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How Kony 2012 Is Raising Awareness, But Also Raising Questions

By now, chances are you’ve heard about Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign. Perhaps you’ve seen it trending on Twitter and wondered what it meant, or saw it inundating your Facebook news feed. Maybe you’re one of the roughly 36 million people who have watched the 30-minute video about it. Seemingly overnight, the initiative has swarmed social media — and, rather unsurprisingly, with the praise there’s also been a barrage of criticism. Kony 2012 tackles a complex issue in a fairly black-and-white way, so it’s worth taking it all with a grain of salt. It also raises questions about advocacy in general.

A quick rundown: Kony 2012 is an effort to publicize the atrocities of Joseph Kony, and eventually bring him down. Kony is a warlord who’s led the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda for over 20 years now — and while doing so has abducted children and turned them into soldiers, using them for murder. I cannot possibly cover the extent of Kony’s violence in one paragraph, but those interested should certainly look further into it. There’s no question he needs to be stopped, and the International Criminal Court has had an arrest warrant out for him since 2005.

From personal experience, I can say that IC drew me in, too. Back in high school, I first learned about the organization and participated in their “Displace Me” event. Along with a small group from my school, I slept outside with little other than a tarp, a few cardboard boxes and a sleeping bag; and with limited food and water. I participated in another of their videos, and I talked about the topic to my family and friends. I won’t deny it was part of how I was introduced to the conflict. But only later did I read up more about it. At the time I knew far less about activism and international affairs than I do now. To be clear, I’m hardly an expert. But I have spent a decent amount of time learning about it, both in and out of the classroom. And there’s nothing wrong with asking questions. A piece in the Independent, written by a man whose family is from Northern Uganda, raises some valid points about such skepticism — and also mentions alternative ways to donate and get involved. It’s worth a read.

I’m not going to bash IC as an organization overall (though they’ve gotten negative feedback long before this video). To give credit where it’s due, it’s worth acknowledging that raising awareness is an important aspect of advocacy. And awareness is what IC does best. In doing so, the organization also creates simplistic narratives about a complex, nuanced issue, and there’s where a great deal of the criticism comes in. Oversimplification. About the Kony 2012 video, Ethan Zuckerman (a researcher with involvement in nonprofits and focus on issues in Africa) makes a keen observation:

Much of his short film features him explaining to his young son that Kony is a bad guy, and that dad’s job is capturing the bad guy. We are asked to join the campaign against Kony literally by being spoken to as a five year old. It’s not surprising that a five year old vision of a problem – a single bad guy, a single threat to eliminate – leads to an unworkable solution. Nor is it a surprise that this extremely simple narrative is compelling and easily disseminated.

And IC knows that’s the kind of dramatic, simplistic narrative that goes viral. It’s instantly relatable and makes the viewer think, “you know, I should be a part of this.” It gets the likes of Ryan Seacrest, Kim Kardashian, Rihanna, Oprah and Diddy to comment. It gets acknowledgment from CNN’s Piers Morgan and NBC’s Today Show.

While that’s a great step toward increased visibility of a problem, the elimination of details and complexities — and lack of real, workable solution — limits the effect such a campaign can have. In the backlash to the video, many have pointed out that IC’s effort fails to mention the grassroots efforts by Ugandans themselves, the messiness of military intervention, the evolving details of the situation in Northern Uganda and Kony’s whereabouts. International human rights is full of grey areas and problems that can’t be solved with well-produced, provocative filmmaking. But a more nuanced, intricate video doesn’t gather an audience the way IC videos do.

If oversimplified, sensational videos grab millions of viewers, but more informative albeit less entertaining ones are more productive, we have ourselves a conundrum. I’m aware I’ve not touched upon several other criticisms of IC and Kony 2012 here, for the sake of word count, but I’ll note there has been discussion about IC’s financial transparency (or lack thereof) as well as a blog devoted to critiquing (and aggregating critiques of) the organization.

IC’s use of social media is nothing short of remarkable. Yes, more people know about Joseph Kony as a result of it. I’m glad you know about it, but before blindly retweeting and taking out your wallet, it’s worth doing just a little bit of homework. It’s doubtlessly a cause worth supporting, but you may find that your efforts (and money) should be directed to the problem through different means.

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