Bigger than Kony

published in MST, 14 March 2012, page A5

“Kony 2012” is a 30-minute video that went viral on the Internet last week. As of Tuesday, it has had more than 75 million You Tube hits.

Joseph Kony is not running for office. He is the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, which has reportedly abducted tens of thousands of children from villages in Uganda, DR Congo, the Central African Republic and the Sudan. The girls are made into sex slaves; the boys are turned into child soldiers forced to kill their own parents, attack others and mutilate their faces. The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court at The Hague, Netherlands, Luis Ocampo, confirms that Kony is at the top of their most wanted list.

Kony is not fighting for any cause, filmmaker and Invisible Children founder Jason Russell says. He just wants to retain his power.

In the documentary are Russell’s five-year-old son Gavin, for whom he wants a better world, as well as Jacob, whom he met in 2003. Jacob’s brother was killed by the LRA.

Russell talks about the initial frustrations and successes of Invisible Children. In the beginning, nobody listened to them. Eventually they were able to pressure the US government to send some troops to central Africa to hunt down Kony. But he is elusive.

The video wants to make Kony a household name, and it seems he has become one. #Kony2012 trended on Twitter last week.

But not everyone is convinced. Critics say Invisible Children oversimplifies and misrepresents the complicated history of the conflict in Central Africa.

Freelance journalist Michael Wilkerson writs in the Foreign Policy blog that Kony is not even in Uganda anymore and that the LRA membership is down to a few hundreds. Wilkerson quotes Ugandan journalist Angelo Izama: “To call the campaign a misrepresentation is an understatement.”

The Huffington Post says “Olara Otunnu, a former United Nations diplomat who has worked on children and armed conflict, has long accused the Ugandan government of committing genocide in northern Uganda as it pursued Kony.”

The campaign is also said to reek of a “white man’s burden” mentality. IC has made young Americans care deeply about a cause that is so far removed from them. The non-profit’s Facebook page has had 2.9 million likes.

At one point in the video, Gavin says his father’s job is to go against bad guys. Jason then hands him a photo of Kony.

According to the New York Times’ Noam Cohen, Yale researcher Navid Hassanpour says that creating advocates for one side in an internal struggle in a foreign land could lead to more intervention by the United States and other Western powers.

The criticism was so fierce that early this week, IC chief executive Ben Keesey, in another video, explained the group’s strategy and finances. On the alleged misrepresentations, Keesey said that while they did not “have the monopoly of truth,” everybody agrees on one thing: that Kony should be stopped.


The instant popularity of the video is instructive in launching an advocacy campaign.

First, you need an actual, compelling story. Certainly children getting seized in the middle of the night and becoming transformed into killing machines at the behest of a power-hungry man qualifies.

Second, technology helps, but an actual face matters. Invisible Children uses the Internet and well-made videos to spread its message, but it also goes to schools all over the country and flies in former victims of the LRA to tell their stories firsthand.

Third, it knows exactly what it wants: Pressure on American leaders guarantees advisors’ retention in Uganda ensures success of Ugandan military that leads to Kony’s arrest. If you want to help, sign up, contribute and buy these bracelets. Not convinced? There are several cultural and political icons that are with us on this.

Fourth, it knows which audience to target. Young people perhaps feel empty and purposeless. What better way to engage them than showing them images of long suffering children in a distant part of the world?

Of course the world will be a safer place if Joseph Kony is eventually arrested and made to account for his crimes. There are other “bad guys” that must be brought to justice as well. Still, it would also be good to realize the power of information. It can be used and misused. In this day and age, we must be wary of what we see — before our fired-up emotions and misplaced zeal get the better of us.