Massive viral video campaign against African warlord hits and misses

Over the last few days, a video posted on YouTube that aims to raise the profile — and potential for arrest — of the infamous African warlord Joseph Kony has been hugely popular and, in the eyes of many, so simplistic and inaccurate it is likely to do much more harm than good.

Some even go so far as to contend the organization behind the video, Invisible Children, is more interested in promoting itself than its cause:

The non-profit organization has been accused of spending the vast majority of its donations on film production, staff salaries and transport.

You can judge for yourself. Here’s the video, a powerful and well-done short (half hour) film calling for a groundswell, grassroots movement to push for the arrest of Kony and stop the decades of terror fomented by his Lord’s Resistance Army in east and central Africa:

It’s very compelling, but it has also prompted a major backlash from many experts on Africa, conflict resolution, development and foreign policy.

Invisible Children has taken (and probably deserves) credit for earlier convincing the Obama Administration to send 100 military advisers to Uganda to help the government there try to capture and arrest Kony. But Kony isn’t in Uganda anymore and some say urging more aggressive military actions by the Ugandan military (given its track record) could be more disruptive than Kony has been lately.

As one Ugandan journalist wrote for AllAfrica.com:

To call the campaign a misrepresentation is something of an understatement…. For many in the conflict prevention community, including those who worry about the further militarization of Central Africa, this campaign is just another bad solution to a more difficult problem.

After the video campaign was launched earlier this week, many knowledgeable people responded saying they have serious problems with this whole campaign.

Some stories:

CNN Stop Kony video goes viral 

Vancouver Sun To catch a warlord, get the word out on Twitter

Foreign Policy Kony is not in Uganda (and other complications)

The Atlantic The soft bigotry of Kony 2012

Globe and Mail Invisible Children hits back at its critics

MTV Kony 2012 campaign catches the eye of Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga

Clearly, the organization Invisible Children is counting on the power of Facebook, Twitter and other social media (and celebrities) to spread the word and create a global movement aimed at finally putting Kony out of business. Everyone, perhaps with the exception of Kony and his cronies, would want that.

And it is sort of thrilling to witness, or engage in, what could become a web-mediated, massive people-driven global push for justice against one of the world’s worst war criminals.

Yet while the power of social media to launch and sustain popular movements is undisputed, this episode has raised questions about the lack of accountability and factual reliability of such phenomena.

Joseph Kony

Invisible Children’s campaign (which goes by the name Kony 2012, or #StopKony or #Kony2012 on Twitter) appears well on its way to having already succeeded in raising public awareness of Joseph Kony.

One of its next goals is to convince people all around the world to blanket their communities on April 20 with posters and images of Kony. They are pretty cool-looking posters and, if this call for a mass demonstration works, should keep Kony nervous.

But, in reality, Kony has been in the crosshairs of the international community for a long time. He is actually already quite infamous, at least among those who work on human rights, poverty, governance, aid and development.

Will getting Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga involved in all this actually do more to put Joseph Kony behind bars?

More importantly, will it improve the safety and quality of life for the people living in central and east Africa? Or will we have gotten rid of one bad guy without fixing the problem of systemic poverty, weak governments and apathy?

Invisible Children's film crew poses with Ugandan soldiers

Thanks to Glenna Gordon, the photographer of the somewhat controversial photo of the film-makers above, for permission to use it. It’s worth getting Gordon’s take on this photo, so read her blog post.

For a look at the local reaction to the Stop Kony campaign, see this KPLU report by Evan Hoover.

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About Author

Editor Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom-at-humanosphere.org, follow him on Twitter @tompaulson and/or send a comment below.

  • CC

    I think the main thing that people forget is that we are in a new generation where technology changes everyday. The younger generations will not stop until they get what they want and technology is their voice.

  • CC

    I think the main thing that people forget is that we are in a new generation where technology changes everyday. The younger generations will not stop until they get what they want and technology is their voice.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000612404232 Nick Marsden

    Why not use all that money being collected and hire private mercenaries to go in there and either pull Kony out or kill him?  Too Hollywood? ;)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000612404232 Nick Marsden

    Why not use all that money being collected and hire private mercenaries to go in there and either pull Kony out or kill him?  Too Hollywood? ;)

  • LaraK

    Calling this campaign’s value into question because it doesn’t aim solve every problem of the Ugandan people is just another excuse for inaction. What the campaign is capable of, is mobilizing the public to put heat on our government to back the capture of an international criminal. A marathon is not won without taking the first step. This campaign may only be one step, but it’s in the right direction so why cut it down?

  • LaraK

    Calling this campaign’s value into question because it doesn’t aim solve every problem of the Ugandan people is just another excuse for inaction. What the campaign is capable of, is mobilizing the public to put heat on our government to back the capture of an international criminal. A marathon is not won without taking the first step. This campaign may only be one step, but it’s in the right direction so why cut it down?

  • anon

    It is too easy to criticize and exponentially harder to influence people into action.  I hope these “many in the conflict prevention community” offer more than their criticisms and perhaps instead their expertise or a joint alliance. On the other hand hopefully the feedback they have been receiving will help them fine tune their mission and/or message.

