Mar 10, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

The LRA goes mainstream – now what?

Last night I became the 57,733,541 person to go to YouTube and watch Kony 2012, a video for a campaign launched to stop Joseph Kony, leader of the criminal group Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The premise of this simplistic video is that by creating awareness about who Kony is and the atrocities he committed with the LRA in Uganda there will be enough public pressure on American politicians to intervene and somehow put a stop to the massacres.

The well-edited video went viral in less than a week of its release, getting the attention of tens of millions of students and a handful of celebrities, not to mention every type of social media out there. The organization behind it, Invisible Children, promises to mobilize the youth of several rich countries to continue the movement until the end of this year, when hopefully the steam will make capturing Kony possible.

It sounds pretty naive considering the complexities of the conflict, but in any case, mobilizing and inspiring young students to pay attention to conflicts and become politically active (by making demands on their governments) is a good thing. Besides, no one in their right mind would defend Kony, a true lunatic, or be against an effort to capture him.

So maybe this will be useless, but it can do harm. Right?

Wrong. There is potential harm, as thousands of critics pointed out in the last few days. I wish I could be a more original voice here and applaud Invisible Children. But I can’t.

First, the oversimplified video deviates attention from other issues inside and outside of Uganda, where money and effort could actually make a difference. Inside, for example, it seems that land disputes and unemployment are much more important to Ugandans right now than the last spasms of the LRA.

Second, Kony 2012 educates thousands of young people in rich nations on how to be superficial, arrogant, and imperialistic about a cause. “If only we tried harder”, it seems to say, “we could save these poor helpless/incompetent people”.

It defends the theory that governments (particularly the White House) should interfere abroad when it is “right”, and not only when their national security is at risk. We could have another blog post about concepts like Responsibility to Protect, but here I will simply ask two questions: one, who should define what is right and what to do about it? And two, do we want a cry for more US intervention in Africa right now?

I’ll leave the answer to my favorite blog post on the topic so far, by writer Simon Allison. In a text aptly named “Lord help us, because this campaign won’t help anyone”, he says: “Ultimately, the Kony 2012 campaign is based on a false premise: that increased American involvement in the issue will solve it. This might sound completely reasonable to starry-eyed Americans, but here in the real world we know that increased American involvement almost never leads to increased peace and stability.” Or, if you want more seriousness, the Crisis Group released a report last year about the conflict. It asked of the White House support for an African Union initiative and pressure on african governments to commit to the initiative.

The video is just misleading. It does not show what Uganda is like; It does not portray the support neighboring countries and corrupt polititians have given the LRA; it does not target the LRA for what it is today (a dying, but still lethal, force of scattered fighters); it suggests the White House is about to pull out the 100 military advisors it sent in October for the hunt, when there is no indication of that; it vainly claims that the fact those advisors were sent can be attributed to the work of Invisible Children alone; it neglects to mention atrocities committed by some of those on the other side of the conflict – namely the Ugandan Army; and it spreads the false idea that capturing a war criminal is just a matter of caring. Remember Osama bin Laden? Getting him took over a decade. And I believe the US cared very much about it.

Lastly, Kony 2012 is irritating. The language and the story are made shallow so that they could be understood by a five year old – in fact, the five year old son of the filmmaker, a lovely creature named Gavin, is shown debating the issue with his dad. If I were a college student and a target for this campaign, I would be a little insulted.

By the way, guess who is becoming just as famous as Kony, or even more so? Gavin’s dad, Jason Russell, the founder of Invisible Children. He tries to fight the instant fame: “I am not a celebrity”, Russell said during an interview with E!News Online (do note the irony of him being in that show).

But the video is almost as much about his work as it is about Kony, to the point that critics argue he is selling himself, not a cause.

To Russell’s credit, I will say that two things. One, he does ask people to do their research, dig deeper and not just trust the video. It would be difficult – not impossible, but difficult – to make a 30 minutes video for young students as compelling as Kony2012 if it was filled with layers of facts and political struggles, so there is some sense in trying to make it simple. He says that is the gateway – not the answer. “This is a complex war. It’s [been] 26 years”, he acknowledges. “The movie, we tried to make it simple, but it is not simple”. Two, I will give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he means well.

And no can deny the man is capable.

On YouTube, Kony 2012 has just reached 60,364,287 views.



  • Great post, Andrea. It reminds me of the “Save Darfur” coalition. They had the same theme: if we just cared enough, we could solve this problem. I think that Afghanistan shows caring enough is far, far, far from sufficient. I also agree that it’s largely self-indulgent: “see how much I care about the plight of X? That must mean I am a good person.”

  • […] 2012 campaign continues relentlessly, and the video has had over 16 million views on YouTube since I first wrote about it on Friday, reaching the incredible number of total 76,614,482 views up until this Tuesday […]

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