost their main source of financial support – instead, mining is now dominated by armed groups, who have the networks and resources to smuggle the minerals out of the country and conceal their origins. Similarly, the focus on rape as a weapon of war, Autesserre argues, has caused some armed groups to engage in mass rape as a technique to gain attention and a seat at the negotiating table. Finally, the focus on the Congolese state as a solution misses the point that the state has systematically abused power and that the country’s rulers have used power to rob their citizenry. A simple, easily disseminated narrative, Autesserre argues, has troublesome unintended consequences.

What are the unintended consequences of the Invisible Children narrative? The main one is increased support for Yoweri Museveni, the dictatorial and kleptocratic leader of Uganda. Museveni is now on his fourth presidential term, the result of an election seen as rigged by EU observers. Museveni has asserted such tight control over dissenting political opinions that his opponents have been forced to protest his rule through a subtle and indirect means – walking to work to protest the dismal state of Uganda’s economy. Those protests have been violently suppressed.

The US government needs to pressure Museveni on multiple fronts. The Ugandan parliament, with support from Museveni’s wife, has been pushing a bill to punish homosexuality with the death penalty. The Obama administration finds itself pressuring Museveni to support gay and lesbian rights and to stop cracking down on the opposition quite so brutally, while asking for cooperation in Somalia and against the LRA. An unintended consequence of Invisible Children’s campaign may be pushing the US closer to a leader we should be criticizing and shunning.

Can we advocate without oversimplifying?

I am now almost three thousand words into this blogpost, and I am aware that I am oversimplifying the situation in northern Uganda… and also aware that I haven’t simplified it enough. It makes perfect sense that a campaign to create widespread awareness of conflict in northern Uganda would want to simply this picture down to a narrative of good versus evil, and a call towards action. While I resent the emotionally manipulative video Invisible Children have produced, I admire the craft of it. They begin with a vision of a changing global world, where social media empowers individuals as never before. They craft a narrative around a passionate, driven advocate – Jason Russell – and show us the reasons for his advocacy – his friendship with a Ugandan victim of Kony. The video has a profound “story of self” that makes it possible for individuals to connect with and relate to. And Invisible Children constructs a narrative where we can help, and where we’re shirking our responsibility as fellow human beings if we don’t help.

The problem, of course, is that this narrative is too simple. The theory of change it advocates is unlikely to work, and it’s unclear if the goal of eliminating Kony should still be a top priority in stabilizing and rebuilding northern Uganda. By offering support to Museveni, the campaign may end up strengthening a leader with a terrible track record.

A more complex narrative of northern Uganda would look at the odd, codependent relationship between Museveni and Kony, Uganda’s systematic failure to protect the Acholi people of northern Uganda. It would look at the numerous community efforts, often led by women, to mediate conflicts and increase stability. It would focus on the efforts to rebuild the economy of northern Uganda, and would recognize the economic consequences of portraying northern Uganda as a war zone. It would feature projects like Women of Kireka, working to build economic independence for women displaced from their homes in Northern Uganda.

Such a narrative would be lots harder to share, much harder to get to “go viral”.

I’m starting to wonder if this is a fundamental limit to attention-based advocacy. If we need simple narratives so people can amplify and spread them, are we forced to engage only with the simplest of problems? Or to propose only the simplest of solutions?

As someone who believes that the ability to create and share media is an important form of power, the Invisible Children story presents a difficult paradox. If we want people to pay attention to the issues we care about, do we need to oversimplify them? And if we do, do our simplistic framings do more unintentional harm than intentional good? Or is the wave of pushback against this campaign from Invisible Children evidence that we’re learning to read and write complex narratives online, and that a college student with doubts about a campaign’s value and validity can find an audience? Will Invisible Children’s campaign continue unchanged, or will it engage with critics and design a more complex and nuanced response.

That’s a story worth watching.

