A cautionary tale: Kony 2012 – The backlash

Would you give guys like these your money if they said they would spend it well? Or follow them into a messy world of politics and power that you don’t really understand? Many thousands did this week without asking the questions that social media now enable us to ask. From at least some quarters of the internet, the online backlash was swift.

Here’s what happened. If you were anywhere near Twitter or Facebook on 6-7 March 2012, you are likely to have seen the name Joseph Kony.

A US-based organisation called Invisible Children had just launched a campaign video that called for a global social movement to form and demand the arrest of the monstrous Kony — a brutal bastard of a man who has so much blood on his hands they will never be dry.

Kony is the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a militant group famed for abducting children and forcing the boys to bear arms and the girls to spread legs — as sex slaves and mothers of the next generation of child soldiers. For 25 years, the LRA has waged war on against Uganda’s government, as part of a wider and more complex conflict.

The film — Kony 2012 — urged viewers to demand that US politicians provide military support to Uganda to catch Kony, even though it acknowledged that Kony is no longer in Uganda but has skulked across the border to a forest hideaway. It also called for cash donations, though was not at all clear about how the money would be spent.

Kony 2012 was made by Jason “Radical” Russell, a co-founder of Invisible Children, and it featured his young son throughout. Among other things, it said the organisation planned to mobilise celebrities like Bono and Rihanna, Oprah Winfrey and Mark Zuckerberg to use their influence to help bring Kony to justice.

The video is a masterwork of compelling narrative, and it has lessons for anyone who want to communicate in a way that inspires action. Links to it flew fast around the Internet. For several hours #KONY2012 was trending on Twitter. But then the backlash came.

Ugandan people and knowledgeable foreigners used the same social networks to kick back against the narrative that naive viewers of the film were perpuating with every link sent and tweet retweeted. For examples of the reaction see this Visible Children post, this piece by Musa Okwonga, and this blog post by Siena Anstis.

Critics of the Invisible Children campaign say that while it is well-intentioned and while Kony deserves international condemnation, there are questions about the organisation’s methods, money and support for military action that need to be answered. Others are revulsed by the idea of foreigners thinking they can solve an entrenched and complex problem with goodwill alone.

As I tracked the story shift on my Twitter feed, I saw a couple of tweets from Rosebell Kagumire, a Ugandan journalist whose opinion I value highly. I met Rosebell at a climate change conference but she’s a braver reporter than that. Back in 2005 she was reporting on the Joseph Kony story itself. Here’s one of her tweets that caught my eye.

I asked Rosebell to expand and here’s what she told me in an email:

I viewed it this morning and the first 5 minutes told me this was another effort by a good white American guy trying to save my people. In this story Ugandans are just mere watchers as Kony kills our children. In this story not much can an African do. It is the same old sensationalization of African stories and simplification of our problems to tell the western world using even his son that they should save Africa. How? by giving us money.

It’s a narrative that many of us of the continent who work in the media always look at in disbelief but such videos are easy to enter the hearts of an ignorant Western audience who do not question the narrative.

The film is void of any means like peace efforts that have gone on and it simplifies the war to Joseph Kony — a mad evil man. This war was bigger than Joseph Kony and those who will end it won’t be Americans. It’s a complex war that requires African governments of Uganda, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic to work together to pacify the region. And when I heard him say that Uganda is in central Africa despite [him] having visited here I almost stopped watching.

All in all it’s a very imperialistic film trying to touch sentiments of those who can ‘save’ Africa i.e. Hollywood and the West.

I am glad for social media that we are able to watch this kind of work and we react. This kind of condescending attitude towards Africa and its problems shouldn’t be given space in the 21st century.

She’s right. The internet can make us lazy, it’s true, but with social media at our fingertips, we no longer have an excuse not to ask questions of people who know what they are talking about, not to leap before we look.

[Update: 8 March 2012 — Rosebell Kagumire has posted a video response to the Kony 2012 film. Here it is.]

[Photo credit: The image was snapped by photographer Glenda Gordon in 2008 and featured in a 2009 blog post by lawyers Kate Cronin-Furman and Amanda Taub.]

