It seemed so simple.
A malicious warlord by the name of Joseph Kony was in hiding. He had committed countless atrocities, including the abduction of more than 30,000 children in Central Africa since 1987. He forced the children he abducted either to become child soldiers in his Lord’s Resistance Army or sex slaves, and he appeared at the top of the International Criminal Court’s most wanted list in 2005. Undeniably, something had to be done.
Then suddenly, in 2012 a non-governmental organisation by the name of Invisible Children became a popular force worldwide. They publicly proclaimed they had the hope and ambition to bring Joseph Kony to justice. And on March 5, 2012 Invisible Children created a video that induced a visceral emotional response world wide. The video received 89.6 million views on YouTube alone. It was captivating, convincing and undeniably well-produced. Invisible Children had accomplished one of the greatest advocacy campaigns of all time. However, shortly after the phenomenal response, claims made by critics developed a cloud of doubt surrounding the campaign. Some began questioning the motives of the apparent nonprofit organisation, conceiving the film as ‘emotional blackmail’, and ‘oversimplified’ in terms of its information.
Existing LRA Soldiers
The first of many questions directed at Invisible Children was the location of the LRA. In the film, Invisible Children implied the LRA child soldiers were still in Uganda in large numbers. However, analysts say the number of LRA child soldiers has progressively declined, and now only around 300 LRA soldiers are active. Leading Ugandan Journalist, Angelo Izama told TIME, ‘while it draws attention to the fact that Kony, indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in 2005, is still on the loose, its portrayal of his alleged crimes in Northern Uganda are from a bygone era.” Foreign Affairs magazine also said that Invisible Children “manipulated facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders”.
Invisible Children released a public response online where they said the whereabouts of the LRA was made clear in the documentary and indicted the exact time where it was said in the film. They however recognised that it was “perhaps not clear enough”.
President of Invisible Children at Texas State University at San Marcos, Ivy Martinez said it shouldn’t matter whether it is 200 or 2,000 children who are taken from their home and forced to kill. “Just because the number [of LRA child soldiers] isn’t as big as people thought doesn’t mean it’s no longer important,” she said. “One wouldn’t be presenting as much apathy if the atrocities happening in Central Africa were happening in a First World country.”
Endorsement of War
When the phrase “we will fight war” is chanted by an army of Invisible Children supporters in the film, people have argued that an underlying notion exists which promotes military intervention. While the Invisible Children organisation is an advocate for humanitarianism and declares that it promotes justice throughout the world, there appears to be a striking hidden agenda that gives way to a plea for military insurgence.
By providing heart wrenching images in the film, coupled with simplified information, Invisible Children created an emotional obligation that was felt by millions throughout the first world. In the film, Jason Russell explains how Joseph Kony can be brought to justice. “In order for Kony to be arrested this year, the Ugandan military has to find him. In order to find him, they need the technology and training to track him in the vast jungle. That’s where the American advisers come in.”
However Ben Peterson, a journalist for the human and civil rights independent news organisation, Green Left says, “This video isn’t just asking people to care. It’s asking people to endorse a very specific, and pretty terrifying vision — more US troops invading a Third World country.”
“Frankly, Uganda does not need another army of white people turning up to ‘help’ with guns, bombs and corporate oil deals.”
Which leads to another argument, which is that military intervention was fuelled by the United States of America because of the recent discovery of oil in Uganda. “In 2005, oil reserves were discovered in the country, and both China and the US have been looking to participate in its oil production,” wrote Kendall Sontag in the St. Norbert Times. “Not only is a supposedly humanitarian organisation pushing for yet another foreign military intervention … but our [American] government is beginning to follow through with it. As is often the case with our [American] government becoming involved in military interventions abroad, the issue always boils down to one thing – oil,” says Tomas Engle a columnist at The Daily Athenaeum.
Invisible Children also asked the supporters of the KONY 2012 campaign to spare a few dollars each month to the organisation ‘TRI’, whose paramount aim is to fund military intervention into Uganda. This idea was proposed by Vigilant Citizen, an online site which ‘aims to go beyond the face value of symbols found in pop culture to reveal their esoteric meaning’ who published the article, KONY 2012: State Propaganda for a New Generation. In the article, the use of reverse psychology in the KONY 2012 campaign is discussed along with the manipulation used to bring forth a call for military action.