265 thoughts on “Unpacking Kony 2012”

  1. But… what CAN we do? Much of the appeal of Kony2012 is that it gives us white, American liberals a method to engage and do SOMETHING with our bleeding hearts. I have no doubt of the complexity of the problem, and I appreciate the detailed blog post you’ve written. But you’ve made the same omission as many others who’ve written truthful narratives about Africa: you’ve left us with the impression that there is no solution, because all the players are bad and untrustworthy, so we shrug our shoulders, blame the Africans, and turn away. Give us hope; point us toward a solution; give us something specific and achievable to do! This is what Invisible Children has appreciated about human psychology and has done so effectively.

  2. Thank you for a very interesting blog post about a story which is indeed worth watching.

    I agree with you that Invisible Children’s strategy is simplistic. My initial thought was that it was naïve. But then I wonder if we are really underestimating this strategy. After all, millions and millions of people have watched this video and they are now engaging in debates, which reveal the complexity of the situation – your blog post is an example of this. And these debates will undoubtedly influence the actions that will be taken by policymakers and others. So isn’t the simplicity, which has made so many people watch and share the video exactly what now leads to more complex discussions? Would you have written this if the immediate strategy of Invisible Children had been more realistic, but only 200.000 people had watched the video?

  3. Erin, thanks for the comment. You’re right that my post doesn’t give “white American liberals a method to engage and so SOMETHING with our bleeding hearts.” For one thing, I’m not sure the LRA is the issue I’d urge people to engage with right now – I think pressuring the US to take the lead on Syria is likely a higher priority.

    Here’s what I do as a white American liberal focused on sub-Saharan Africa:

    – I write about a range of stories about issues on the continent. Some look at tragic situations like northern Uganda (which I’ve been writing about since 2006). Some look at stories of innovation and creativity on the continent. I try to feature a variety of views of a complicated continent, because looking at Africa in terms of crisis and failure ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    – I support local, African-led organizations that work on problems in their community, through financial support, writing about their work, and in a few cases, sitting on their boards of directors.

    – I support organizations like Medicines Sans Frontieres that have consistently done important work providing health and medical care to people affected by conflicts in Central Africa and elsewhere. I pick these organizations because they spend less money on “awareness-raising” and advocacy and more funds on the ground.

    I don’t know if those approaches will help you in your quest for something “specific and achievable”, but I’ve found it more satisfying than supporting efforts like this one.

  4. Nina, thanks for the comment. While I think you’re right that Invisible Children has opened debates and drawn a great deal of attention to this subject, I don’t know that this is something we want to celebrate uncritically. Is someone going to be able to call attention to Syria, where ongoing violence is killing more people than Kony is currently killing? Should we pay attention to the LRA because Invisible Children is more effective at using social media than the Free Syrian Army is? I wish there had been as effective a push for visibility of the LRA six years ago when the conflict was raging – I am unsure this massive wave of attention at the moment is really appropriate or helpful.

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  6. For all the criticisms you can make about this video, the people behind it and the IC organization, it is raising a lot of awareness and discussion around some very important issues. Yes it may be oversimplifying things, but the alternative seems to be that nobody (or comparatively few) would be thinking about these things at all. All they have really called for is increased awareness. Those who feel compelled to act will have to give more considered thought to their actions. This goes for individuals and governments.

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  8. Geoff, the point of this essay was to question the idea of whether just “raising awareness” is a reasonable goal. I just argued, at some length, that raising awareness, if it involves oversimplifying to the point of harm is not helpful. Sorry my case didn’t persuade you.

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  11. Here’s an idea. Why doesn’t everyone stay home in their own countries for the next ten years and fix all the crap that’s wrong there. Then when America has sorted its very serious problems, it can go out and do good somewhere. Same for the UK, Canada, France, etc. I would like to start a campaign called “Stay Home Instead of Travel.” Tag line…..Fix your own SHIT. I have been an aid worker for past 15 years, traveled to all of ’em, tsunami, s. Sudan, Darfur, Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, etc. etc. Guess what folks! It aint working very well. And while that’s a pretty big statement let me boil it down. It aint given the world much of a ROI, return on investment. Point in case, billiions $$$ in aid to Somalia/Ethiopia Horn of Africa since 85 and Live Aid. Still looks like a bomb went off. People still living in huts, eating hand outs, and dying like flies (with the flies). So, pls everyone take a big SHIT. Fix your own backyard before you think about fixing the world.