36 thoughts on “A cautionary tale: Kony 2012 – The backlash

  1. Seems to me all the video ultimately endorses is continued US military presence in Uganda so that Kony can be tracked down and captured. What it comes down to is whether you think this is a good idea or not. I won’t pretend to understand the complete situation regarding the LRA, Uganda, Somalia and the other countries Rosebell listed, but if the US’s only mission is to aid the Ugandan army in carrying out this objective, then isn’t it a fairly hard mission to disagree with?

    Though I understand that the Ugandan govt has been involved in its fair share of foul play over the years, would not a campaign designed only to route out the LRA and capture its leaders – and do nothing more than this – be an objectively good campaign? Because, ultimately, this is all it seems that the Kony vid is calling for. US presence in Uganda doesn’t necessarily mean absolving the country’s government of its own place in the region’s conflict. It just seems to be an acknowledgement of the presence of this ‘mad, evil man’, and a way of making it more likely that he will be stopped.

    • Hi Sam, thanks for commenting. Asides from the fact that Kony is not even in Uganda (see above) there are huge questions to be asked about US citizens agitating for their military to get involved in parts of Africa whose own citizens are not demanding such an intervention. The campaign is also asking people to donate a few dollars a month — but as one of the bloggers I referred to above has pointed out, there are questions about the organisation’s track record of spending money on in-country projects (versus spending on salaries, etc.). Charity is a good thing and the end of Kony would be a good thing too. Of course. More global awareness of the evils of people like Kony can also only be a good thing. But when raising that awareness means also misinforming several million people (who have seen the video on YouTube) about African agency, African reality and the complex nature of the real story, then I think we should question the approach and listen to people like Rosebell.

  2. an evil man and organisation indeed but it would be a most interesting situation if it became the responsibility of each country to police their own citizens wherever in the world they might be commiting crime.

  3. I concur with Tim Butcher. If it goes to a good cause, why not? We are merely trying to help. So why are you bothering writing up an essay to persuade people to cease giving funds going towards charity? KONY 2012

    • Hi Sam, see my response to Tim’s comment just above yours. My blog post does not argue that people should cease giving funds to charity. It urges people to ask the right questions of the right people first. It calls for critical thinking and it points out that the social networks at our fingertips allow us to do that very easily if we are prepared to expend the effort before spending the dollars.

    • The road to hell is paved with good intentions. A good cause and the desire (and will!) to help are great things, but it is important to make sure that the method/medium you use to act on that will and try to contribute to the cause is effective in achieving the goal of the cause. Too often, the methods/mediums are not only ineffective, but can worsen the problem by creating new ones.

      That’s why you should research the organization that is asking for your money.

  4. @Sam Hudson, he’s not saying NOT to give money. He’s just telling people to be cautionary and critical and question what they do. It’s not wrong to ask questions like how much of the money is going to help these people and not in your pockets? It isn’t uncommon for charitable organizations to pocket a significant amount of cash which was intended to be given to the noted victims.
    I can quote it for you incase you forgot or completely missed it…
    ” The internet can make us lazy, it’s true, but with social media at our fingertips, we no longer have an excuse not to ask questions of people who know what they are talking about, not to leap before we look.”
    If someone disagrees with asking questions before you donate then by all means.

  5. I’m adding a couple of paragraphs here that I’ve seen on other blogs today…

    This is from TMS Ruge at Project Diaspora

    “I’ve never heard of Germans running NGOs in [the United States of] America to try and fix the economy or Swedish NGOs in America trying to fix the declining standard of living. Africa is our problem, we hereby respectfully request you let us handle our own matters. We will make mistakes here and there, sure. That is expected. But the trade-off of writing our own destiny far outweighs the self-assigned guilt the world assigned to us. If you really want to help, keep the guilt and charity in your backyard. Bring instead, respect, and the humility to let us determine our destiny.”

    This one is from Scott Ross, who has been involved with the Invisible Children organisation since 2007.

    “The videos blur the lines between the countries, and simplify everything to Kony roaming Africa abducting kids. That’s not to mention that there is no evidence of the 30,000 children figure endlessly repeated by IC and other NGOs, and no discussion of how to define abduction (which is important, since some are forced to help transport supplies before being set free, while others are forced to kill their own family members before being conscripted for life). The story IC creates will drive policy, and it needs to ensure that we have a dialog about the peace-justice debate, the accountability of the Ugandan military, and ways to move forwards without losing momentum.”

