Kony 2012: some reading

by Toby Manhire / 12 March, 2012
A selection of commentary on the Invisible Children film, including as many as I could find from Uganda and the region.

It’s now been a week since the film was posted online, and the viewership – at YouTube and Vimeo combined – currently stands at a staggering 88 million.

In those few days, the film, which details the barbarous methods of Joseph Kony, the Ugandan guerrilla leader, has generated a huge critical response. Almost 600,000 comments appear beneath the clip at YouTube, and there have been hundreds – thousands, maybe – of commentaries written in print and online.

A large number of the critiques focus on the priorities and approach of Invisible Children, the advocacy group that released the film.

Some highlight the simplistic nature of its argument, and/or its perceived ethnocentric perspective.

Still others examine the function of social media in the dissemination of this super-viral event (Facebook was a huge influence on its spread, as was Twitter, where the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Justin Bieber helped spread the word).

Here’s a handful of pieces on the subject that warrant reading:

A good place to start is Michael Wilkerson’s article for Foreign Policy. He lays out the facts regarding Kony, some of which contradict the impression given by the film – chief among them, his whereabouts. Kony has almost certainly not been in Uganda for six years.

He concludes:

Here's to hoping Kony hands himself in tomorrow and that the fear of the U.S. "cancelling" its LRA-hunt support is misplaced. But if the most impactful the result of Invisible Children's campaign is to cause millions of viewers to think Northern Uganda is a war zone, even if it's not their intent, it's hard to defend.

One of the most powerful denunciations comes in a series of tweets (Storified here) by Teju Cole, the Nigerian-American author (previously featured here getting stuck into the #firstworldproblem thing).

His seven tweets, stuck together:

1. From [Jeffrey] Sachs to [Nicholas] Kristof to Invisible Children to TED, the fastest growth industry in the US is the White Savior Industrial Complex.

2. The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.

3. The banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality. The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.

4. This world exists simply to satisfy the needs—including, importantly, the sentimental needs—of white people and Oprah.

5. The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.

6. Feverish worry over that awful African warlord. But close to 1.5 million Iraqis died from an American war of choice. Worry about that.

7. I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly.

Max Fisher of the Atlantic is no fan of the Invisible Children film, but neither does he embrace Cole’s line of attack. He writes:

Cole makes the same mistake as Invisible Children, reducing an entire culture to his interactions with it and a few easy stereotypes, a monolithic mass to be judged and maybe even solved.

At the New York Times, Ugandan journalist Angelo Izama is unimpressed by the “false impression that there is a war going on in Northern Uganda” given by a film that is “almost too easy” to criticise. He has a message for the film’s critics, however:

If this campaign fails because of disillusionment with the video, it would be a double tragedy. As a social media experiment, its future now lies in a responsible reaction. Those concerned with its shallowness must provide the campaign with a new face, not just online but also through actions.

But Jacob Acaye, who features in the film, defends it in an interview with the Guardian, saying that just because the war in northern Uganda has subsided, "all this fighting and suffering is still going on elsewhere".

He adds:

Until now, the war that was going on has been a silent war. People did not really know about it. Now what was happening in Gulu is still going on elsewhere in the Central African Republic and in Congo. What about the people who are suffering over there? They are going through what we were going through.

An al-Jazeera Inside Story explores the rise of online “slacktivism” in light of the response to the Kony film, talking to a range of people, including Invisible Children’s Uganda expert.

(Update: a new piece by Noam Cohen at the New York Times makes a strong case against the "slacktivist" argument. "Yes, Kony 2012 may be crude, simplistic and shallow, but can it really be counterproductive if it prompts young people to ask why a well-known warlord with 30 years of atrocities to his name has not been caught and prosecuted?")

Alex de Waal, director of the World Peace Foundation, condemns the film and campaign in a blog post headed “Don’t Elevate Joseph Kony”:

The “let’s get the bad guy” script is a problem, not a solution.

Millions of young Americans are being told about a bizarre and murderous African cult. They are also being told that for 25 years Africa has been waiting for America to solve this problem, which can be done by capturing Africa’s crazed evildoer and handing him over to international justice. And they are led to believe that what has stopped this from happening is that American leaders don’t care enough. The apologists for Invisible Children call this “raising awareness.” I call it peddling dangerous and patronizing falsehoods.

In a post at the Atlantic, US-based lawyer-academics Kate Cronin-Furman and Amanda Taub raise questions about Invisible Children’s distribution of funds, as well as “the general philosophical approach of this type of advocacy”.

Perhaps worst of all are the unexplored assumptions underpinning the awareness argument, which reduce people in conflict situations to two broad categories: mass-murderers like Joseph Kony and passive victims so helpless that they must wait around to be saved by a bunch of American college students with stickers. No Ugandans or other Africans are shown offering policy suggestions in the film, and it is implied that local governments were ineffective in combating the LRA simply because they didn't have enough American assistance.