    It would be a shame to let the enemy of good be the best, or so I’ve heard.

  • anon

    It is too easy to criticize and exponentially harder to influence people into action.  I hope these “many in the conflict prevention community” offer more than their criticisms and perhaps instead their expertise or a joint alliance. On the other hand hopefully the feedback they have been receiving will help them fine tune their mission and/or message.

    It would be a shame to let the enemy of good be the best, or so I’ve heard.

  • Bowie Ibarra

    “Making him famous…”

  • Bowie Ibarra

    “Making him famous…”

  • PScott Cummins

    Tom, why wouldn’t you talk to me before writing this piece, given that we know each other – and that I have made two trips to Uganda (and many more to Washington DC) on behalf of Invisible Children. Its staggering to me that journalists would buy into the easy cynicism without digging into the facts first. You really disappoint me. 

    • http://humanosphere.kplu.org Tom Paulson

      Hi Scott,

      I wasn’t aware you were involved with the IC campaign to Stop Kony or I would have
      called you. Like many stories on my beat, this one just came across the transom and I wrote about it based on what I observed. The backlash was pretty strong, newsworthy and seemed to me to raise legitimate questions. I’m open to learning more.

      Best
      Tom

  • PScott Cummins

    Tom, why wouldn’t you talk to me before writing this piece, given that we know each other – and that I have made two trips to Uganda (and many more to Washington DC) on behalf of Invisible Children. Its staggering to me that journalists would buy into the easy cynicism without digging into the facts first. You really disappoint me. 

    • http://humanosphere.kplu.org Tom Paulson

      Hi Scott,

      I wasn’t aware you were involved with the IC campaign to Stop Kony or I would have
      called you. Like many stories on my beat, this one just came across the transom and I wrote about it based on what I observed. The backlash was pretty strong, newsworthy and seemed to me to raise legitimate questions. I’m open to learning more.

      Best
      Tom

  • guest

    oh for fuck sake dude.  get over yourself.  if people dont know about kony, then they SURE dont know about the politics of central africa.  gosh, maybe learning about one could lead to learning about the other. are you stupid or just a republican?

  • renee

    Dear Tom, personally I am really happy to see this article. You raise great questions. There is the relatively small community of people who have been taking strategic steps to capture Kony (or so I’ve read) for 26 years and he is still not caught. So someone needed to switch up the game and try something new. At the kony website they provide a comprehensive breakdown of their budget. People are hooting and hollering about the fact that only 32% has gone to direct services. Well, that makes sense because putting a documentary together takes a lot of time and money. (and where were they when we paid Mike Tyson a million dollars to bite someone’s ear off…they were in the crowd applauding)  The goal was to get the video out there, let it raise awareness and THEN begin the process of increasing money towards direct services. I trust that will happen. Unlike some other films aimed at raising awareness, this one has been provided directly to the public FREE…no special screenings, no need to order a DVD….all they ask is that you purchase a kit that will help communities make KONY visible. If you want to donate do so, otherwise don’t. Not only that but the donations are tax deductible. The criticisms I have read in this comment thread do not hold water for me. As I stated on my FB page this isn’t about the “white knight running in to save Africa”  it’s about working to protect the children of our global community. With this new tool to get the word out we finally have something by which people feel they have a voice. That was surely not the case say with Rwanda etc. All we could do was to watch the news reports and sit back feeling helpless. We don’t feel helpless now. If we fail at this attempt then the worst that can happen is we join the ranks of those who have failed to arrest KONY for the past 26 years. and I can’t imagine what could be worse than what is happening now…the slaughtering, maiming, raping etc of children. this movement is a step in the right direction. And for those who say “why now?” I say..”why NOT now?” 

  • renee

    Dear Tom, personally I am really happy to see this article. You raise great questions. There is the relatively small community of people who have been taking strategic steps to capture Kony (or so I’ve read) for 26 years and he is still not caught. So someone needed to switch up the game and try something new. At the kony website they provide a comprehensive breakdown of their budget. People are hooting and hollering about the fact that only 32% has gone to direct services. Well, that makes sense because putting a documentary together takes a lot of time and money. (and where were they when we paid Mike Tyson a million dollars to bite someone’s ear off…they were in the crowd applauding)  The goal was to get the video out there, let it raise awareness and THEN begin the process of increasing money towards direct services. I trust that will happen. Unlike some other films aimed at raising awareness, this one has been provided directly to the public FREE…no special screenings, no need to order a DVD….all they ask is that you purchase a kit that will help communities make KONY visible. If you want to donate do so, otherwise don’t. Not only that but the donations are tax deductible. The criticisms I have read in this comment thread do not hold water for me. As I stated on my FB page this isn’t about the “white knight running in to save Africa”  it’s about working to protect the children of our global community. With this new tool to get the word out we finally have something by which people feel they have a voice. That was surely not the case say with Rwanda etc. All we could do was to watch the news reports and sit back feeling helpless. We don’t feel helpless now. If we fail at this attempt then the worst that can happen is we join the ranks of those who have failed to arrest KONY for the past 26 years. and I can’t imagine what could be worse than what is happening now…the slaughtering, maiming, raping etc of children. this movement is a step in the right direction. And for those who say “why now?” I say..”why NOT now?” 