    This is from Daniel Solomon, current National (US) Director of STAND, a student political constituency organization focused on genocide and mass atrocities prevention and civilian protection policy.

    “In order to move past #KONY2012, to promote credible approaches to conflict resolution in Central Africa, anti-Kony advocates need to be prepared to move past the public narrative, past the sexy, and past the action kit. On March 6, hundreds of people told me to take thirty minutes out of my evening to watch Invisible Children’s Kony documentary. If, on March 7, you’re not taking thirty minutes out of your evening to read the International Crisis Group’s November 2011 report on the way forward for stabilization and conflict resolution in LRA-affected areas, you’re not doing your job correctly.”

    And this is from Michael Deibert, author of Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair, who has just returned from the region Joseph Kony insurgency began.

    The problem with Invisible Children’s whitewashing of the role of the government of Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni in the violence of Central Africa is that it gives Museveni and company a free pass, and added ammunition with which to bludgeon virtually any domestic opposition, such as Kizza Besigye and the Forum for Democratic Change. By blindly supporting Uganda’s current government and its military adventures beyond its borders, as Invisible Children suggests that people do, Invisible Children is in fact guaranteeing that there will be more violence, not less, in Central Africa.

    I have seen the well-meaning foreigners do plenty of damage before, so that is why people understanding the context and the history of the region is important before they blunder blindly forward to “help” a people they don’t understand. U.S. President Bill Clinton professed that he was “helping” in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1990s and his help ended up with over 6 million people losing their lives.

    I’ve linked their names to their full blog posts so you can read more there.

  6. I don’t think that Russell is trying to “save Africa”, I think the point of the film was to make Kony’s name a household one. I also don’t think that he or Invisible Children are wanting money. They indicated that if you want to send it, they’ll put it to good use but I didn’t feel guilted into donating a cent. The aim, I felt, was 1. to pledge your support so that the American forces (first) will keep it a current topic, therefore keeping their eye on Kony; and 2. Share the film via social networking. 

    Russell was very clever in swelling up emotion and there were a few times I was witness to his directorial hand whilst watching, but how else do you get through to the masses, the millions, to get something noticed? Emotion, children, loss of freedom and eventually hope. 

    I for one pledged and shared and I was very proud to do so. I know this man Kony now and his horrid atrocities on humanity. That’s the beginning of change isn’t it, knowledge. The world knows now, so maybe the world can help. The pride of Africa doesn’t mean that only Africa can save itself. Let’s all help. Let’s simply spread Kony’s name throughout the world, shift the universal energy to frighten him and eventually bring him to justice. 

  7. Looking at the map of Africa, is Uganda not “central”? What does that mean, if not the center? And while I don’t know if I agree with how IC spends the money donated to them, I think it is a harsh thing to dismiss their efforts and followers as ignorant westerners. Would it be preferable that we do just ignore what’s going on? It seems to me that westerners are villains either way. If we try to raise awareness, we somehow diminish the reality of the horrors. If we offer help, it’s either too aggressive, not enough, too late, or just plain “well meaning but ill advised”. If we don’t, we are heartless, especially considering our colonialism caused all this.

    • Hi Sara
      Thanks for commenting.

      It does not have to be a choice between ignoring what is going on, and providing the kind of help that people like Rosebell reject — people who know far more about this situation than anyone at IC.

      This is a false choice. There is no need to only do one or the other. The alternatives are many but for them to work they must be led by Africans — not Westerners. There is a dangerous tendency for people in the West to think they are the only ones with any agency, and that Africans are just waiting for the West to come along and either help or exploit situations. This simply does not reflect reality, although it tends to be the way Africa is portrayed in Western media.


  8. I don’t claim to really understand the situation in any part of Africa, much less Uganda. I am perfectly happy to donate to people who are doing good things – education/training, medical relief, AIDS work, etc – even though I know that some of these projects have unintended consequences. Of course, I try to pick organizations that work in the countries, who have the expertise and knowledge to work effectively.

