The Kony 2012 video produced by Invisible Children has attracted somewhere between 80 and 100 million views by now. No matter what your position on the campaign is, it is undeniable that it managed to tap a huge reservoir of public attention. The viral campaign and reactions to the video quickly spilled over from internet blogs to the classic medias, with basically all big newspapers, TV stations and radio stations running a story on Kony 2012 at least once. And that’s when it all went wrong.
The simplified and – as many rightly point out – to some extent even dangerous message of the video was answered with a global smear campaign that started picking apart not only Kony 2012 but also Invisible Children’s organizational structures and accounting practices. In the end, Kony 2012 has left behind only losers. The current victims of the LRA in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and South Sudan remain largely ignored, the formerly war affected communities in northern Uganda feel deeply offended by the video, the work of Invisible Children has been discredited, its co-founder and Kony 2012 producer Jason Russel had a mental breakdown in public, and a huge potential of public awareness that could have really made a difference in Central Africa has been squandered.
At the end of the day, the Kony 2012 saga is a very sad story that shows how shallow discussions about complex issues in our mass media still are. Yes, the message of Kony 2012 was oversimplified, yes it painted a wrong picture of what was happening in the LRA conflict, and yes it also offered the wrong answers and sent a dangerous message of militarisation. I adhere to my criticism of the Kony 2012 campaign, and there have been others like Alex de Waal and Mahmood Mamdani who have been much more eloquent and precise in pointing out the real weaknesses in the campaign.
If even a couple of thousand people watched the video and then read the highly informed responses of de Waal, Mamdani and the likes, a lot has been done in terms of awareness rising for the complex issues surrounding the LRA conflict. I also maintain that Invisible Children has not been able to convincingly answer the main points of criticism, especially the warnings that another military intervention along the lines advocated by IC against the LRA is prone to lead to only more civilian casualties. But unfortunately this was not the main thrust of criticism brought forward by the big media outlets. As Adam Finck who currently works with Invisible Children in DRC rightly points out when rebutting some of the less well-founded criticism surrounding Kony 2012, the critics of IC also made an error by oversimplifying the work of Invisible Children.
As I previously wrote, the work of Invisible Children in the currently war affected areas (mainly DRC and CAR) is of a vital importance. It is one of the few organisations that had the courage of moving into these areas and opening a reception centre for returning LRA abductees/fighters in DRC where it most mattered. It has also helped to build up a high frequency radio early warning system in the area to help civilians to react to LRA attacks in time. The media smear campaign ensuing from the Kony 2012 criticism might have devastating long-term consequences for the work of IC in these areas.
I do not regret writing my piece criticising the Kony 2012 video. I think an informed discussion was urgently called for. Yet, I am very sad to see how the informed and balanced criticism brought forward by people working on the LRA conflict was turned into a smear campaign against IC. The CNN interview with Jason Russel and IC CEO Ben Keesey was a good example, showing which kind of criticism was picked up by the mass media. Russel and Keesey were confronted with the allegations raised in public that Invisible Children is not putting all the money it raises with Kony 2012 into the campaign but that only one third is really going into it. They were also confronted with allegations from pedestrians in Kampala who said IC was making money off the misery of war victims.
Other media reports included a shot from a screening of Kony 2012 in Lira, northern Uganda. As people watched the movie, anger started to spread through the crowd and the screening had to be interrupted when an angry crowd started throwing stones. Like the Kony 2012 video itself, the media reactions have made the mistake of reducing the issue as one about Uganda.
Many, like CNN, did not even bother to go to northern Uganda, where the war affected communities live, but just asked random people in the capital of Kampala for their input. I am not aware that anybody has so far asked the current victims of the LRA in DRC, CAR and Southern Sudan (please correct me if I am wrong). Yes, Ugandans are angry about Kony 2012, and rightfully so. The LRA had ravaged northern Uganda for twenty years between 1986 and 2006 and the world did just not care. In fact we (the West) funded Museveni’s government that violently herded 90 per-cent of the population into camps where it utterly failed to protect them against LRA attacks. People died of Cholera and Ebola or were massacred by the LRA. Instead of helping, government soldiers raped civilians and shot those as ‘rebel collaborators’ who dared to venture out of the camps to search for food. If you talk about a military solution in northern Uganda, these are the memories that you will stir in all Ugandans who suffered during 20 years of conflict in which one military offensive after the other failed to bring peace.
Now, 6 years after the LRA has left northern Uganda, shortly after oil has been discovered in the northern Ugandan district of Amuru, at a time when the strategic importance of Ugandan troops in Somalia is paramount for the US, a viral video calls for support of a military US deployment in LRA affected areas while strongly focusing on northern Uganda in its narrative. How would you react? Yes, people are furious, they are disappointed, they feel ridiculed and insulted. Most think the US is coming for the oil and is there to stay.
Some of my Ugandan friends may disagree or even be angry with what I write now, but the story does not end there. It is true, the way Kony 2012 told the story of the LRA is hurting and disrespectful to their Ugandan victims. But there are still people who are being attacked by the LRA on a daily basis in DRC, CAR and Southern Sudan. Northern Uganda is, after all, enjoying relative peace since 2006. But who says that today’s victims do not want protection?
My qualified criticism of Kony 2012 mainly focused on the fact how the solution IC offered was flawed, but it was not completely wrong. And, instead of leading a smear campaign, it was the duty of the media to discuss the topic intelligently. A military intervention can help, if, and only if some conditions are fulfilled. First, it has to focus on the protection of civilians, not on hunting Kony. This was the main mistake of IC’s message. Second, it has to include a strong focus on training the troops of the regional armies, especially in human rights issues. The armies should protect the civilians, not abuse them. Third, the US needs to provide their allied armies with adequate transport to catch Kony, especially helicopters. Fourth, a strategy furthering LRA defections is needed, something IC admittedly already does but has communicated poorly. Fifth, the root causes of the conflict in northern Uganda have to be tackled. For this to happen, we need Western donor governments to put significant pressure on the Ugandan government to pay compensation to the war victims, keep up and boost efforts to develop northern Uganda, and end the political marginalisation of the north, as well as the discrimination of northerners on the labour market.
An intelligent discussion of the impulse provided by the Kony 2012 campaign could have lead to public awareness and pressure towards implementing these five crucial points. Instead, a simplified message was answered by a smear campaign and over 80 million clicks have gone to waste.
On a more personal note, I was deeply saddened when I read about the nervous breakdown of Jason Russel because I can relate to his strong personal motivation. He gave a promise to a Ugandan boy to change something, and even though he may have caused harm with his Kony 2012 video, he has an admirable drive to change the misery he witnessed. During my field research I was asked several times by interviewees what I would do with the information to help change the situation of LRA victims or to end the war. I could only say that I will use the information to write a balanced PhD that will hopefully help guide future decision makers to make more informed choices when they have to grapple with armed conflicts. Jason Russel tried to do a lot more, but I am afraid that he has tragically failed – at least with this particular campaign. The media coverage of the next few days will undoubtedly focus on his public breakdown and all the good that could have come out of Kony 2012 might be irrevocably lost.
PhD student at the University of Tübingen and
the Max-Planck-Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law.
The article was first published on our partner-blog Justice in Conflict.