#StopKony: Activism Or Exploitation?

Courtesy The (U.K.) Independent

By Arturo R. García

The online campaign against Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony gained serious momentum online Wednesday. But so have questions regarding the organization behind hashtags like #StopKony.

The group, Invisible Children, has said it released its latest video (TRIGGER WARNING for one scene) to help spur action leading to Kony’s arrest “and set a precedent for international justice.” Between YouTube and Vimeo, the 30-minute short film has been seen more than 21 million times since being released Tuesday. In addition, blogger Scott Ross noted (emphasis his) that the campaign, “took up six of the top ten trending topics on Twitter, and ‘Kony’ and ‘#KONY2012’ accounted for 3-4% of all tweets.”

The video, narrated by Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell, was released days after the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) issued a report saying Kony’s paramilitary group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), had engaged in 52 new attacks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, killing at least 35 people, abducting 104 others and leaving more than 17,000 residents displaced from their homes.

Kony and the LRA have been targeted by authorities worldwide for his activities for years: in 2005 he was indicted by the International Criminal Court in the Hague for crimes against humanity, including the abduction and conscription of tens of thousands of children over the past 25 years. And the U.S. military has committed financial and logistical resources toward his arrest since 2008, most recently advising Ugandan troops pursuing the LRA across parts of Central Africa, a development Invisible Children takes credit for in the video.

But in a post for Foreign Policy, reporter Michael Wilkerson was among those accusing the group of slanting the story:

But let’s get two things straight: 1) Joseph Kony is not in Uganda and hasn’t been for 6 years; 2) the LRA now numbers at most in the hundreds, and while it is still causing immense suffering, it is unclear how millions of well-meaning but misinformed people are going to help deal with the more complicated reality.

First, the facts. Following a successful campaign by the Ugandan military and failed peace talks in 2006, 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 Ugandan military has been pursuing the LRA since then but had little success (and several big screw-ups).

Additionally, the LRA (thankfully!) does not have 30,000 mindless child soldiers. This grim figure, cited by Invisible Children in the film (and by others) refers to the total number of kids abducted by the LRA over nearly 30 years. Eerily, it is also the same number estimated for the total killed in the more than 20 years of conflict in Northern Uganda.

Uganda itself is largely absent from the video, aside from brief appearances from Invisible Children employees and a few local leaders (on its website, the group says it employs “roughly” 100 Ugandan citizens in programs in the area.) But for Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to neither appear nor be mentioned in the video is “a crucial omission,” said author and musician Musa Okwonga in The (U.K.) Independent:

Invisible Children asked viewers to seek the engagement of American policymakers and celebrities, but – and this is a major red flag – 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.

Courtesy Visible Children

On his blog, Visible Children, Canadian political science student Grant Oyston provided a link to four other charitable groups working in central Africa. He has also criticized Invisible Children for photos the one shown at right, where Nelson and his fellow co-founders are holding weapons and posing with members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.

“Both the Ugandan army and Sudan People’s Liberation Army are riddled with accusations of rape and looting,” Oyston wrote Wednesday. “But Invisible Children defends them, arguing that the Ugandan army is “better equipped than that of any of the other affected countries”, although Kony is no longer active in Uganda and hasn’t been since 2006 by their own admission. These books each refer to the rape and sexual assault that are perennial issues with the UPDF, the military group Invisible Children is defending.”

While not naming Oyston’s site, Invisible Children issued a statement addressing the issue on its’ website:

We do not defend any of the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Ugandan government or the Ugandan army (UPDF). None of the money donated through Invisible Children ever goes to the government of Uganda. Yet the only feasible and proper way to stop Kony and protect the civilians he targets is to coordinate efforts with regional governments.

Invisible Children’s mission is to stop Joseph Kony and the LRA wherever they are and help rehabilitate LRA-affected communities. The Ugandan government’s army, the UPDF, is more organized and better equipped than that of any of the other affected countries (DRC, South Sudan, CAR) to track down Joseph Kony. Part of the US strategy to stop Kony is to encourage cooperation between the governments and armies of the 4 LRA-affected countries.

The statement also responded to critiques of the group’s funding structure (a similar statement was posted on Reddit) and provided more detailed information on its campaigns in Uganda, which include scholarship and community-improvement programs, as well as a radio network allowing communities to track and alert one another against LRA attacks.

