Have you watched the Kony 2012 campaign video? If so you have played one of the 83 million views (and counting) this controversial short film has had in the last three weeks on You Tube. Created by US-based charity Invisible Children, the 30-minute video has sparked a massive international debate, allegedly precipitating the creator’s personal meltdown, and one of the fastest viral campaigns in internet history.
Whatever your view on the politics and ethics of the medium and the message, as a piece of filmmaking, it is compelling in its narrative. A complex story about Joseph Kony, a leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army operating primarily in Uganda accused of the abduction of children to become sex slaves and child soldiers, is told simply and emotively. It ends with a call to action that has ignited young people’s activism in the US, by demanding that Kony is held to account for his crimes and tried by the International Criminal Court.
Yet the simplicity has been part of the film’s undoing, which has come under heavy fire from criticsfor failing to reflect the nuances of the current situation, not least because Kony is said to have long fled Ugandaand that the LRA has been in retreat for years. All political campaigns have to simplify issues to transmit ideas to a mass audience – it is an intrinsic part of telling a story and one that can sit uncomfortably for those close to the reality. But the claims that the film is misleading and perpetuating a disempowering advocacy model are altogether more damaging.
Ugandan critics have been quick to point out that the video presents a negative and inaccurate image of their country, based on outdated interpretations of Uganda’s past. Ugandan journalist Rosebell Kagumire reports former UN Prosecutor’s Dr. Payam Akhavan’s comments that the video reflects a lack of consultation with Ugandan communities – if they had been consulted, Akhavan says the money raised on the back of it would have been better directed to those who need it.
Whilst Invisible Children, in a detailed response to their critics, maintain that most of their staff in Uganda are Ugandan, the implication is that those staff work on their in-country programmes rather than in the driving seat of their political campaigns and messaging. Out of all the many criticisms being made of the film, the failure to locate the leadership of its policy decision-making within the communities most affected by Kony’s crimes repeats the same failures too many domestic and international charities fall foul of. The first act of liberation is to find one’s own voice, and that is incompatible with others, however well-meaning, taking the reins of advocacy.
But there is something awe-inspiring about 83 million views on You Tube for an international campaign, and the resulting activism and awareness that has followed. If you hold any hope for the political activism of a generation that isn’t occupying campuses and streets as the Vietnam protesters did, then the fact that millions of young people are choosing to watch a video and take a stand about international human rights has to be a cause of celebration.
There is an extraordinary shift taking place in people power and only to carp from the sidelines about the flaws of the campaign is to miss the significance of political engagement on this scale. It has become a mass platform to discuss not only Kony’s crimes and that of other international fugitives like Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, accused of genocide in Darfur, but to debate how to effectively campaign on international human rights issues.
Some expertsdoubt that the campaign to bring Kony to justice in 2012 will be effective via the International Criminal Court, although agree it would be a welcome move. It has been argued that failure and misinformation will dent activism, and whilst no-one should condone campaigns based on misinformation, it might be more de-motivating to a new activist to have their efforts met with scorn by commentators.
Kony 2012 should be scrutinised for its methods and means. But neither should the optimistic signals demonstrated by this film’s impact be overlooked in the critique.