Kony 2012 and the Problem with Viral Activism

Kony 2012 and the Problem with Viral Activism

By Alana Jesse

On Monday, March 5th, the non-profit organization Invisible Children shocked the world with the release of their Kony 2012 video campaign. The intended purpose of this video was to raise awareness about Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army and a convicted war criminal. Kony was convicted in 2005 by the ICC for charges including but not limited to murder, rape, and the use of child soldiers. In the time since the LRA has been active, the number of children who have been abducted and forced to kill has been estimated to be as high has 104,000. Jason Russell and the two other founding members of Invisible Children literally stumbled into this issue while in Africa on their way to film the conflict in Darfur. Kony 2012 is the 11th documentary film they produced to raise awareness on the subject. This particular video went viral almost immediately and by March 9th, the video had been seen by 16.1 million people on Vimeo and over 70 million on Youtube, spreading through cyberspace like wildfire.

About 30 minutes in length, this is not your average documentary. Indeed, Russell claims that if people simply know about Kony and the atrocities he has committed, then enough pressure will be placed on governments to do something about it. That being said, one would expect Kony himself to be the so-called star of the show. Or for that matter the people who have been affected by the conflict. However, the video opens not with information about Joseph Kony or Uganda but with the birth of Russell’s son, Gavin. In fact, it take 4 minutes before either Kony or Uganda is mentioned at all. And as much airtime if not more is spent on reverberating various platitudes about the power of the internet and the information age than on the actual issue at hand. When explained about Kony and the atrocity of child soldiering, Gavin stares confused at the camera and asks, “But they’re not gonna do what he says, ’cause they’re nice guys…right?”

No one can argue with the need for the ICC to arrest a convicted war criminal, especially one as brutal as Joseph Kony. No one can argue with the importance of raising awareness in the global community and the need to address such regional issues as child soldiering. One can, however, argue with their methods of doing so.

Invisible Children, founded by Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey, and Laren Poole in 2004, is a non-profit organization created to raise global awareness about the atrocities of Joseph Kony and the LRA in Central Africa. However, Kony has not been active in Uganda since 2006, and currently Invisible Children provides the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and the Ugandan Army with direct action against the LRA. In addition, the organization advocates direct military intervention by the US in order to arrest Kony for his crimes. Invisible Children has grossly simplified a very complicated issue, and has abused social media sites like Facebook to spread a message of military intervention thinly veiled behind a heart-felt call for altruism.

First of all, there is the issue of throwing support behind the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and the Ugandan army. In Kony 2012, Russell glides over the issue of who exactly the US military advisors are supporting. The whole issue is framed in black and white terms: Kony bad, Ugandan government good. Those for whom Kony 2012 was their first encounter with politics in Central Africa would not know that the SPLA has in fact also been accused of using child soldiers, thus a morbidly ironic group for Invisible Children to be throwing their support behind. The Ugandan army itself is nothing to put on a pedestal. The Ugandan People’s Defense Force, a title changed from the infamous National Resistance Army in 1995, has also been criticized for its methods. The minimum age for participation in this force is 13, which could be perceived by many as a child soldier. It seems to me that if you were going to make a movie about child soldiering in central Africa that these are details that probably should not be glossed over. But with this willful omission of key details set to the invigorating poetic melodies of Mumford & Sons, how could a less-knowledgeable viewer stumbling upon this video on Facebook not feel obliged to send it to all their friends?

This brings me to a key issue that Kony 2012 has brought to the fore – that is the problem with Facebook activism. As graduates of the competitive film program at the University of Southern California, the makers of the video certainly understand the potential the internet holds in spreading a message and reaching a massive audience, especially one with such viral appeal as Kony 2012. However, Facebook cannot and should not replace more traditional avenues of social activism. Thirty minutes is not enough time to get informed about an issue as complex as this one. Kony 2012 plays on emotional appeals to young people in the first world who feel the need to help out poor, conflict-ridden Africa. This appeal is presented in ways that are both visually stimulating and convenient. Watching a video on Facebook when you have no knowledge of the group that created it does not count as getting informed on an issue. And clicking “Share” or “Attend” on an event page does not count as altruism.

For all its shortcomings, it is undeniable that Kony 2012 got people talking and more informed about issues they had either never heard of or understood. It got people who probably could not locate Uganda on a map before this video to look deeper into very troubling challenges and engage with issues they had probably never considered. The real questions now are whether or not this will bring about more sustained, meaningful discourse on the subject in the future and what - if anything - this sudden awareness will means to the people who have been affected by the LRA in central Africa.

* This article first appeared in The Political Bouillon on March 13, 2012.