In a thoughtful blog post exploring the potential and limits of social media advocacy, Global Voices founder and Africa expert Ethan Zuckerman concludes:

As someone who believes that the ability to create and share media is an important form of power, the Invisible Children story presents a difficult paradox. If we want people to pay attention to the issues we care about, do we need to oversimplify them? And if we do, do our simplistic framings do more unintentional harm than intentional good? Or is the wave of pushback against this campaign from Invisible Children evidence that we’re learning to read and write complex narratives online, and that a college student with doubts about a campaign’s value and validity can find an audience?

Writing in the Observer, John Naughton considers the implications for political action of “the most dramatic demonstration so far of how an idea can spread over the globe via a channel that is beyond the reach and control of established media outlets”.

He adds:

The Kony video was made by people whose intentions seem good, even if their ideology and analysis may be a touch simplistic. But what if a video with more sinister antecedents were to get this kind of viral boost? It suggests the old saying that "a lie can run round the world before the truth has got its boots on" is acquiring a chilling new resonance.

Despite some reservations, blogger Mark D Jordahl, an American who has spent many years in Uganda, professes himself “thrilled that there will be more awareness of the atrocities committed by the madman, Josephy Kony, and his Lord’s Resistance Army”.

He writes at his Wild Uganda blog:

I have taken issue with Invisible Children’s perpetuation of the perception that Kony is still active in Uganda and that there are still “night-commuting” children in Gulu. At the same time, I have to give them immense credit and respect for the amount of visibility they have brought to this conflict that now ranges through Central African Republic, Eastern DRC and, by some accounts, South Sudan.

And Fast Company’s Nathan Whittemore is upbeat about the precedent.

No matter what one feels about the Kony 2012 campaign, there is something profoundly inspiring about the conversation around it. The video and the conversation have gripped millions around the world. People are actively engaging in a debate and a discussion about war, poverty, and responsible media representation of conflict. It is almost certainly the largest scale at which that conversation has ever taken place.

Here’s Invisible Children’s response to criticisms. It ends with the exhortation:

We've done our utmost to be as inclusive, transparent, and factual as possible. We built this organization with "seeing is believing" in mind, and that's what why we are a media-based organization. We WANT you to see everything we are doing, because we are proud of it. Though we would no longer consider ourselves naive, we have always sought counsel from those who know much more.

(See also this post, at the LSE site, by a former Invisible Children communications officer. And a response to the IC response, at the Visible Children site, set up to challenge the Invisible Children campaign.)

Here’s a strong video response posted by Rosebell Kagumire, a Ugandan journalist:

“My major problem with this story is it simplifies the story of millions of people in northern Uganda.”

She adds, in an email to Mike Shanahan, posted at his blog Under the Banyan:

The film is void of any means like peace efforts that have gone on and it simplifies the war to Joseph Kony — a mad evil man. This war was bigger than Joseph Kony and those who will end it won’t be Americans. It’s a complex war that requires African governments of Uganda, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic to work together to pacify the region. And when I heard him say that Uganda is in central Africa despite [him] having visited here I almost stopped watching.

Angelo Opi-Aiya Izama argues at his blog that the film’s message is damagingly simplistic.

The simplicity of the “good versus evil”, where good is inevitably white/western and bad is black or African, is also reminiscent of some of the worst excesses of the colonial era interventions. These campaigns don’t just lack scholarship or nuance. They are not bothered to seek it.

In the government-owned daily New Vision, the only coverage (online, at least) to date has been a report quoting a state release expressing concern that the film “misrepresents” the situation by implying the LRA is active in Uganda.

In the independent Ugandan Daily Monitor, meanwhile, columnist Bernard Tabaire explores Twitter to see what people are saying about the film. He writes:

But so the world knows about Kony and the LRA. Now what? I get it that Invisible Children would like the American government to help out, possibly deploy more than the 100 military advisers it has already. Given their record finding Osama bin Laden, that is another decade at the minimum.

And why doesn’t this film acknowledge the efforts of others – local and foreign?

In the same paper, Timothy Kalyegira writes:

It is part [of] the familiar post-1990s, patronising White Western obsession with fashionable, feel good social causes and human rights crusading. A 21st Century Internet Woodstock, featuring the efforts of lonely, liberal, young Western (White) citizens whose creed - now that they live in essentially secular societies - is the news religion of doing anything “to make the world a better place.”

And Andrew Mwenda, editor of the Ugandan Independent magazine (strapline: “You get the truth, we pay the price”) goes further still in his local radio commentary (podcast at the Independent site), calling the American effort “hypocritical”, arguing that “there are worse abuses against African-Americans in America” than against Africans in Uganda.

For other African responses, see this post at Global Voices, and this at AfriPop.
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