    What I think is a very bad idea is more US military intervention. I don’t think we should be supplying military training, support or technology. “World Police America” is a stupid idea I thought we’d gotten past. We’re not as wise as we think we are, and shouldn’t be trying be trying to change the world by killing people.

    In this case: How many children soldiers are we going to shoot to save them?

    None, with my money or support. I won’t be supporting the Kony2012 campaign.

  9. If we are going to be critical of this campaign, why not be critical of all campaigns? What good do AIDS posters do? Running a marathon to for cancer- What good is that? What good does it do, in the long term, to make a quilt for a St Judes child? I mean do these people even understand cancer at all?

    …. At least this campaign is actually aiming to do something. It might be simplistic. It might not solve the larger issues. But it’s spreading awareness and doing something- even if it impacts only the lives of a few. If just one life can be saved or made better by a donated effort, isn’t it worth it?

  10. I’m glad that more people are in the know, but I’m hoping this campaign leads to people doing research about other things too…about other issues worldwide, and in the US (God knows we our fair share too). Because if you are getting most of your news from social networks, you need to become more engaged in the world you live in.

  11. Thanks for all the comments. It is great to see the conversation that has developed. Whatever Kony 2012’s original aims, it has unleashed a genie of international, cross-cultural dialogue and learning. Let’s keep talking.

  12. I find it funny, nay, a bit repulsive actually to read all the criticism this NGO gets from the very people it is aiming to help. Yes, the conflict may be more nuanced than projected, and yes, people may have been working at the grassroots level to see the end of the conflict and the end of Kony and his activities but correct me if I’m wrong, hasn’t he been operating in that region for close to or even more than 20 years? If this smacks of a colonial whatever-they-may-call it and it helps the people, why the hell not? The U.S with its military might will make short work of Kony and his activities and we all know that. Let the NGO do their work and if you’re not going to help like they’re doing, please, please, please shut thy face!!

  13. I’m not for the U.S. military or any foreign country to butt into another country’s affairs. I am for stopping child abuse, making sure these criminals faces and their crimes be known, and to make everyone aware what IS going on so that everyone is on board and everyone, everywhere can do what they can to stop child abuse.
    Kony’s tactics are deplorable, and you have to ask what would make a man stoop so low? Desperation? If so, there are other ways he can fight his fight, because using children is not acceptable.
    If he needs help, he can ask for support from adults. Since he is not doing this in a mature way, someone has to stop him. Hopefully he will stop, or be stopped.
    Hopefully his cause will be known and dealt with without abusing children.
    Kony has lost support across the board because of his ways. Not a smart move.
    Let’s see if he and others start seeing the light and start making positive changes from within.

  14. Charlie Beckett, director of Polis, the journalism and society think-tank in London has just posted a blog that includes the following quotation from Jason Russell, founder of Invisible Children. Taken from an interview with PMc magazine, it gives an insight into the man behind the movie.

    “I am going to help end the longest running war in Africa, get Joseph Kony arrested & redefine international justice. Then I am going to direct a Hollywood musical. Then I am going to study theology & literature in Oxford, England, and then move to New York to start “The Academy” – which will be a school where the best creative young minds in the world attend.”

    • Strictly a propaganda campaign to invade another rich in resource country and weak military state. how quickly we forget the weapons of mass destruction. I also found it very funny that they wanted to capture him this year 2012.perfect timing I guess. THEY ONLY WANT YOU TO SEND MONEY THIS YEAR. a lil odd this is. typical of the powers that be. beat the drums and rally the ignorant troops to save people who were not crying out for help. Not once did the narrator ask where did this poor African rebel leader get the small arms in the first place to build and fortify and army of children. You see its easy to parade a kid in front of a camera and put music in the background and brainwash people to care and send money. I ask you if he does get caught and the flow of small arms still enters this war torn country back to the rebels he’s trained has anything changed ? Even if we send American troops over there does that really help or are we simply replacing one evil regime with another. Understand that the U.S. is not in the helping of color people business. Their only interest there is to cover up any involvement they had with this man being sponsored to commit genocide on the people of Uganda on behalf of the white power structure that exist thru out the world today. I simply put forth this question? When will we show the same passion for the genocide that America is taking part of right now as I type. Wake up America don’t be duped. they’re already giving you a number just like the Nazi in Germany. And you’re willing take this. people I implore you go do some research before you jump in this lake of alcohol.