  12. Once again there are those who rush to poke holes in an initiative to do good. Sure this may not be the most important thritstuning facing the world right now. Sure there may be better activities which can be adopted. Too often though, there are those who just love to undermine any initiative that mobilizes global support for a good cause…particularly when it involves the youth of the world. Let’s not look for excuses let’s ACT.

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  17. Dear Ethan:

    It seems to me that the viral effect of the video, at the end, it is not related to a “joining the cause decision”, but more likely, to center the focus on Africa again, in a place left by the media, and because we didn´t know who Joseph Kony is, or the LRA (sorry my ignorance, but precisely that the point), we (may) understand that the conflict in Africa (and any conflict) is even bigger than we know.

    I think, if we can develope very accesible media like this, about different situations around the globe, we should be able to construct the views that can describe the complexity and diversity of reality accurately, more at least than only one great piece of work….

    Best regards

  18. To capture this as#$%&@ole just put a little oil in that region and the US goverment will last about 5 minutes to shot him in the head…

  19. Pingback: Kony 2012 Part 2 – Criticism « Female Gazing

  20. Ethan, thank you for your post. I am a graduate student studying Human Rights and you put words to ideas I’ve been trying to articulate for the past 24 hours. This whole ordeal has me deeply questioning the best ways to approach advocacy.
    Is awareness important? Yes. Is awareness enough? No, particularly not if it comes at a high cost. Advocacy that doesn’t promote agency falls woefully short of the mark.

  21. My college-age child brought Kony 2012 to my attention. This is the email I wrote to her in response:
    I had not heard about this. I watched the video and was astonished that Kony has been doing this for 20 years unabated. The Invisible Children movement is pretty amazing. We will be in [ ] on April 20th and I anticipate it will be covered with posters when we wake up on the 21st.

    I did a little research and Invisible Children is not without its detractors. People question why they have raised over $20 mm but only spent 34% on the ground in Africa. 46% has gone to publicity/advertising and the like. The remainder to administration. While you like to see much higher percentages spent on actually helping people, part of their mission it public awareness and (I hope) most of the 46% has gone in that direction. Other critics say that Kony has been driven out of Uganda and his followers are (only) in the hundreds. The video implied that his army was much bigger — 30,000 — and that number seems like spin. Uganda is much safer than it was (although it certainly won’t be a tourist hot spot anytime soon) and critics argue that while Kony is still at large, his influence is broken, the crisis is old news. Those criticisms sounds right to me, although there is always the risk of his return. But sending a signal that his crimes, just because they are not necessarily ongoing needn’t be punished, is not right.

    I find the way they have gone about it — targeting opinion makers and policy people — to be smart. Taking advantage of social media in a way that even 10 years ago could only be imagined shows that the rules have really changed. Unfortunately, human nature has not and will not.

    Thanks for sharing.

  22. I very much appreciate your thorough post and your practical insight. Well worded (what I believe, but unable to communicate it the way you did.) Thank you!

  23. 100% agree with what Luke said. Yes, it may seem selfish to think of *gasp* helping ourselves before others, but, in the long run, it is MUCH better for the world. As the saying goes, “give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime”. right now all we are doing is “giving” help to countries that are desperately in need of it, but not enough help to make them self sufficient, only enough to briefly sustain them and celebrate that we “did” something. That is, unfortunately, what I see Invisible Children as doing.

