Kony 2012: What can we learn about informed activism?
Kony 2012 went viral. The YouTube video has 20 Million views and counting. And if you’re like me, you’ve seen it all over your Facebook. Yet, despite generating huge amounts of publicity, there has been serious criticism (and praise) for the movement and lots of debate. Critics have pointed out that “the LRA was pushed out of Uganda and has been operating in extremely remote areas of the DRC, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic — where Kony himself is believed to be now”, the numbers in the film are greatly exaggerated, and that there’s no mention at all of the Ugandan government. The premise of the film is that we need to generate publicity to pressure to the U.S government to support Uganda in taking out Kony, but there’s no actual discussion in the film as to what Uganda’s government is doing. Ugandan journalist Angelo Izama comments:
“To call the campaign a misrepresentation is an understatement. 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. At the height of the war between especially 1999 and 2004, large hordes of children took refuge on the streets of Gulu town to escape the horrors of abduction and brutal conscription to the ranks of the LRA. Today most of these children are semi-adults. Many are still on the streets unemployed. Gulu has the highest numbers of child prostitutes in Uganda. It also has one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis.
If six years ago children in Uganda would have feared the hell of being part of the LRA, a well documented reality already, today the real invisible children are those suffering from “Nodding Disease”. Over 4000 children are victims of this incurable debilitating condition. It’s a neurological disease that has baffled world scientists and attacks mainly children from the most war affected districts of Kitgum, Pader and Gulu.”
But on the other hand, the video has done amazing things in getting people engaged in issues of the region. Even Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga have tweeted about the issues to their millions of followers. Musa Okwanga, a native ofNorthern Uganda, argues that the video is both good and bad. He points out that it generates genuine interest in the problems of the area that did not exist before, and he also highlights the criticism noted above. He said:
“I understand the anger and resentment at Invisible Children’s approach, which with its paternalism has unpleasant echoes of colonialism. I will admit to being perturbed by its apparent top-down prescriptiveness, when so much diligent work is already being done at Northern Uganda’s grassroots. On the other hand, I am very happy – relieved, more than anything – that Invisible Children have raised worldwide awareness of this issue. Murderers and torturers tend to prefer anonymity, and if not that then respectability: that way, they can go about their work largely unhindered. For too many years, the subject of this trending topic on Twitter was only something that I heard about in my grandparents’ living room, as relatives and family friends gathered for fruitless and frustrated hours of discussion. Watching the video, though, I was concerned at the simplicity of the approach that Invisible Children seemed to have taken…. It didn’t introduce them to the many Northern Ugandans already doing fantastic work both in their local communities and in the diaspora. It didn’t ask its viewers to seek diplomatic pressure on President Museveni’s administration.”
The issue of conflict minerals is not unlike the LRA in its complexity. How conflict minerals get from a mine to my computer is a very complicated process. How the efforts of the conflict-free community affect mining on the ground is even harder to understand. This complexity is part of the burden we undertake by involving ourselves in this project. Invisible Children has made itself as an organization that builds pressure by simplifying issues in neat, powerful movies. In doing this, it has been effective, but it has not avoided criticism.
The Kony 2012 video and the reaction it’s caused provides a learning point for the Coalition for a Conflict-Free Duke and the entire conflict-free movement. We need to choose if it is best to simplify a very complex issue in order to generate more publicity. Is it acceptable for us to simplify and sometimes even misrepresent facts if it accomplishes our goal? Is activism based off of a simplified logic better than no activism at all? As long as we’re dealing with these complicated issues, we will continue asking the same questions. The Kony 2012 movement has provided a fascinating debate though and a intensive example of the importance of informed activism.
By Craig Moxley, Duke ’14