  15. http://www.invisiblechildren.com/critiques.html
    Official response to critique–from makers of the short film. 

    This is a really genuine, respectful organization that partners with the war-affected communities in very tangible ways. I’ve followed them for about a decade and they always adapt their strategies toward whatever best helps end the conflict and heal those hurt by it. 

    I think the main criticisms is that people wish even more information was included in the short piece. I think it is reasonable to expect people who are inspired to read more about the context of the conflict after watching the motivational call-to-action piece. Why does all the info have to be in one YouTube film? They have loads of more info on their website and older films.

  16. I watched the video and shared the story with my friends. Also, I understand about your opinion on it. Kony 2012 or Invisible Children cannot solely solve this complicated problem. What I value in this campaign is their general approach to educate as many general public about this matter as possible. Yes, there was the good white guy trying to good things somewhere in Africa but in fact, it is being used for Kony 2012 or Invisible Children as a whole trying to solve the issue. Also, global awareness also went up due to characteristic of Youtube.

    In my honest reaction, I’d rather sacrifice watch another video of white guy saving children in Africa and know about the issue and hopefully contribute to solving the issue than not knowing anything about the issue.

    Until when should we wait for a powerful and almost perfect organization magically to show up and takes care of all the problems?

  17. In this article Alex De Waal, Director of the World Peace Foundation, says “don’t elevate Joseph Kony – demystify him”…

    In elevating Kony to a global celebrity, the embodiment of evil, and advocating a military solution, the campaign isn’t just simplifying, it is irresponsibly naive. ‘Big man’ style rulers – of which President Yoweri Museveni is one – prefer to dismiss their opponents as disturbed individuals, and like to short-cut civil politics by military action. The “let’s get the bad guy” script is a problem, not a solution.

    Millions of young Americans are being told about a bizarre and murderous African cult. They are also being told that for 25 years Africa has been waiting for America to solve this problem, which can be done by capturing Africa’s crazed evildoer and handing him over to international justice. And they are led to believe that what has stopped this from happening is that American leaders don’t care enough. The apologists for Invisible Children call this “raising awareness.” I call it peddling dangerous and patronizing falsehoods.

  18. Mareike Schomerus is the director of the Justice and Security Research Programme at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is the author of “Chasing the Kony Story”. Here is an extract from her response to the Kony 2012 film.

    What is the Invisible Children campaign doing? Advocating fighting violence with more violence? Garnering international support for a violent government? Having uninformed celebrities express shock and horror? Focusing this conflict on one person only? Having millions of people punch the air in cries for war and U.S. troops? And to what end?

    The campaign advocates a narrow worldview. It is also a costly one. From 2006 to 2008, the situation regarding the conflict between the LRA and the government of Uganda looked promising. Violence subsided. The LRA left Uganda because they had signed up for peace talks — slow, unpredictable and often irritating peace talks that did not come with a success guarantee. But the peace talks made the situation almost instantly better. Two years of talking cost less than $15 million.

    There was no video with a mass appeal to the world to support the peace process. There was no call to the U.S. government to stop working with the Ugandan army, one of the perpetrators of violence in this war. The Invisible Children — who visited the peace talks at various points — decided not to take this slow and long-winded attempt at peace seriously. Invisible Children believe in war. They manage to make millions of people believe war is the best way to bring peace.

  19. A blog called The Open Conspiracy has published a second-by-second critique of the film (or the first part of it, so far). Among other things, it constrasts the films’s style with the techniques of hypnosis. It also raises an interesting question about how the film was financed…

    I’m also starting to wonder which organisations contributed to the $4.76m of donations and $5m of funds released from restrictions that Invisible Children received in 2011, especially the “very strong and unexpected revenue near fiscal year end” (published accounts, p. 13 )…. If Invisible Children was actually visible about its accounts and transparent about its backing, (which it’s not ), I wouldn’t be surprised at all to find contributions from Google/YouTube and possibly Facebook/Zuckerberg, given how prominently they feature throughout the video and how brilliantly it promotes their products and agenda.