Invisible Children’s video ends with a call for a mass protest on April 20, “Cover The Night,” with the goal of putting up posters–available for sale on its website as part of an “action kit”–in major cities around the world with the goal of expanding the campaign’s reach as far as possible. But the way the campaign is presented–led by a white man’s voice, with groups of predominantly white American activists juxtaposed with survivors/victims who are African–paints a picture of neo-colonialism, and justifiably so, according to Ugandan journalist Angelo Izama:

This is because these campaigns are disempowering of their own voices. After all the conflict and suffering is affecting them directly regardless of if they hit the re-tweet button or not. At the end of the day the Kony2012 campaign will not make Joseph Kony more famous but it will make Invisible Children famous. It will also make many, including P.Diddy, feel like they have contributed some good to his capture- assuming Kony is even alive. For many in the conflict prevention community including those who worry about the militarization of it in Central Africa this campaign is just another nightmare that will end soon. Hopefully.

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  • Lisa

     Also, they are lobbying their own government (using uninformed masses) to go INTO ANOTHER COUNTRY and fight battles in that country in the name of capturing Kony. That’s neocolonialist. And not just fighting battles (which might seem altruistic to some because joseph kony is a bad guy), but OCCUPYING these foreign nations to “prevent” other konys so to speak.

  • Pingback: KONY 2012 – My Two Cents()

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1475130094 Heather Lynn

    I understand the video and the organization is problematic. At the same time, my response is ‘what is the answer?’ The answer is not to be the Great White Savior, which is where I think this campaign goes wrong. However, how do you stop a group (the LRA)  like this? How do we put an end to international or multi-national terror campaigns? What is a good way to get involved in stopping human violence? If the answer is ‘we can’t do it at all’ then the answer, by default, becomes do nothing. I think that’s the best message of the campaign is that something needs to be done, even if it means working in a ‘lesser of two evils’ situation.  I don’t think the goal should be ‘stop the war in central Africa’ because, we, as US citizens can’t do that. That’s not our culture, not our part of the world, and it’s not up to us to determine how those people want to govern themselves. This is the part about the conversations around Egypt and Libya that anger me. We intervened in a limited capacity because there was a need during that period of time. But once that need is gone, we don’t get to decide what happens with those people. So what if they chose to pick governments we don’t like. Is our country really any better at governing ourselves? Really? The concern is human life, and that should be the focus: don’t forget this is happening because it is important and, long after other concerns fade, what was done to these people will be remembered. And we will be judged on how or if we acted at all.

  • Tentek


    just because it’s on YouTube, 
    doesn’t mean things are different


  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000594933743 Ciarán Here

    Can we interfere without understanding the cause and effect
    of the west’s crusades in other societies and its attempts to push its values
    or lack of values on other societies-societies that have been around for
    thousands of years? It seems that these advocacies create jobs for themselves
    and feed into the ‘do-good’ in some. The consequences of the actions by outside
    states interferences in other societies  does in most cases leave theses societies with
    more dead and wounded and creates a new enemy. Those that advocate military and
    other intervention in others societies than their own will not be there to advocate
    against the consequences of their feel good military interventions. Maybe they
    would be better off advocating a worldwide ban on munitions factories they could
    start in their own counties first.

  • Anonymous

    A lot of my tweets  have been about this campaign. When I watched the video I thought, how easy, a Black man is the worst  man in the world according to White liberals; Once again, the Black man is the White Man’s burden. Once again, Africans are doing nothing for themselves. Send money and sign my name in support of military intervention? WTF? What are the facts?  A little research goes along way.

    I would like to see these professionally produced video campaigns go viral – bracelets, posters and yard signs included:

    #ArrestGeorgeBush2012, #ArrestDickCheney2012, (and the rest of the Bush Administration war criminals),

    #ArrestJoesphCassano, #ArrestDickFuld, http://bit.ly/zpBXrK

    #FreeAnitaMcLemore http://bit.ly/zJ8Qx6

    #FreeTanyaMcDowell http://bit.ly/xrI2T5

     #FreeHana’ Shalabi http://bit.ly/wdq4in

    #InvestigateTheNRA (for Crimes Against Humanity)

    Honestly, I don’t have the resources or the skills to pull such campaigns off. They are entries on my wish list that I would love to cross off.