    If those of us in first-world countries (I myself am an American) were to take the time to solve some pressing issues (outsourcing labor, immense debt, poverty, decline of education, etc), then we could spend the next however many years fixing up whats wrong here. AFTER that, we would have a much greater ability to lend a hand to other nations, and “teach them to fish”, allowing for THEIR sustainability, and once they get back on their feet, they can continue to reach out, and thus a circle starts.
    Call it a gilded plan or oversimplified view, but I firmly believe that if we want to fix any problems abroad then we need to fix our own first. Then maybe we can be using our own money (not what we borrowed) to help people who truly need it. As for what you can do, if you’re one of the “white, American liberals [looking for] a method to engage and do SOMETHING with our bleeding hearts”, I’d suggest volunteer work around your city. Yes, throwing money (that you may or may not have) at a problem is often a “feel good” solution, as IC proves, you don’t know where that money is going.

    I know that many of you might not have done any good old-fashioned Community Service in a while, but its an idea so crazy it just might work.


  24. “I wish there had been as effective a push for visibility of the LRA six years ago when the conflict was raging” (second reply by Ethan).
    Six years ago, Invisible Children was pushing as hard as they are now. I am a witness to that. On April 29th, 2006, I was in Washington DC at John Marshall Place Park participating in the international awareness event Global Night Commute with Co-founder Bobby Bailey and about a thousand other peaceful protesters. In 2007 I participated in the Northern Uganda Lobby day and Symposium, and I also volunteered at IC’s second international event, Displace Me, with 10,000 other peace warriors on the National Mall. In 2009, I volunteered at their third event, The Rescue, in St. Paul Mn. This is not IC’s first walk around the block, but this IS their most effective. I believe that even though Joseph Kony may not pose as big a threat as he did in the past, every life he threatens is one that WE CAN DO SOMETHING ABOUT. Just because Joseph Kony has changed his tactics in an attempt to escape justice, doesn’t mean he should just get a free pass; the ICC indicted him for good reason. I agree that Syria also deserves awareness (btw, IC was started by three ordinary guys who had the passion and the guts to stand for what they perceived as abhorrent… nothing’s stopping you from starting your own grassroots campaign for Syria), but I don’t have an outlet for that. Because of IC, i can do something about Uganda. I can stand beside thousands (and now millions) of other people all standing together as one and make the world a better place by ridding it of one of it’s most despicable inhabitants. This world has a lot of issues, and believe me, I wish i could fix them all, but i can’t. We can talk about those problems ’til the cows come home, but nothing will get done unless someone takes a stand somewhere. I’m taking my stand here.

  25. A more complex narrative of northern Uganda would look at… would recognize… would feature…. Would. The world doesn’t pay attention to “would”, but rather to “does”. So make a brilliant video, write a captivating novel, shoot a photo documentary, and get it across to 38 million viewers.

  26. duhh, of course finding KONY is difficult.. That’s why Invisible children has resorted to a different campaign! This idea that Africa is so hopeless is exactly why nothing ever gets done!

  27. Pingback: KONY 2012 : CAUSE RELATED VIRAL MEDIA : CASE STUDY « Agent M Media Files

  28. Both the video and the criticism are of vital importance. One completes the other! The video was incredibly sucessfull at drawing people’s attention (specially the disinformed youth) to a vulnerable place such as Uganda, while the constructive criticism did an excelent job at explaining the situation with more depth and greater detail. I believe that to advocate that the video does more harm than good is at best harsh, and probably unwise. Nevertheless, I also see the honest and knowledgeable criticism as something crucial for a better insight on what goes on in a place where most people can’t point out to on the map, but that is inhabited by people who are just as important as those living in the United States of America.

  29. Thanks for a great article. I am developing a Webquest for secondary students and would like to use your article as one of the essential readings. Hope it is OK.

  30. Ethan…your article is spot on! I encountered the founders of IC back in 2004 before anyone knew who they were. I was also an activist trying to address the situation in northern Uganda by ensuring that local youth organizations of IDP youth were receiving the resources they needed to advocate on their own behalf.

    Even back then, I was alarmed and upset by how they often got their facts wrong. Their earliest films used stock footage of child soldiers from Sierra Leone and tried to pass them off as LRA children. They also broke a number of cardinal rules when filming and interviewing children. A number of my local colleagues who have encountered their work in their community have expressed disappointment in the quality of IC’s aid to war affected youth, especially considering that IC has a budget over $13 million with only a 3rd actually going to programs (in case you are wondering, the standard for respected not-for profits is 80% going to programs).