  20. I am a northern Ugandan, the area worst affected by the Kony/Museveni war but beg to differ from Rosebell’s opinion posted in the video link. I think the majority of northern Ugandans are very grateful to Invisible Children for bringing their plight to a wider audience. With the spotlight on Kony’s CAPTURE, perhaps justice will be done after all, and both Kony’s and President Museveni’s brutal armies will face justice for crimes against humanity and human rights violations committed by both sides during the long conflict.

    For those who complain that the war is long over in northern Uganda and therefore stopping Kony is now irrelevant I ask, is it OK for Kony to continue killing and abducting children in Congo, S. Sudan and Central African Republic? Is it OK for northern Ugandans to be plagued with worry that Kony could one day return to restart where he left off? Wouldn’t capturing and putting Kony on trial bring at least half-closure for the victims and help in the healing process, even if other perpetrators (government) still go free?

    Those like Rosebell and other Ugandan government apologists criticizing the Kony2012 campaign are just being defensive and would rather see the Kony problem hidden under the carpet. Or perhaps they are too embarrassed by the 20-year unwillingness and/or failure of the Ugandan government to bring an end to northern Ugandans’ suffering under Kony. Tell me, how could Kony’s rag-tag foot army of a few thousand composed mostly forced recruits elude a powerful Ugandan government army of over 50,000 with sophisticated weapons, and years of financial and military aid from the US?

    The only logical conclusion one can make is that the whole Ugandan-driven project been a complete FAILURE and demonstrates the UNWILLINGNESS of the Ugandan regime to see an end to Kony. And any clever attempts at whitewashing this fact will not disguise it. The Ugandan government is either uncomfortable at this exposure and wants to hide it under the carpet, or else it is complicit in Kony’s atrocities and does not want him apprehended for fear of the entire truth being exposed. Why else would anyone oppose an attempt to STOP such a war crime fugitive who has committed untold atrocities over a 25-year period? Does that make sense to anyone? One would think it should be in Uganda’s interest to have Kony apprehended and free all the children still in captivity!

    One of the tools Ugandan government apologists use is the “colonialist”, “neo-colonialist”, “western greed for oil” or “western savior” card to sidetrack viewers from the real issue which is the documented UNWILLINGNESS and FAILURE by the Ugandan government to STOP Kony all these 25 years! Should we continue advocating for the same Ugandan-driven remedies again after it has failed again and again? Reminds me of the famous Einstein quote about insanity, “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”
    Over the 26 years of President Museveni’s rule so much distrust (justifiably too) has been built between northern Ugandans and the Museveni regime that it should not be surprising to hear that the only hope for true justice and intervention is from external “saviour figures”. Over the years the Ugandan Amnesty Commission set up to address justice for victims has continued to “forgive and exonerate” ex-combatants of Kony’s army who surrender. The government then gives the most notorious high ranking ones like Brig. Kolo and Banya big cash payoffs and government perks, yet totally neglects victims. Efforts on peace talks and other initiatives from within have also been repeatedly frustrated and struck down (1994 peace talks is a glaring example; local elders trying to negotiate release of abducted children were attacked and some killed by government forces etc.). Because of such a pattern of duplicity, utter marginalization, open discrimination and suppression against northern Ugandan efforts from Museveni’s regime, groups like Invisible Children and other NGOs, however flawed, became the only real honest brokers in the situation, offering the lifeline and support in a hopeless situation.

  21. #STOP KONY 2012# is a very very big decoy. Much bigger than any of you guys twitting. The kony war is a big business for the Ugandan government and ending it would that there would be no more justification of the huge budget spending. I believe this campaign to stop KONY is to get washington in, on the oil exploration. Where oil is we know that is where USA will be. This campaign is the birth of another “Gaddaffi” another “Mubarak”. Once they have had enough petrol dollars they know what they will do. No one can fool me. The truth is poor innocent people of Northern Uganda are being used as bait. The real existence of KONY is also in question. I wish I had more time to spend on the internet. Most of these people twitting about this have been paid and I mean well paid, the film makers. This is a business for the big shots just as politics is. Politician do care so much but people as they care about making money. I wish I had more time. And may the Almighty God bless the victims of this. Cheers guys

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