I first learned about the Kony 2012 viral video phenomenon from my thirteen year-old son, Erik. He came into the kitchen one evening as I was making dinner and asked if I knew about Joseph Kony and – in his words –“the terrible things the Lord’s Resistance Army was doing to children in Africa.” He was deeply troubled by what he had seen and wanted to do something. He asked if he could buy a “Kony 2012” action kit for thirty dollars from Invisible Children, the NGO that made the film. Over the next week Kony 2012 came up a lot in conversations at home. Sometimes, the conversations focused on the power of social media, but most were deeply critical about messages in the video, the video’s recommended action steps, and the intentions of Invisible Children and the aid industry more broadly. After several days, Erik didn’t want to talk about it anymore.
As of March 19, Kony 2012 has received more than 83 million hits on YouTube. When it first went viral, the video had a strong appeal to a virtual army of youth and others who were shocked by the violence employed by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and attracted by the clear path that the video presented for ending the suffering. Since then, there has been a barrage of criticism from diverse constituencies, much of it quite valid. The video presents a simplistic and misleading portrayal of the situation in Uganda that ignores the historical context of this conflict in the Great Lakes region of Africa. The focus on Kony and the LRA shifts from the need to end the suffering of child soldiers to providing a justification for U.S. military intervention in Africa. Critics charge Invisible Children with manipulating the conflict and suffering to increase donations and its own visibility. When I watched Kony 2012, I found myself cringing at the underlying message that the solution to conflict and violence in Africa is external intervention – the troubling rhetoric that we, Americans, can fix this problem. Why didn’t it say anything about African efforts to stop LRA and strengthen democratic politics in Uganda and surrounding countries? Indeed, subsequent commentaries have drawn attention to important issues about advocacy, media representations of conflict and humanitarian assistance, and the politics of intervention.
But I wonder about the virtual army of youth and others who helped Kony 2012 go viral in the first place. Are they following the debates and developing more critical and nuanced perspectives on the big issues it has raised? Or, are they feeling shut down by the criticism of experts who are well versed in African history and politics or international aid and activism but who have not offered alternative pathways to information and action. Perhaps one of the most challenging issues raised by Kony 2012 is finding ways to keep those who were initially inspired by the video informed and engaged. The video has demonstrated the power of social media to raise awareness about global suffering. The challenge now is keeping its millions of viewers engaged in efforts that are based on more nuanced understandings of the causes of human suffering, and more respect and support for those who are living through it and working tirelessly to end it. If not, a real opportunity will be lost and the impact of Kony 2012 will not outlive its sensational media splash.
Director, Institute for Developing Nations,