    That all said, I am impressed by their ability to raise small armies of followers. They certainly know how to make use of social/viral marketing for advocacy purposes. But as you said, have they over simplified the reality of the situation in Uganda? Have they oversimplified the call to action? I believe, YES, they have.

    For the other readers here who negate your critique (such as the comment offered “you’ve left us with the impression that there is no solution”), exemplifies just how much our society always seeks out the simple solution. Unless “we” are given a simple solution, then we collectively feel there is no solution. This is at the heart of why we are under the yoke of so many challenges.

    Complex situations deserve well thought out approaches. My northern Ugandan friends say that whereas they do want Kony brought to justice, what they want more is considerable investment into their transitional society. Uganda is by virtue, two countries – the north and the south. Chasing Kony is not as important as building schools, hospitals, roads, businesses, electrical and internet infrastructures, and so on in the North.

    Yes, Kony must be brought to justice, but Museveni must commune with the north honestly and ensure that the Acholi people are not forgotten. The viral campaign to make sure we know who Kony is should instead be replaced with a viral campaign to teach us who the proud Acholi people are, and what they want, deserve, and are capable of doing once given the opportunity.

    It is not about undermining Invisible Children’s initiative, it is about valuing the people of Northern Uganda and recognizing their humanity. Rather than buying action packs from Invisible Children (which to be honest pays for their films more than it pays for community aid), directly support local NGOs in northern Uganda.

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  35. You have to remember this was made with all intentions to give the ‘west’ an insight into these violent acts. Yes, they have been going on for decades…but now, a huge majority of the ‘west’ are engagingly aware of this situation. (majority of which 3 days ago were not) Sadly, a huge population of the ‘west’ need things to be dramatically oversimplified. I think it’s beautiful to see so many people from all ages, races, and continents be genuinely concerned for one cause. from this global awareness other problems and circumstances will have room to come to light. And therefore unity shall continue to stand, not just for this cause, but for the so many others that sadly plague our world! :)

  36. Pingback: African voices respond to hyper-popular Kony 2012 viral campaign

  37. Thank you for your post, Ethan. I could not agree more with the points you’ve raised about Kony2012. I also agree that Syria is a much more pertinent issue right now. Another argument that I think is worthy of consideration, is how making this man ‘famous’ has the very real possibility of backfiring to epic proportions. As we’ve seen with other cases, when US media targets a foreign individual, a ‘bad guy,’ it can serve to make that person famous among other ‘bad guys’ as well. Singling out Kony might very well attract more money and resources to his struggle, thereby enabling, or even bolstering, prolonged conflict. Kony hasn’t historically supported himself with only his own means, of course. He’s been in and out of negotiations with other governments, individuals, and militias for years. This issue with IC is not only about an NGO and development aid, it is also very much about the governments and political interests that IC will inevitably be seen as representing. In this way, the Kony2012 campaign has great potential for escalating into a foreign policy nightmare, where everyone is crying sovereignty and conspiracies and self-determination – even more than already. A continuing conflict, enabled by increased resources to Kony, would benefit no one – except maybe the NGOs that depend on conflict and instability to raise money and continue their ‘work.’

  38. Pingback: Quickies: 3/9/2012 - Queereka

  39. Sounds like what you’re saying is that advocacy groups have two options: be narrow and deep or broad and shallow. Since deep knowledge just doesn’t scale, some trade-offs are going to need to be made.

    Playing devil’s advocate a bit, if social media allows the everyday user to become involved in advocacy campaigns even if they may not have deep enough knowledge to understand the problem, isn’t that a better thing than no engagement at all? If only the most fully informed can participate, aren’t we limiting the value of the tools at our disposal? Do we get a net benefit for people engaging that wouldn’t have otherwise, even if they’re a bit misguided, than leaving advocacy to the professionals?

