Posted on 22 March 2012.
Invisible Children, Inc., a San Diego-based nonprofit group, released a 30-minute documentary film titled, “Kony 2012” March 5, advocating for the arrest of Ugandan rebel and warlord Joseph Kony.
For more than 20 years, Kony and his rebel army, the Lord’s Resistance Army, have been capturing, arming, torturing and abusing children in the African country of Uganda. The International Criminal Court charges Kony with crimes against humanity including murder, sexual slavery, rape and abduction, according to the documentary. These are war crimes that 99 percent of the world knew nothing of, according to Jason Russell, a co-founder of Invisible Children.
To raise awareness, Invisible Children created the “Kony 2012” documentary “to make Joseph Kony famous, not to celebrate him, but to raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice.”
Since its release, “Kony 2012” has attracted more than 80 million views on YouTube and become a top trending subject on Twitter. Kony was a household name only five days after the documentary’s debut, according to a press release by PRNewser.
As a result of the video, “Twitter hashtags #StopKony and #Kony2012 have caught fire,” according to the release, and sales of the $30 action kits created for the campaign “skyrocketed.”
It raised “hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations on the first day alone,” according to a New York Times report, which added that the video “is turning out to be the fastest growing social media video campaign.”
“In that sense, the organization and its mission is being praised,” said PRNewser. “People are energized.”
This is the first time that a nonprofit has generated this much success with such a “shrewd strategy,” as it is described in a CBS report.
Dr. YoungAh Lee, assistant professor of public relations at Indiana Wesleyan University, and Kristen Fuhs Wells, communication director of Indiana Humanities, a grant making agency, attested to the power of the communication strategies used by Invisible Children.
“Nonprofits now have the opportunity to go viral,” as Invisible Children has, said Wells. “We have never had the ability to reach this many people with such little money.”
“I think this campaign has shown the power of great storytelling using social media,” said Lee. “Nonprofit organizations often have to promote very abstract and remote causes to people. The Kony 2012 campaign has shown that it can be done through personal storytelling using social media and word-of-mouth.”
But the campaign has generated widespread criticism for its simplicity, commercialism and lack of timeliness.
“It is the right message, but it’s 15 years too late,” said Col. Felix Kulayige, a Ugandan military spokesman, in a CNN report. “If people cared 15 years ago, then thousands of lives would have been saved, and thousands of children would have stayed at home and not been kidnapped.”
Laurel Stone (sr), an IWU student studying international relations and public policy, contends with this critique. She is secretary-general of the campus’ Model United Nations student organization.
“No human rights abuse, no matter how big or small, can be considered outdated, but at the same time … I think I do agree with them saying that this is about seven or eight years too late,” said Stone.
Okot Patrick, a local government official in the Ugandan northern town of Gulu, said he believes the issues surrounding Kony and the LRA are no longer relevant.
“People have more pressing problems such as poverty and diseases,” he told the Wall Street Journal. Stone shares similar sentiments with Patrick.
“While it’s still good to advocate for a human life,” said Stone, “there are a lot of other abuses that are happening.” She described more relevant issues as being those in Syria, the Congo, Sudan and Afghanistan.
Critics have also come out saying that the video oversimplified a complex issue, “for downplaying government abuses under Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, and accused of commercializing the conflict to profit from it,” according to The New York Times.
Invisible Children responds to this scrutiny on its website: “In our quest to garner wide public support of nuanced policy, Invisible Children has sought to explain the conflict in an easily understandable format, focusing on the core attributes of LRA leadership that infringe upon the most basic of human rights. In a 30-minute film, however, many nuances of the 26-year conflict are admittedly lost or overlooked. The film is a first entry point to this conflict for many.”
“I can understand why they’d want to simplify it,” said Stone, “but at the same time, they’re losing a lot of ground with the public … because that’s not the main problem.”
“You can’t just say, ‘We’re going to go in there, and we’re going to arrest Kony, and that’s going to be the end of it,’ because Kony himself, while he has been a problem, is not the source of the problem,” said Stone. She referred to the Ugandan government, which she said has committed some human rights violations similar to those perpetrated by Kony.
In the Wall Street Journal, Norbert Mao, an opposition party leader appearing in the film, said that “both sides are guilty of massacres” but that “the filmmakers decided to concentrate only on LRA.”
In oversimplifying the issue many argue that its severity was blown out of proportion as well. The Wall Street Journal quotes the Ugandan president’s office warning against the overdramatized effects of the documentary.
“We are grateful for renewed efforts which seek to contribute to the arrest of Joesph Kony and the elimination of the LRA. … The Government of Uganda, however, would strongly urge that any awareness campaign fully takes into consideration the current realities of the situation,” said the presidential spokesman.
“You have all these different things in the world that are really terrible,” said Stone, “and, yes, Uganda and the LRA falls within them. But, I mean, compared with other things in the world, it’s not really as big on the radar map as other things should be or are.”
Many also accused Invisible Children of misusing funds by spending too much on marketing and not enough on the victims in Africa.
In an interview with CBS News, Invisible Children Movement Director Zach Barrows countered these critiques: “We’ve never pretended all the money goes to the ground because we don’t believe that’s the best use. The best use is spreading the word and then doing the highest-impact programs possible on the ground.”
Criticism aside, Stone, like many others, could not dispute that the documentary was “well- done.” However, she does not see the campaign as a be-all-end-all peace solution.
“I think it’s a good way for people to recognize the need for peace and to recognize that there are ways that we can find peace and make peace happen, but it’s not the solution for peace to actually occur,” said Stone. “There’s a lot of other stuff that needs to occur as well.”
Stone encourages viewers to consider the hope and the scrutiny surrounding the campaign and to become well-informed about complex international issues depicted in “Kony 2012.”
“People can’t just stop with watching the documentary, or they can’t just stop with listening to what they’re proposing as a policy,” said Stone. “I hope that it would motivate them to learn more and explore other topics of interest as well and kind of dive more heavily into the human rights issue or the central African problem.”
“This is a great opportunity to take a subject that you didn’t know about and learn about it … invest in understanding more about what the problem is and the complexity of the issue,” Stone said. “This, in turn, could be something that inspires them to learn about other conflicts as well.”
Originally published March 22 at 12:51 a.m. EDT, this version of the story was updated at 4:41 p.m. to correct a textual error. The “Kony 2012″ video was released March 5, not March 15 as initially reported.