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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”

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  9. Ethan,

    Thank you so much for your detailed post on Joseph Kony and the situation in Uganda. I really appreciate your offer of context and thought on a complex issue. Having been a life long propaganda maker, my fascination with the success of Kony 2012 is slightly different. http://spytravelogue.com/?p=1650
    However I do believe the debate and the conversation that has been generated is of value. We are a citizen of the world, we should make a practice to be more concerned and more aware. Thank you again for your thoughts and the post.


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  16. As an African born and bred in South Africa I can tell you that a lot of these movements for help are a waste of time and monry. The corruption runs very deep, especailly when there is so much pverty. I have seen may United Nations food rations being sold and small shops when they were meant as donations to the poor. Research carefully before donating your money because there ARE good charities that work in Africa. Doctors without borders is a FANTASTIC organisation where the money goes to the right place. Another really good oen is GIFT OF THE GIVERS. Run by a muslim group out of South Africa. Check them out if you are nervous of donating to Muslims-considering the issues in Sudan etc. They are very well know in S.A and donate millions of dollars worth of food and negotiate hostage release etc. basically – do your research, there are good organisations out there but there are also a lot of thieves!

  17. You are a thoughtful polite person. Your dissection of KONY2012 misses by a mile. You link and unlink ideas and notions which clouds all. Like it our not, IC rebuilds schoold in Uganda. The average Ugandan wishes for Goverment change in Uganda. (don’t expect Uganda to praise anything American. Like it or not the AFRICAN UNION has reallied 5000 troops to round up KONY. Like it or not the US pols continued to discuss and agree and raise awareness, constantly speaking out for support of IC. Like it or not IC has a factory in Uganda and employs workers. Like it or not IC is scholarshipping 500 high school kids and 250 college kids. like it or not theyvebeen raising awareness for eight years. your comments miss so much. What is striking is that of the hundred million people who are now aware of the effort about a third of a million people can write and blog, and complain, and cut the legs out of the IC people. if you ask the IC – they will tell you that the most disturbing aspect of the success of KONY2012 and IC is that hundreds of thousands of people are prepared to disparage the nine year effort of creative people who care, who act, who take a stand.
    oversimplification? what’s so bad about a trial for the most wanted person (most wanted by the ICC)ask a maimed.

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  27. Awareness of a problem is the first step to solving it. I am more educated about the problems in Africa because of Kony 2012. Your blog post is another example of how I can learn more about the real, deeper issues involved.

    I realize that many people will not dig deeper, but I personally am much more informed about what is going on over there than I was before the Kony Video. Raising awareness is the starting point for any cause. Now that we know, we can dig deeper by reading, researching, and discussing with each other.

    Your post is one more valuable piece of the larger picture. I applaud the efforts of Invisible Children for getting people thinking about it, and you and others like you for spreading the word of the bigger picture.

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  32. Thankyou, Ethan, for such a nuanced and comprehensive description of the situation in Central Africa, and the Kony 2012 campaign. It seems to me that we tend to veer between absolute faith in social media and its potential for activism, and a total rejection of the medium as shallow and uninformative. I truly believe it can fulfil both of these objectives, if only we are vigilant in our viewing of videos like Kony 2012. As a 17 year old, i watched so many of my friends be won over by the soaring violins and the smart info graphics: even though we live in an image saturated world, these rhetorical devices still hold enormous impact. I can’t help thinking what might have happened had a film like Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ gone viral instead of Kony. Would the world have been a different place? Maybe, maybe not. The point is that social media is extremely powerful, and we have to be wary of the potential for the online community to be manipulated.

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  42. Wow – here we are months later, Kony is still free. and back the and forth,the questions are asked, and analyzed. But what is consistent is that IC is still advocating, and bringing the issue to the surface. Here is NYC you can kill somebody in 1960 and thirty years later, if evidence surfaces, the NYC police department will follow the lead and bring you to justice. If not for IC, who will follow Kony and his cohorts and bring him to justice? why is IC’s work questionable? what about all of the efforts IC undertakes in Uganda? like it or not over the last few years IC scholarships hundreds of High School kids. IC scholarships hundreds of college kids. IC councils affected. IC employs. (here and in Uganda). I can’t help but think the narrow critics, the narrow views, and all of the negatives really are pointless wasted effort.

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