Mapping the Kony 2012 Controversy: what does it mean for human rights advocacy?

Jason Russell being interviewed on E News on March 8th.

If you have a Twitter or Facebook account, you’ve probably watched Kony 2012. This 29-minute film has more than 65 million hits on YouTube. Invisible Children (IC) co-founder, Jason Russell, directed and narrated the super-viral film that campaigns against Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a militant group that began in Uganda over two decades ago, and a wanted war criminal responsible for the death and abduction of as many as 30,000 children.

Russell asks viewers to join IC’s campaign to capture Kony after describing his friendship with one of Kony’s victims, Jacob, and then sharing a compelling narrative about the promise he made to Jacob – “we’re going to stop them.”

In less than a week, the film has created an uproar. Many criticize the film for misrepresenting the LRA’s part in two decades worth of complex regional wars in East and Central Africa. Others praise the film as a social media superstar. Whether or not IC’s campaign can overcome the criticism, Kony 2012 is sure to provide a lasting lesson in the power and limits of social media activism.

How did Kony 2012 go viral so quickly?
The campaign was extremely savvy in its use of various social media platforms to circulate Kony 2012. The film intentionally targets the younger generation through its simplistic narrative, upbeat music and powerfully edited visuals. The film evoked an emotive response, motivating viewers to “share” it via twitter or facebook.

The targeting of the twenty culture-makers helped this film spread like wildfire. Oprah, Katie Couric, Bill Gates, Justin Bieber and other high profile celebrities have tweeted their support to the Kony 2012 campaign, creating more publicity for the film.  The video accumulated nearly 7 million views on Vimeo within 16 days and the YouTube upload received over 43 million views in the span of 72 hours.


The backlash
The successful spread of Kony 2012 resulted in an explosion of conversations in the blogosphere about the credibility of the film. While everyone agrees that the Joseph Kony story is both horrific and tragic – critics argue the issues in Uganda are much more complex than the video made out.

The film was posted on Monday and by Wednesday there was so much criticism from the media that Invisible Children posted a response to the many questions about the film and the organization.

Potential consequences for human rights
The debates around the Kony 2012 video campaign cover a number of issues, from its clever marketing strategy via social media, to criticisms of the oversimplified narratives in the video, and even Invisible Children’s questionable finances. From a human rights perspective, the debate about whether or not this video is “a good thing” centers around the following questions:

1) Does the video campaign help those directly affected by the LRA because it brings awareness to the issue, despite some oversimplification and misinformation?
Despite factual errors and misrepresentations in the video, some analysts believe that overall the awareness generated is a positive outcome. In their article in The New York Times, Josh Kron and J. David Goodman make the point that the campaign “could help add to the international resolve to stop the killing.” They quote from an interview with Pernille Ironside of UNICEF, who feels the video campaign is “ultimately a good thing.”

News of the video’s success even managed to reach the UN Headquarters, wherea press release was issued on Friday, March 9, where Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs B. Lynn Pascoe “expressed appreciation for the awareness-raising potential of a video about the LRA.”

At the same time, other commentators have questioned who actually benefits from this “awareness”?

2) Is the video campaign misguided because it focuses the attention on Kony and distracts from other issues that are more urgent for most Ugandans?
Many commentators argue the video is outdated, and that other concerns are more salient to Ugandans at the moment than the ongoing conflict with Joseph Kony.  As Dayo Olopade remarks in the Global Opinion section of the International Herald Tribune,

Victims of Nodding Disease in Uganda, this mysterious disease is spreading amongst children and adolescents in Uganda

“Ordinary Ugandans are worrying about other things….And if it’s Ugandan children in peril you’re looking for, there are those suffering from “nodding disease” — an unusual neurological disease that’s killed hundreds of children in the very region Kony once terrorized.”  She argues that the Kony 2012 video is a distraction from these more pressing issues.

 

3) Does the level of misinformation and misrepresentation actually make the situation worse for those directly affected by the LRA, and if so, how?
Many Ugandan journalists and activists  have expressed discontent with the video because of how it misrepresents the current state of Uganda, and its use of problematic, if unintended, cultural stereotypes to depict the situation. From a human rights perspective, though, does the video have the potential to cause harm beyond reinforcing simplistic stereotypes?

In The New York Times article mentioned earlier, the authors point out how activism in conflict zones can have significant and negative effects on the ground. The authors refer to activism around the crisis in Darfur, which gave the conflict an international profile, but, “the one-sided way activists painted the conflict — highlighting the Sudanese government’s crimes against villagers while largely ignoring the atrocities committed by rebels — ultimately made it harder to negotiate an end to the crisis.”

In the context of Uganda, many have argued that the decision by the International Criminal Court to indict Kony in 2005 actually made it more difficult for Ugandans to negotiate a peace settlement with the LRA. So an oversimplified advocacy campaign of “Stop Kony” could easily raise red flags for local activists.

This is image is from April 20, 2011. It shows U.S. Army soldiers meeting with the Uganda People’s Defence Force”(AP Photo/Stephen Wandera, File)

Additionally, the video calls for the U.S. government to continue its support of the Ugandan military. However, the Ugandan military has a very murky record when it comes to human rights abuses, and some locals in the Central African Republic (one of the countries where the LRA is now present) do not support the Ugandan military, backed by U.S. advisers.

Outside military intervention in Uganda, as well as in the surrounding countries where the LRA now operates, may not be the simple solution that the video leads us to believe.  Many are worried about potentially harmful policy decisions that may come as a result of this advocacy.

Keeping the conversation going
The Kony 2012 campaign raises an important question: What does “increasing awareness” mean if the source of this awareness is a video that oversimplifies and misrepresents the situation in East and Central Africa? Balancing impact, emotion and nuance have always been challenges for human rights advocates. Rather than allowing the video to get buried in the controversies surrounding it, how can we build on these many reactions and learn about how best to leverage social media and public opinion through producing effective – but nuanced – advocacy campaigns?

Leave us your views in the comments below!

Further links outlining the lessons other human rights professionals are taking from the campaign:

By Allison Tamer and Laura Reed. Allison and Laura are graduate students in the M.A.
program in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University. Allison’s research
focuses on violence against women in conflict settings, and Laura’s area of focus is human rights, transitional justice and representations of conflict in the media.

Comments

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful and thorough mapping of the many issues Kony 2012 raised. The media is still making sense of the benefits and dangers of this campaign. Here is an interesting NYT article that sees the dissolution of the LRA as key to achieving peace and security for people in East and Central Africa. The author emphasizes, however, that voices of communities in this region must be the starting point for any international advocacy campaign. For me, the biggest problem with Kony 2012 was this lack of agency.

    http://kristof.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/21/engaging-african-voices-on-kony/

Leave a Reply

What is 13 + 3 ?
Please leave these two fields as-is:
IMPORTANT! To be able to proceed, you need to solve the following simple math (so we know that you are a human) :-)