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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

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.


About Author

Tom Paulson

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] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.