“TRI’s logo is an inverted “peace” sign. In symbolism, an inverted sign means that it stands for the opposite of the regular sign. In other words, TRI is about war,” wrote Vigilant Citizen. The article finishes with an interesting question: ‘Is KONY 2012 trying to eradicate child-soldiers or is it attempting to create a new kind of child-soldiers?”
In response to such criticisms, Invisible Children released this public statement:
“We are advocating for the arrest of Joseph Kony so that he can be tried by the International Criminal Court (ICC) as a precedent for future war criminals. The goal of Kony 2012 is for the world to unite to see him arrested and prosecuted for his crimes against humanity” (2012).
“By using the internet they ensured they targeted younger people where those who in most cases would be empathetic and sympathetic to the cause and would be more likely to support it due an ‘emotional obligation,” says Ethan Holmes, a student at Queensland University of Technology who was among those who was initially impressed by the video.
“We need to stop rushing to war so quickly. We need to seriously contemplate the reasons for going to war and if the benefits will truly outweigh the costs,” said Kendall Sontag.
Ishaan Thardoor also agreed with this notion, and wrote in TIME’s Global Spin, “Kony should be found and made to answer for his crimes. But justice is about much more than manhunts and viral video crusades.”
Generation Y, Social Media and the failure to move from the internet to the streets
“It [the KONY 2012 film] truly portrayed the way technology fuels Generation Y’s fickle attitude and short attention span,” said Maddie Er, a communications and cultural studies student at the University of Technology in Sydney.
In the film director Jason Russell said himself, “the next 27 minutes are an experiment’. And for about a week, it seemed the world was comfortable supporting and advocating the ideas presented in the film. However once it was scrutinised by critics, people began to doubt the campaign’s sincerity. This was especially evident when the Kony campaign failed to move from the internet to the streets in the event called ‘Cover the Night’ that occurred on April 20 – six weeks after the video went viral. Supporters promised to plaster their suburbs with Joseph Kony posters in order to draw attention and make him “famous”. “The silence can be explained by muted embarrassment from prior supporters,” said global head of behavioural science at Naked Communications, Adam Ferrier.
“So many people were excited about helping save lives when KONY 2012 was released, but as soon as criticism was heard, I think people got scared that it would be a scam or that they would be wrong, so they rejected the idea altogether,” said Ivy Martinez.
“When they set to make the Kony documentary, Invisible Children only expected to get 50,000 views by the end of the year.”
“With that being said, they … thought that if 50,000 people saw the video, then those people could participate in Cover the Night and then 50,000 more would see the signs and they would become curious, look up Invisible Children and become aware. It was intended to be as a domino effect.”
Maddie Er questioned whether the Kony campaign was effective. “Kony is a very interesting example of the utilisation of modern day technology tools to get a message across,” she said. “The overarching question shouldn’t be ‘was Kony successful’, but rather, ‘is this an effective method to create and spread a message?’”
Ethan Holmes agreed, “The groups [Invisible Children] intentions may be sound, but the way they have constructed their ‘awareness campaign’ was far too commercial.”
“Young people had to only open a video, and seemingly pledge allegiance to the campaign without the answers that many more would have asked.”
For a campaign supposedly centred on bringing Joseph Kony to justice and rehabilitating former child soldiers, it is revealing that only 32 per cent of the funds raised go towards those services. The rest goes towards film production, merchandise, travel and transport and staff salaries. Even of that 32 per cent, most supports the Ugandan government’s army, and other military forces. However, Invisible Children defended its financial choices. “We work outside the traditional box of what you think about charity and non-profit,” said Jason Russell. “We are not World Vision; we’re not these other organisations that do amazing work on the ground.”
Whether the KONY 2012 film was a well designed tool to justify and condone military intervention, whether it was simply an experiment to gauge a global response, or whether Invisible Children are a genuine campaign that were ill prepared for the inevitable response, one thing is certain. Invisible Children successfully revealed who Joseph Kony is to millions of people who had not known about his atrocities before now. And that in itself is an astounding achievement.
Grading: High Distinction