(Very) mixed reactions to ‘Kony 2012’

By Anne Collier

Has “Kony” become a household word at your house? If there are young social media users in your family and they haven’t brought it up, you might ask them if they’ve heard about the “Kony 2012” campaign and video by the nonprofit organization Invisible Children (as of this writing, with 11.6 million views and counting). I suspect they have. Coming off a week of travel and getting ready for another conference, it was only on the edge of my radar screen when my 14-year-old said he wanted me to watch the 30 min. video with him. No way I’d turn down that opportunity! So we watched and dug a little further. I won’t speak for him, but I’ll explain my headline up there now and just say unequivocally that this is a great opportunity for school and family media literacy discussions that look at the actual current picture in Uganda – and keep checking in on this convergence of geopolitics and social media that the campaign represents, because what we see today is just a freeze frame. One friend reported in Facebook that she noticed the video had 140,000 views Tuesday night, and within a few hours Wednesday evening, the number had gone from 11.6 million views to 15.2 million. “It’s gone viral” in this case seems to mean that viewing it is necessary social currency, like bus money.

A campaign that gets millions of American youth talking about what’s happening in Africa and thinking at some level about how to help stop child slavery and soldiering is not to be dismissed (though I wish it were more about Jacob and less about an American family). The most basic takeaway from the video, I think, is “this is your world, too, and you should help make it better.” The message is good, but the underlying story – at least the part about Uganda! – isn’t based in current reality. Yes, Joseph Kony is the International Criminal Court’s most wanted person, “accused of atrocities in four African countries: Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and South Sudan,” the BBC reports. Who wouldn’t want to stop that?! But it’s the “that” that’s problematic.

A doctor in Gulu, “a town that was once the center of the rebels’ activities,” told The Telegraph that the video is “totally wrong.” People who’ve worked in conflict resolution in Africa ask us to take a greatly needed closer look: Calling the Kony campaign “one of the most pervasive and successful human rights based viral campaigns in recent memory,” PhD student Mark Kerston at the London School of Economics focusing on international criminal justice and conflict resolution writes in his blog that the campaign also “falls prey to the obfuscating, simplified and wildly erroneous narrative of a legitimate, terror-fighting, innocent partner of the West (the Government of Uganda) seeking to eliminate a band of lunatic, child-thieving, machine-gun wielding mystics (the LRA). The main beneficiary of this narrative is, once again, the Ugandan Government of Yoweri Museveni, whose legitimacy is bolstered and – if the ‘Kony 2012′ campaign is ‘successful’ – will receive more military funding and support from the US.” [Thanks to Libby Hoffman of Catalyst for Peace for pointing out Kerston’s blog.]

Let’s hope that, if Kony – whose “army” of child soldiers now numbers in the hundreds, not tens of thousands – is arrested by the end of the year, as proposed by the campaign, the US would not support the Museveni government, but in any case our children deserve to understand that what they are being asked to support is a lot more messy than the video makes it sound. And crimes have not been committed by a single (still alleged) criminal and his rebel group. Just the fact that his “army” of child, or former child, soldiers are simultaneously perpetrators and victims illustrates the complexity involved. As does fundraising by a campaign that appeals so much to youth – offering a $30 “activist kit” (media literacy is protective on many levels). Maybe, with the criticism it’s getting, Invisible Children will help its supporters shift the focus from getting “the bad guy” to real solutions like the work of conflict resolution activists in Africa – for example, Fambul Tok in Sierra Leone, which really needs to go viral.

Afterthought: What about the other, less explicit issue raised by the “Kony 2012” video, the one about featuring our children in our public projects? It’s a digital-age question society has barely begun to consider (see this). At least child celebrity is increasingly less rare and much more a matter of degree. Because, when Jason Russell’s son Gavin grows up and if he regrets his fame as a child, he may be able to disappear into the crowd!

Related links

* A young Ugandan’s video response to “Kony 2012” on YouTube
* A young Canadian’s response to the campaign at Ypulse
* About social media, not Kony, a young Ethiopian woman, Melat Tekletsadik, reflects on the power of social media in the nonprofit sector as she returns home after a year working with Global Kids in New York.
* The Kampala, Uganda-based KiBO Foundation is doing real community-, economic-, and professional-development work one young person at a time; I mentioned it in this post about what I learned about digital citizenship at the Internet Governance Forum in neighboring Kenya.
* Invisible Children’s official response to critics of the “Kony 2012” campaign (thanks to high school student Ben in West Virginia for pointing it out)

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