    • Kat

      I would like to add: #Arrest the Haditha killers with a new REAL trial (the one we had was a farce) #Free Leonard Peltier.

  • Anonymous

    The campaign is neocolonialistic because it’s a group of Americans who assume that they have the correct solution to a huge series of problems that have plagued several countries for years, despite the disagreement of Ugandan, Congolese, and Sudanese activists who have a greater understanding of the situation, its history, and its ramifications.

  • Pingback: Why I’m not supporting the Kony 2012 campaign « Hot Foreign Affairs()

  • Emily Cohen

     thank you!!!!!

  • Pingback: A few words about “Kony 2012″ | The Crommunist Manifesto()

  • Anonymous

    The other problem with this video?

    None of the people tweeting and sharing could give a damn that their rabid desire for latest consumer electronics drives demand for conflict minerals mined in Central Africa. They play mental gymnastics to justify how they aren’t part at all responsible for that.

    This video is a feel good exercise in slacktivisim, and if Kony is brought to justice, Ugandans won’t get a damn bit of credit for it.

  • http://twitter.com/2zelda Alexandra Snider

    Great article. The video is the embodiment of the “White man’s burden”, I felt ill watching it. And it’s very telling that IC doesn’t work with any other aid or development groups and that they don’t provide any links to further information. I also have trouble believing that the American government (particularly Republicans like Inhofe) are completely free of ulterior motives given the recent discovery of oil in Northern Uganda. But that just might be my own paranoia talking…

    (And the photo of Russell and the other IC members posing with the SPLA soldiers was taken by Glenna Gordon: http://www.scarlettlion.com/invsible-children-the-next-chapter/)

  • Keith

    When white liberals get involved in supposed human rights causes on a Whim brown folks end up getting killed by the 100’s, 1000’s. Libya and Somalia come to mind in recent memory.

    • RT

      so Libya would have been better off if the world had ignored it? You should tell the Syrans that – maybe they’ll thank you for not getting involved.

    • RT

      so Libya would have been better off if the world had ignored it? You should tell the Syrans that – maybe they’ll thank you for not getting involved.

      • Kate S.

        Ummm I have seen enough people screwed by “whoo-lets-free-them from X” decisions. I don’t know about Libya but I know about other countries. There always will be people (inside the country) for and against that sort of action. And being against doesn’t mean they are evil. It doesn’t even mean that they support the current crazy-at-the-helm. They just know that they will end up with another power hungry maniac, who will have better PR, but won’t change anything. “Let’s free them” people will find themselves another target to “free”, give you some token humanitarian aid and leave you to rebuild the things they destroyed.
        You assume that all people of the same ethnic-group think the same and use them to shame Keith. The problem is he’s right – People die because of those decisions, people die because people choosing not to help too. How about treating them with more respect and dignity and actually talk with them before any active action. After all they are living there, not you.

    • RT

      so Libya would have been better off if the world had ignored it? You should tell the Syrans that – maybe they’ll thank you for not getting involved.

    • RT

      so Libya would have been better off if the world had ignored it? You should tell the Syrans that – maybe they’ll thank you for not getting involved.

  • Jjoneluv

    You are absolutely right.  And then I was a little confused about why the birth of the narrator’s son took up a big portion of the introduction.  Like, we’re supposed to be talking about Northern Ugandans (who most people don’t really care about, btw). 

    • San

      I perceive it as a ploy to gain the attention of more white people (“What if it were my son?!”), who supposedly have money in their pockets to support the organization.