    Personally, I think we have to live with some misguided efforts and try to find strategic ways to ride the coattails of the attention they garner rather than scold and turn our noses up (which, as a quasi-outsider, is what I see the advocacy community doing over and over again in situations like this).

  40. Pingback: All the news that’s fit for Bulls — Friday, March 9 « The Digital Bullpen

  41. Ethan,

    great job on this post… you have captured so much nuance, and as you say, there is still more, but you took us several levels deeper and that’s a good thing.

    in response to your final questions… I think the advocacy tactics here have been fabulously effective. The key is getting the right “ask” to go with those tactics, which is an epic fail in this case.

    Just arresting Kony or buying $30 bracelets isn’t good enough. I think we need better articulation of the more sophisticated theories of change that do have a chance of helping (not solving, but helping — to solve implies a great deal of arrogance, and a concerning lack of humility, no?).

    Those truly helpful theories of change involve so many more pieces and so many more actors, (several good ideas mentioned in your post and even more in the comments above).

    Some might think getting attention on these kinds of more nuanced interventions is impossible, but that’s not true. This video could easily have included a click thru to a 10 point plan that has two sentences on each point. Good advocacy work would have actions that could be taken to support each of the 10 points: contributions, additional advocacy, partnering, outreach, helping others understand the nuances.

    We need to find effective ways to channel the beautiful, generous impulses of young people who want to make a difference, both westerners and Africans. The oversimplified solutions do not serve anyone well, but I think that if the community thought about it a bit, we could come up with 10 things that folks who want to help CAN do that might be effective.

    Perhaps the first should be understanding the situation in this more nuanced way. To that end, I think I’m going to do my bit to help your post here go viral. It could be great required reading for the April 20 events my young nephew has written to me about with so much energy and excitement.

    Good job on this one buddy…. and hope you’re doing well otherwise.

  42. It still remains a puzzle for any Ugandan to conclude on the reality of the existence of this “kony” thing. Some have now made it political and all such, but the fact remains that the LRA has reduced to ‘A gang of thugs’ carrying out thuggery just for survival. However, given that they once specialised in Looting, Killing and all that kind of activities, they cannot avoid but have to do them in disguise.

  43. Catherine…with all due respect, as a person who has dedicated his life to fighting for human rights and human security, it is not a good idea to “live with some misguided efforts and try to find strategic ways to ride the coattails of the attention.”

    There have been way too many “misguided efforts” that have ended in disastrous results; especially in respect to various crises in Africa.

    In March 2002, the Ugandan government began Operation Iron Fist, a military offensive against the LRA. Some argue that this was in response to western pressure to address the LRA. Museveni (himself a rebel leader who overthrew his government) sees himself as a military commander first and a national leader second. His military forces and Operation Iron Fist resulted in the largest intensification of attacks on civilian communities, increased abductions, forced recruitment and massacres. It led to a doubling of abducted young people. It also led to an unprecedented surge in the displacement of northern Ugandans. Museveni’s own forces were responsible for many of the atrocities. The call to action to eliminate Kony strengthened Museveni’s quasi dictatorial grip on Uganda. many people don’t realize that Museveni was at the same time arming and funding the SPLA in Sudan as a proxy war against Sudan, and Sudan gave safe haven to the LRA as a proxy war against Uganda.

    The misguided efforts in this case resulted in enormous hardship and suffering and did little to bring Kony to justice. It merely strengthened him.

    Ask the Acholi people themselves, and they will tell you that they want to have a peaceful resolution to the Kony issue. The problem is, peaceful measures take time and effort. What IC advocates for (a military response) is naive and undoubtedly harmful. Keep in mind that if the LRA is full of abducted children who are forced to fight for Kony, who do you think the military will be killing when they chase Kony? It happened before! The Ugandan forces would count killed LRA as military kills, even though the majority of those killed were the abducted children themselves!

    When we finally managed to get Kony to come to the negotiation table, Museveni’s generals and Museveni himself ruined the peace talks by doing nothing more than inciting Kony with militaristic talk. Kony never came back to the table again.

