KONY 2012 sparks internet controversy

Kaitlin Higgins
Global Editor

The non-profit organization Invisible Children released a 30-minute video on March 5 that kicked off their KONY 2012 campaign. Titled the same, the video explains the atrocities of Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), who have been terrorizing Central Africa for the past 26 years, with a particular focus on the recruitment of child soldiers.

Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord's Resistance Army (Photo: Google Images)

Just a day after its release, the “KONY 2012” video went viral. It has received over 80,000,000 views and is, according to Jennifer Preston of the New York Times, “the most explosive viral video” on the Internet. Facebook and Twitter users took to posting the video almost immediately, proving the powerful and intense possibilities of social network campaigns.

The message of the video aims at capitalizing further upon the advantages of social networking. In the video, Invisible Children outline a plan to target 20 culture makers, or celebrities, and 12 policy makers who can help further spread the word and take steps to action.

In the early hours and days of the campaign, support for Invisible Children and KONY 2012 seemed overwhelming. It did not take long, however, for Internet users, bloggers, and several mainstream media outlets to offer up scrutiny and criticism.

“The campaign is focused on the impact with few questions as far as the root causes of the conflict are concerned,” says Goucher College Assistant Professor of peace studies Dr. Elham Atashi.

“The image of a young child from Uganda with a gun is more likely to attract attention in the US. Yet a more difficult question that is not likely to draw as much coverage is the supplier of weapons,” she speculates. “If the filmmakers were to address the issue, they would have to confront some hard facts and for that they don’t have to point the finger to Uganda or even Kony but to the United Sates, the world’s largest exporter of arms.”

The Atlantic published two articles that paint the “soft bigotry” and “arrogance” of the KONY 2012 campaign.

“Treating awareness as a goal in and of itself risks compassion fatigue–most people only have so much time and energy to devote to far-away causes — and ultimately squanders political momentum that could be used to push for effective solutions,” say The Atlantic’s Kate Cronin-Furman and Amanda Taub.

Several videos surfaced in response to KONY 2012, some of them positive and some of them negative. Even responses from Ugandans were mixed, with some in support of the campaign and others unsupportive.

Cronin-Furman and Taub point out further, “It’s good that Americans want to help, but ignoring the role and authority of local leaders and activists isn’t just insulting and arrogant, it neglects the people who are most likely to come up with a solution to the conflict.”

Likewise, says Goucher peace studies student Leih Boyden ’13, who was in Uganda when 100 American advisors arrived, “At the end of day, KONY 2012 may empower Americans watching, but how does it empower Ugandans?”

While Invisible Children have faced an abundance of critiques, they still receive support from many and have been responding to their critics. On the new Critiques page of the Invisible Children website, the organization addresses several matters that have been brought up by critics.

Questions have been raised about Invisible Children’s finances, which are available online. Of the organization’s $8,894,630 spent in 2011, $1,859,617 was spent on travel and filmmaking and under a third of funds was spent on programs on the ground in Africa. The group responded on their critiques page by posting a breakdown of their 2011 finances.

Invisible Children have also, on this page, defended their “strategy to secure Kony arrest,” stating that their plan and campaign “supports the deployment of U.S. advisers and the provision of intelligence and other support that can help locate and bring Kony to justice.” In addressing this they also published their letter to President Obama asking for his support.

Invisible Children’s responses to critiques also included defending their support of the Ugandan government, who are accused of carrying out human rights abuses similar to those of the LRA. The group explains that they do not give monetary support to any governments but continue to “coordinate efforts with regional governments.”

In the midst of the reactions to KONY 2012, Invisible Children have been accused of oversimplifying the complex issue in Central Africa, as well as exaggerating the impact of the conflict and perpetuating the “white man’s burden.”

The group has won the support of many refugees of countries in which the LRA now operates, namely the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.

The BBC reports on one Congolese man named Jean-Roger who believes that military intervention, particularly from the United States, is the best method of stopping Joseph Kony. In speaking with the BBC, Jean-Roger stated, “[President Barack] Obama must make an effort to finish with Kony.”

Louis Moreno Ocampo, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, has given continued support to the KONY 2012 campaign as well. In addition to appearing in the campaign video, he has defended the filmmakers, saying in an interview with the BBC, “They’re giving a voice to people who before [no one] knew about and [no one] cared about and I salute them.”

Much of the criticism has been focused on Invisible Children’s tactics, philosophies, and especially their finances. Most seem to be in agreement, however, that the spread of awareness of Joseph Kony and the LRA has been effective and positive.

The campaign, says Dr. Atashi, “has successfully incorporated the use of social media to attract millions of viewers. The attention … is significant and a positive message for activism. … There is nothing wrong with Invisible Children bringing attention to this cause,” she says, “but this is an issue that is best dealt with internally.”

Katie Mowrer ’15 agrees, acknowledging that Invisible Children “are an organization started by inexperienced young people. They have always learned as they went along.

Although she says those efforts may not be the most ideal, “they have certainly gotten people’s attention. And this attention, whether good or bad, has started a conversation that I hope will start to move its critiquing focus from Invisible Children to other big name organizations.”


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