Irresponsibility 2012 – My Problems with Kony

Human Rights, Policy, Social Media March 11, 2012
I am going to keep this short, but figured I would write a response to my friends who have been asking what I think of Kony 2012 as a human rights practitioner.

My first, visceral response. Yuck.

To be fair, the film is well shot, compiled an well intentioned. It raises awareness in the West of an issue that is serious, devastating and deserves international attention. It has been viewed by over 67 million people (which is crazy) and Invisible Children has become the poster child for effective use of social media for that past few years. Kudos to them for mobilizing so many people to get involved and talk about capturing a war criminal rather than the latest episode of Jersey Shore.

However, I can’t help but wonder if the Kony campaign is damaging and irresponsible. The film kicks off  with Jacob, one of Kony’s victims, explaining his tragic story. All I could hear was the voice of a white Southern Californian asking in an incredibly affected and bizarre accent if Jacob wanted to die because he felt so hopeless, and then repeating the question over and over again as Jacob begins to sob, eventually promising that he would make it better. Other major problems include distortion of facts, oversimplification, and an overall bad theory of change.

Can you say white man’s burden?

One commentator, Ethan Zuckerman explains the major problem of the campaign’s oversimplification:

Much of [Jason Russell’s] short film features him explaining to his young son that Kony is a bad guy, and that dad’s job is capturing the bad guy. We are asked to join the campaign against Kony literally by being spoken to as a five year old. It’s not surprising that a five year old vision of a problem – a single bad guy, a single threat to eliminate – leads to an unworkable solution. Nor is it a surprise that this extremely simple narrative is compelling and easily disseminated.

Lina Srivastava, a fellow human rights colleague and transmedia expert who I deeply respect explained it quite it well on Beth Kanter’s blog:

No campaign should be bigger than its mission, or aim at participation for the sake of participation. Our increasing connectedness should be celebrated as an effective method of achieving change, not as the change itself. This campaign is [paternalistic] besides being deeply manipulative and factually incorrect, and perpetuates a stereotype of the outside DIY “activist” saving the Africans, without a clear path from their narrative to their methodology to their desired outcome of apprehending and prosecuting Kony. (“Buy a bracelet, we’ll hunt him down?” Is that that the story?) And where is the local community in all of this? Nowhere to be found in this video. As activists, professionals in social good, and as storytellers, we have to move beyond engaging the community to really parsing out what is the right change and the effective path to the solution.

Another problem suggested by Zuckerman are the unintended political consequemces os the IC Campaign:

What are the unintended consequences of the Invisible Children narrative? The main one is increased support for Yoweri Museveni, the dictatorial and kleptocratic leader of Uganda. Museveni is now on his fourth presidential term, the result of an election seen as rigged by EU observers. Museveni has asserted such tight control over dissenting political opinions that his opponents have been forced to protest his rule through a subtle and indirect means – walking to work to protest the dismal state of Uganda’s economy. Those protests have been violently suppressed.

The US government needs to pressure Museveni on multiple fronts. The Ugandan parliament, with support from Museveni’s wife, has been pushing a bill to punish homosexuality with the death penalty. The Obama administration finds itself pressuring Museveni to support gay and lesbian rights and to stop cracking down on the opposition quite so brutally, while asking for cooperation in Somalia and against the LRA. An unintended consequence of Invisible Children’s campaign may be pushing the US closer to a leader we should be criticizing and shunning.

A huge issue I personally have with Kony 2012 (aside form commentary above) is the way this piece depicts the developing world – most notably, black people in the developing world – as the helpless victims of international greed and corrupt warlords. Add a bunch of white kids traveling to “Africa” to save the black people, and I can’t help but cringe. I do not have nearly the amount of knowledge on the alleged factual distortions and the apparent over-simplification of the dispute in Uganda, but it was easy to find resources of practitioners who do (as cited) – and their commentary very quickly validated my instincts.

I deeply appreciate Zuckerman’s blog, and suggest you read it. Here is his idea of how we could tell the Kony story – and he notes that it is unfortunately not quite as simple as daddy catching the bad guys:

A more complex narrative of northern Uganda would look at the odd, codependent relationship between Museveni and Kony, Uganda’s systematic failure to protect the Acholi people of northern Uganda. It would look at the numerous community efforts, often led by women, to mediate conflicts and increase stability. It would focus on the efforts to rebuild the economy of northern Uganda, and would recognize the economic consequences of portraying northern Uganda as a war zone. It would feature projects like Women of Kireka, working to build economic independence for women displaced from their homes in Northern Uganda.

So, Invisible Children, props for your slick media campaign. But I am not a fan.

Comments 3

  1. William says on March 11, 2012

    Thanks for this article.

    One unfortunate dichotomies of the whole campaign is that it’s oversimplification is what made it such a compelling narrative that was able to penetrate the mainstream. By explaining the inconveniently complex reality of the situation, it may not have neem nearly as successful.

    • Nicole Skibola says on March 19, 2012

      It’s indeed a catch-22. I have advertising friends who are hailing this as a success because its simple and graspable. But at what cost? Do we trade substance for mass messaging? It’s definitely a discussion that deserves attention, especially with the proliferation of social media in awareness building around human rights issues.

  2. Nick Gogerty says on March 21, 2012

    Nicole, I think a lot of your critiques are correct in terms of style and victimhood of the message. When looking at efforts to help others, regardless of source or intent, I believe they only need to pass 2 tests.

    1. Does it help resolve directly or indirectly the root of the problem long term and serve the people in need?

    2. Does the effort do this in such a way that it won’t interfere or hinder more effective means of helping long term, such as aid fatigue, resource depletion, political interfernce or other secondary efforts?

    These simple questions probably don’t have direct answers for Kony2012. Kony2012 is highly effective at spreading a message via a clever simplistic narrative. It remains to be seen if that narrative creates more awareness to study the actual facts on the ground aiding local individuals. If the project pushes political pressure for the ICC and regional govts. to extract Kony or induces more people (local or foreign) to really learn about the issue it may be helpful. The intentions are good, one can only hope the outcomes for the people who are suffering will be as well. There are likely many local problems with governance etc. and like most complex problems a single point solution (removing Kony’s power) won’t dramatically alter these, but it may help ever so slightly and thus be worth the effort.

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