    Don’t mistake what the “advocacy community” is doing in response to IC as scolding…it is rather trying instead to hold ourselves accountable. When we call for public action, we have to be certain that what we are asking for will have positive results, and not inadvertent harm. Those of us in the advocacy community who spend time listening to the community we are working with end up putting forth calls to action that are actually in line with what the community itself wants. Real advocacy work is designed to elicit an end result that will help, not harm. What IC is doing raises attention, but it will not necessarily result in helping the situation. if anything, it builds false expectations that following IC’s lead will result in the arrest of Kony, and once it is shown that it will not, many people will turn their attention to the next “cause.”

    The trade off? Be broad and deep. Educate everyday people with a more in depth background and arm them with more well thought out actions. This is what will build the foundation of a true social movement, rather than a cause of the day. So-called professionals and every day citizens can work together to do this.

  44. Pingback: Kony 2012 reminds me of Loose Change - Chris Peterson

  45. Adrian Harris Crowne

    This is a great piece, and a piece I would have never read without having watched the Kony video. There are certainly going to be people who only watch the video, just like there are people who only watch network news. The more accessible your content, the less complex it is. If you want your message to reach the whole of Facebook–which is clearly the mission behind Invisible Children’s production–you have to employ KISS. Keep It Simple Stupid. Honestly, I think given the ambition of this video of reaching millions of short-attention span youth, producing a 30-minute video about their subject is actually quite in-depth. How long would the network news give this subject? In fact, the news media is still giving the subject of Kony little attention, focussed instead on the meta subject of Invisible Children’s controversial finances and tactics.

    All of this debate reminds me a bit of the early days of Wikipedia, where experts criticized it for not being written by experts. Even before reading extensively about the problems with IC’s video, it was clear to me from the production that Russell was in his heart a filmmaker who got caught up in something bigger. I want filmmakers to bring their gifts to important subjects without expecting them to be policy wonks. In the Wikipedia world, everyone is a publisher to the world, and to limit publishing to the experts is to lock out the huge potential that we collectively can bring. No one would argue that the Facebook and Twitter posts of individual Egyptians during the Arab Spring uprisings were narrow and simplistic. Indeed the power was the collective voice.

    As I said in the beginning, I am happy for this post because it adds to a wonderful, deep conversation about an important subject that has been largely invisible. What I do not like is the treatment of Invisible Children’s video as a problem. That video, like the Tea Party movement and the Occupy movement, has altered the course of our nation’s conversation for the better.

  46. What all of you oh-so-smart journalists are missing is that millions of teenagers, completely impervious to news & current affairs stories, have suddenly become energised and had the profound realisation that they can do something to affect the world stage. A democratic army has woken up and said we’re ready to engage and within days their media streams are full of messages like yours saying ‘oh, no. Don’t engage. See, you’re not smart enough and knowledgable enough (like us) to engage, so just sit back down and forget about expressing your own voices.

    The alternative could have been that you wrote ‘yes, go for it young people. Have a go, see what happens and learn from it. Then learn about the issues by your own expanding experience and grow to other issues.’

    I think a population of the future like that, who began with doing something about this one small, messy issue, is a population we could well do with in that more complicated messier future. Their own government structures spend enough time making them think they’re not good enough to change anything without aloof intellectuals pulling the rug from beneath their feet just as they awake to possibilty.

  47. In response to the question “what can we do”:

    1. Notice

    2. Be amazed

    3. Tell others

    4. Renounce the hero complex

    5. Learn from the local response, particularly the popularity of amnesty. From a Ugandan perspective, what does the offer of amnesty serve? Should can we incorporate concepts of amnesty into Western lifestyles and justice systems?

    6. Listen to what people in the former conflict zone want, to stabilize the country. (I have heard things from “support for new Ugandan courts” to “water, seeds and gardening tools for folks returning to their villages from refugee camps.”)

    7. Support domestic Ugandan organizations and relief efforts. This could be through volunteer work, infrastructure support, or financial contributions.

    8. Keep listening. Keep paying attention. Keep being amazed.

    Just my belief.

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