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Uganda: Can a Viral Video Really #StopKony?

This post is part of our special coverage Kony 2012.

A film aimed at making Joseph Kony—a Ugandan guerilla leader currently wanted by International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity—”famous” in order to raise support for his arrest has swept the Internet by storm, pushing #StopKony onto Twitter's trending topics list and prompting a wave of backlash from bloggers who worry the film and its associated campaign are overly simplistic.

The 30-minute film has received a combined 20 million views on Vimeo and YouTube in the past two days and has caught the attention of celebrities including Rihanna, Zooey Deschanel, Ryan Seacrest, and Ellen DeGeneres, as well as thousands of others:

@thaRadBrad: I've been on YouTube for a few years now but I've never seen a video go as viral as Kony 2012. Absolutely insane. #stopkony

@WillGorsuch: I'm pretty sure over 5 million people learned who Kony was today #StopKONY

The film, directed and narrated by Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell, uses popular YouTube videos, clips from Invisible Children's earlier films (partially shot in Uganda), appeals to the power of social media, and footage of Russell's young son to encourage viewers to “make Joseph Kony famous, not to celebrate him, but to raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice.”

Russell directs viewers to “go after” celebrities and policymakers to help spread awareness and encourage the United States government to ensure Kony's arrest in 2012. Viewers are asked to purchase an “action kit” containing bracelets and posters and to “Cover the Night” on April 20 by hanging these posters up in their communities. Russell warns:

In order for Kony to be arrested this year, the Ugandan military has to find him. In order to find him, they need the technology and training to track him in the vast jungle. That's where the American advisors come in. But in order for American advisors to be there, the US government has to deploy them. They've done that, but if the government doesn't believe that the people care about arresting Kony, the mission will be canceled. In order for the people to care, they have to know. And they will only know if Kony's name is everywhere.

The film has met with sharp criticism from netizens in Uganda and further afield, many of whom are skeptical of Invisible Children's understanding of the long-running Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) insurgency and the film's focus on arresting Kony as the way to end the fighting. Ugandan journalist and Global Voices author Rosebell Kagumire tweets:

@RosebellK: this simplification of a story of millions of people of N. #Uganda is not acceptable #KONY2012

Rosebell also posted a video of her own, sharing her thoughts about the film:

Ethiopian diaspora blogger and activist Solome Lemma also questions what she sees as the film's “lack of context and nuance”:

[I]n the video, the founder of Invisible Children tells his young son that Kony is a bad guy and he must go. Daddy will work on making sure he is caught. He states, “if we succeed, we change the course of human history.” Such a humble undertaking! Simply, a long socioeconomic and political conflict that has lasted 25+ years and engaged multiple states and actors has been reduced to a story of the good vs bad guy. And if a three-year-old can understand it, so can you. You don’t have to learn anything about the children, Uganda, or Africa. You just have to make calls, put up flyers, sings songs, and you will liberate a poor, forgotten, and invisible people.

Ugandan poet and musician Musa Okwonga points out that the film fails to mention two key actors in the conflict and its possible resolution—Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni and the Ugandan activists already working to address the problem:

Joseph Kony has been doing this for a very, very, very long time. He emerged about a quarter of a century, which is about the same time that Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni came to power. As a result the fates of these two leaders must, I think, be viewed together. Yet, though President Museveni must be integral to any solution to this problem, I didn’t hear him mentioned once in the 30-minute video. I thought that this was a crucial omission. Invisible Children asked viewers to seek the engagement of American policymakers and celebrities, but – and this is a major red flag – it didn’t introduce them to the many Northern Ugandans already doing fantastic work both in their local communities and in the diaspora. It didn’t ask its viewers to seek diplomatic pressure on President Museveni’s administration.

Joseph Kony – head of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). Photo released by Flickr user Chris Shultz under Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Multiple people familiar with the conflict have pointed out that the film deals almost exclusively with Uganda, despite the fact that the LRA has not been active in the country for several years. Writes Ugandan journalist Angelo Izama:

To call the campaign a misrepresentation is an understatement. While it draws attention to the fact that Kony, indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in 2005, is still on the loose, it’s portrayal of his alleged crimes in Northern Uganda are from a bygone era. At the height of the war between especially 1999 and 2004, large hordes of children took refuge on the streets of Gulu town to escape the horrors of abduction and brutal conscription to the ranks of the LRA. Today most of these children are semi-adults.

Human rights activist and former development worker Siena Antsis points out:

Gulu – and Uganda – has gone through some incredible changes. The economy is booming. The region is re-stabilizing. While Kony’s men continue to kill, rape and slaughter elsewhere, Gulu is not a static, unchanging place. Neither is Uganda, neither is the continent. Portraying a region like Gulu as such, and sending the mass message that the whole continent reflects this, is damaging. It undermines possibilities of investment. It clouds story of entrepreneurship, success and innovation. This goes hand in hand with saying “I work in Africa.” Lumping the continent as one messy area.

Ugandan blogger Julian Mwine tweets:

@Jaymwine: In all fairness #stopkony couldnt have trended when #kony was terrorising #uganda coz there was no twitter then.

Blogger TMS Ruge questions Invisible Children's “fund-raising stunt” and argues that the organization's primary mission is not “selling justice, democracy, or restoration of anyone’s dignity” but rather selfishly ensuring its own survival:

This is a self-aware machine that must continually find a reason to be relevant. They are, in actuality, selling themselves as the issue, as the subject, as the panacea for everything that ails me as the agency-devoid African. All I have to do is show up in my broken English, look pathetic and wanting. You, my dear social media savvy click-activist, will shed a tear, exhaust Facebook’s like button, mobilize your cadre of equally ill-uninformed netizens to throw money at the problem.

TMS Ruge started the #StopIC hashtag on Twitter in response to the film. A growing number of #StopKony skeptics are clustering around the tag:

@tmsruge: Time & time again I have been quiet on this capacity sucking organization that is @Invisible. Stop robbing us of our dignity! #stopIC

@simbamaxxed: If one more person pastes this overdramatic #kony2012 video on my wall…#stopIC

@andykristian: Invisible Children is doing a disservice to #Uganda. Before you support IC, get the facts straight. #StopIC #StopKony

For some Ugandan bloggers, the controversy over the film has also sparked a broader debate about media hype and international awareness of violent conflict. In response to a call I put out on Twitter for Ugandan viewpoints on the film, blogger Ernest Bazanye tweets:

@bazanye: @Opiaiya @rebekahredux @bazanye: …other world events? We could be reading the world just as wrongly as the world is reading us

This post is part of our special coverage Kony 2012.


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  • Thanks very much for such a good post. Very critical, very serious.

    I agree with Tiffany. This is another nice picture of the good mighty white man “saving” what he thinks “Africa” is. The tone is almost annoying… Again the Disney mentality with “the good guys” and “the bad guys”. This doesn’t help to solve a problem like this one, it rather limits the capacity of understanding, and the real causes and consequences.

    I think the American public (and that includes all of us in the western world) would do a lot more if they (we) were more conscious of the things we buy and what the costs are in maintaining a certain way of life.

    Most of the causes that nourish these horrible conflicts are interconnected, and we all share a piece of the responsibility.

    And in addition to Solome Lemma’s sharp and accurate comment:

    “You just have to make calls, put up flyers, sings songs [and buy the Tshirts with the logo saying that we’re as cool as Bono. We’re saving Africa!]

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