  • http://2in20.blogspot.com yes

    Things that pissed me off about this video, in no particular order:

    -It’s being billed as an “experiment” (because we can afford to lose more lives if it goes wrong?)-White man asking INTENSELY personal questions of a young man who he barely knows, provoking an emotional response as the young man recalls the brutality and suffering he has had to endure, only to be reassured by Russell that “it’s gonna be okay” because duh, a white guy is telling you it’s going to be alright! /ragevomit
    -Lots of appeals to emotion and not a lot of facts. Disgusting pity porn. Pictures of victims of war and no discussion about the structures that exist that allowed the LRA to flourish and of the corruption of government and meddling of NGO’s
    -Senator James Inhofe, proponent of the Iraq war and defender of torture, urging audience to get it done in 2012
    -List of ICC indicted persons onscreen, asking why not start with Kony BUT SHOWING NAMES OF PEOPLE ON THE LIST WHO ARE ALREADY IN CUSTODY OR DEAD ON SCREEN! (You guys, ICC is totally not doing their jobs, so I gotta do this!)
    -White Savior Complex. Where are the voices of Ugandans?
    -Thousands upon thousands of well-intention but misguided youth, some spurred by White Liberal Guilt, who suddenly  became experts in international foreign policy and over a century of colonialism and international relations in Central Africa after thirty minutes watching a video (Wow, so I guess I don’t have to go for my Master’s in international relations after all!)
    -“Make Kony famous”. NOOOOO. NO NO NO NO NOPE. NO. This is disgusting. Imagine someone doing the same with images of Bin Laden or Gaddafi?! This is not cool, for real. Iconizing the man is not the way to go
    -Asking for donations to help support the Ugandan army and a military intervention? But, we want peace. WTF INTERNET I CANNOT DEAL WITH THIS SHIT ANYMORE!

    Half an hour of my life watching a video and now I’ll spend the next three days working through all the shit I just saw. Sometimes I should learn to just say no.

    • Rose

      I agree with some of your points, but not all of them.  I agree that there should have been more African voices in the video and more involvement of African organizations already working on it.  Yes, it totally played to people’s emotions, but sometimes as an activist that’s what you have to do to get shit done.  If they had just talked about the Ugandan conflict and facts and figures, not only would the video have been too long, but people wouldn’t have watched it in the numbers that they did.  This video was created to get people to care as much as they can — which brings me to my next point.  The argument I hear over and over again about this video is that it just causes people to simply post a link, like a status, say how sad it is, and then move on and not do anymore.  But the thing is, at least those people are doing something (raising awareness).  Honestly, there is no video or message in the world that could get the public to do anything that would actually satisfy all these people complaining about the video.  It’s like you want a video that would cause millions of Americans to fly to Africa and personally bring down the LRA.  Just to warn you — that will never, ever happen.  The most we can get these people to do is share the video, talk about it to their friends, and then move on with their lives.  And that person and the 5 people they talked to about it might write letters to their representative — and there’s an exponential growth of people contacting people who CAN actually do something about it.  As someone who cares about a lot of issues, I’ve had to learn the hard way to put most of my effort into the one or two causes that really draw me in, and then I can give what time, energy, and money I have left after that to other organizations that interest me as well, but the most that’s going to be is posting a few links and sending in a small amount of money.  So I don’t really see anything wrong with people just posting a link and moving on.  It doesn’t mean they’re bad people or lazy or fake — that’s just all they can do for now.  And if that video had never been made and spread across the internet, not only would that person be doing absolutely nothing about the LRA, but they wouldn’t know a thing about it.  At least now they’re doing something, even if it’s a minimal effort.

      Also, the reason they don’t have to ask people to make Bin Laden or Gaddafi famous is because they’re already famous.  That’s the whole point behind the video and the name Invisible Children.  This conflict is totally invisible to most of the world, whereas most Americans know who Bin Laden and Gaddafi are.  The narrator wants Americans to feel the same way about Kony that they do about Bin Laden.

      • Anonymous

        I don’t think it’s that we want random Americans to go to Uganda to take down the LRA (especially since they’re not there anymore)–I would be
        really, really not okay with that actually–but that we, or at least I, want
        Americans not to just “take any action” but to take a GOOD action, even a
        small one, that will contribute to real, lasting change: educating
        themselves about the Congo Wars and the circumstances that led to the
        formation of the LRA before advocating a specific action, researching charities
        and international aid organizations before donating to them, finding organizations that are financially responsible and
        dedicated to supporting local structural solutions. I realize that’s optimistic, but for me, the biggest problem
        is that Invisible Children is an ineffective organization, and their
        video advocates actions I can’t get
        behind: give money to Invisible Children, and support a military
        organization with a history of attacking civilians. I don’t think “raising awareness” outweighs that.


    Finally! A voice of reason. This film is exploitative.