  • guest

    oh for f**k sake dude.  get over yourself.  if people dont know about kony, then they SURE dont know about the politics of central africa.  gosh, maybe learning about one could lead to learning about the other. are you stupid or just a republican?

  • http://twitter.com/eileenwcho Eileen Cho

    My two cents: Sadly, I did know about Kony before the “Kony 2012″ campaign because we learned about him in my AP Comp Gov class, three years ago. I knew it was a problem but didn’t feel empowered at all to do anything; I felt hopeless. But with this new Invisible Children video, I can see the light-while we’re at it, let’s punish ALL the war lords, let’s make them pay time for their crimes, let’s serve justice. Kony is Kony but as a result of this video going viral, he symbolizes ALL war lords. It’s 2012, we young citizens have the ability to change history forever. But, on the other hand, I don’t support Invisible Children. Why? They are too big on appearance and spend too much time traveling and making appearances–their money doesn’t go far. I would rather donate to Rotary International where I know I’ll get my bang for my buck (they have programs in Africa to educate and empower children). However, I applaud Invisible Children for using social media to inspire privileged youth to take action. Because of their video campaign, the world has the momentum to create change!

  • http://twitter.com/eileenwcho Eileen Cho

    My two cents: Sadly, I did know about Kony before the “Kony 2012″ campaign because we learned about him in my AP Comp Gov class, three years ago. I knew it was a problem but didn’t feel empowered at all to do anything; I felt hopeless. But with this new Invisible Children video, I can see the light-while we’re at it, let’s punish ALL the war lords, let’s make them pay time for their crimes, let’s serve justice. Kony is Kony but as a result of this video going viral, he symbolizes ALL war lords. It’s 2012, we young citizens have the ability to change history forever. But, on the other hand, I don’t support Invisible Children. Why? They are too big on appearance and spend too much time traveling and making appearances–their money doesn’t go far. I would rather donate to Rotary International where I know I’ll get my bang for my buck (they have programs in Africa to educate and empower children). However, I applaud Invisible Children for using social media to inspire privileged youth to take action. Because of their video campaign, the world has the momentum to create change!

  • Scott Burness

    Perhaps the greatest atrocity is teaching these children that they spread this carnage by the power of the Holy Spirit to purify the “unrepentant,” twisting Christianity into a religion of horror to their victims. It is spiritual warfare at its very worst, and it could not be more satanic. . .
    Under threat of death, LRA child soldiers attack villages, shooting and cutting off people’s lips, ears, hands, feet, or breasts, at times force-feeding the severed body parts to victims’ families. Some cut open the bellies of pregnant women and tear their babies out. Men and women are gang-raped. As a warning to those who might report them to Ugandan authorities, they bore holes in the lips of victims and padlock them shut. Victims are burned alive or beaten to death with machetes and clubs. The murderous task is considered properly executed only when the victim is mutilated beyond recognition and his or her blood spatters the killer’s clothing.
    In 2008, Michael Gerson shared this horror story in The Washington Post:
    A friend, the head of a major aid organization, tells how his workers in eastern Congo a few years ago chanced upon a group of shell-shocked women and children in the bush. A militia had kidnapped a number of families and forced the women to kill their husbands with machetes, under the threat that their sons and daughters would be murdered if they refused. Afterward the women were raped by more than 100 soldiers; the children were spectators at their own private genocide.
    This is ultimately the work and trademark of a single man: Joseph Kony, the most carnivorous killer since Idi Amin.

  • Scott Burness

    Perhaps the greatest atrocity is teaching these children that they spread this carnage by the power of the Holy Spirit to purify the “unrepentant,” twisting Christianity into a religion of horror to their victims. It is spiritual warfare at its very worst, and it could not be more satanic. . .
    Under threat of death, LRA child soldiers attack villages, shooting and cutting off people’s lips, ears, hands, feet, or breasts, at times force-feeding the severed body parts to victims’ families. Some cut open the bellies of pregnant women and tear their babies out. Men and women are gang-raped. As a warning to those who might report them to Ugandan authorities, they bore holes in the lips of victims and padlock them shut. Victims are burned alive or beaten to death with machetes and clubs. The murderous task is considered properly executed only when the victim is mutilated beyond recognition and his or her blood spatters the killer’s clothing.
    In 2008, Michael Gerson shared this horror story in The Washington Post:
    A friend, the head of a major aid organization, tells how his workers in eastern Congo a few years ago chanced upon a group of shell-shocked women and children in the bush. A militia had kidnapped a number of families and forced the women to kill their husbands with machetes, under the threat that their sons and daughters would be murdered if they refused. Afterward the women were raped by more than 100 soldiers; the children were spectators at their own private genocide.
    This is ultimately the work and trademark of a single man: Joseph Kony, the most carnivorous killer since Idi Amin.

  • http://dietsforweight-loss.blogspot.com/ AshleyLeah

    I just can’t believe they didn’t mention the outbreak of the African Zombie Virus. They supposedly contained it. But who do you contain a virus being spread by mosquitos? http://africanzombievirus.bogspot.com