The Kony 2012 phenomenon continues to make headlines. It has already trended at number one on Twitter and can be seen on just about everyone’s Facebook status. The 28-minute film created by Invisible Children is now officially the most successful viral video ever made – reaching 100 million views on video-sharing websites YouTube and Vimeo within six days.

Taking this into consideration, social media is clearly a powerful tool for raising awareness about certain social or political issues. But could Kony 2012 be doing more harm than good? Perdeby investigates.

The film’s self-proclaimed purpose is to stop the Ugandan rebel group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and their leader Joseph Kony. According to the International Criminal Court (ICC), Kony is number one on their list of the world’s worst criminals. For 26 years, Kony and the LRA have kidnapped approximately 30 000 children and have used them as sex slaves and child soldiers in northern Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and South Sudan.

So how does one (according to the campaign’s main slogan) “make Kony famous” and therefore bring him to justice? In the film, Invisible Children has identified 20 “culture makers” and 12 “policy makers”. These influential members of society are believed to have the power to raise awareness about the campaign – and viewers are urged to contact them to force them to take action. The list of culture makers includes the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Angelina Jolie and Mark Zuckerberg, while the policy makers range from former US President George W Bush to current Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon. US President Barack Obama has already endorsed the campaign and in October last year, he sent 100 American advisors to affected areas in Africa.

On 20 April this year, the campaign’s actions will conclude in what is known as “Cover the Night”, when campaigners around the world will spend all night putting posters up in a final attempt to raise awareness.

Critics have been quick to respond. The biggest critique of the film is that it is reductive in its attempts to address the issues facing Central Africa. Not only does it leave one with only a vague idea about Kony’s whereabouts, but it also exaggerates the number of the remaining LRA rebels. It is a commonly accepted truth in Uganda that Joseph Kony no longer resides in the country – as a matter of fact, he is believed to have been in the Central African Republic for almost six years now. The film only mentions this superficially. Rosebell Kagumire, a Ugandan journalist specialising in peace and conflict reporting, had the following to say: “This [film] paints a picture of Uganda six or seven years ago, that is totally not how it is today. [The campaign] is highly irresponsible.”

Dr Beatrice Mpora, director of a community health organisation in Gulu – a town in northern Uganda and once the centre of Kony’s forces – believes the video could do more harm than good, and she reiterates the concerns expressed by Kagumire. “There has not been a single soul from the LRA here since 2006,” Dr Mpora says.

Another contentious issue is that Ugandan and American military action is strongly encouraged in the video. The Ugandan army itself has been accused of abusing human rights by making use of child soldiers, attacking civilians and looting homes and businesses. The assistance of the American military that Kony 2012 promotes has also been condemned. The New York Times insists that involvement by US military forces will promote the myth of the “white saviour” as the only solution to the problems in Africa.

Simon Allison, a freelance journalist for South African website the Daily Maverick, agrees with this sentiment. Allison argues that the campaign is based on a false belief that African issues require American involvement. “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. Quite the opposite, in fact.”

There are also concerns about violent reactions in remote areas by the LRA in response to the Kony 2012 campaign. Steven Van Damme, Oxfam’s protection and policy advisor for the whole of the eastern Congo, expressed his concerns about the Democratic Republic of Congo being a possible target for retaliation due to certain areas in the country being isolated, having limited infrastructure and a poor state authority.

Invisible Children has also been accused of spending the majority of the money they have collected for the campaign on staff salaries and expensive filmmaking. However, the organisation was quick to respond to these claims, asserting that their “financial statements are online for everyone to see.”

This kind of activism has also been labelled “slacktivism”. Terri-Lee Adendorff, a BA Journalism and Media Studies graduate from Rhodes University, describes “slacktivism” as “a form of activism that inflates the participant’s sense of charity and good will, without necessitating any action.” She continues: “People think that they can watch a 30-minute video, post a status and walk away thinking they have done something tangible to help the world.” Numerous critics have agreed that this kind of activism (or lack thereof) has the potential to detract awareness from legitimate efforts being made to help the cause.

On 14 March the ICC found Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga guilty of similar crimes committed by Joseph Kony. Invisible Children believes that if Kony is also charged by the ICC it will set a further example of justice to other war criminals who commit crimes against humanity.

Those opposing the campaign understand why Kony 2012 has attracted the attention of people around the world with its Hollywood-style campaigning. They also cannot deny the fact that the campaign has raised awareness about a previously little heard of warlord. However, they do urge the youth to think critically and to do the required research about a cause before endorsing it.

Photo: Gloria Mbogoma


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