As #Kony2012 Inspires Support Through Social Media, Critics Questions the Filmmaker’s Motives

This past Tuesday, March 6, 2012, a rather remarkable and shocking 30 minute video, “Kony 2012”, was unveiled on YouTube.  This simple and impassioned short piece was created by Jason Russell for Invisible Children Inc., to draw attention to Joseph Kony, the warlord and leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army that originated in 1987 in Uganda.

Kony and his LRA has ravaged Uganda and much of Central Africa for the last 26 years, almost with impunity. He has the dubious distinction of being the first name on the list of war criminals wanted for arrest and prosecution by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands. His crimes are beyond the pale, even for a world that seems to produce one psycho killer after the other. Kony specializes in kidnapping children from their homes and turning them into child soldiers.

According to the video, Kony sometimes encourages his young victims to prove their loyalty by first murdering their parents. Other atrocities include mass murder, rape, sexual slavery, mutilation and torture. In addition to kidnapping young boys to serve as child soldiers, Kony also kidnaps young girls to serve as sex slaves for his army. In total, estimates range from 30,000 to as many as 105,000 children kidnapped by Kony and the LRA.

As of today, Saturday, March 10, 2012, the video has been viewed 62,172,848 times. The success of the video in attracting a wide audience is undeniable and it is a testimony to the power of the Internet and social media.  However, Kony 2012 has also ignited a surprising storm of criticism by certain politicians, media figures and others in the public eye.

Leading the charge is Nigerian-American writer, Teju Cole, who savaged the video on his Twitter page with his posts titled “Seven thoughts on the banality of sentimentality.”  The New York Times does a good job rounding up all his tweets and posting them about half way down the page.

Here is what Mr. Cole had to say:

“1- From Sachs to 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.”

Other criticism of the video was less emotional and more focused on the details of the conflict. “Maria Burnett, a researcher on Uganda for Human Rights Watch, told the Associated Press that the video helped bring notice to an issue the group has been working on for years. “We hope it will be helpful,” she said. “What it leads to remains to be seen, but the goal to bring pressure on key leaders, to protect civilians and to apprehend LRA leadership is important, absolutely.””

At the same time, Burnett and her fellow aid workers bemoaned the fact that the video focused on Kony while not drawing enough attention to all the other problems in a region wracked by war and poverty. Other critics felt that the video exaggerated the importance of capturing Kony since he was no longer in Uganda but was hiding in a distant jungle in fear for his life. They claimed the once strong LRA had dwindled down to a few hundred remaining loyalists and no longer posed a serious threat.

Many of the critics are from Uganda and other parts of Africa, who are angered that the video makes no mention of the excesses of the Ugandan military or the dictatorial political leaders who have controlled the government for 25 years. They also feel that since Kony is no longer even in Uganda, going after him may only serve to motivate his supporters to resume the violence.

Ugandan journalist Rosebell Kagumire, points out that since Kony and the LRA was pushed out of Uganda six years ago, life there has been stabilizing. “This paints a picture of Uganda six or seven years ago, that is totally not how it is today. It’s highly irresponsible,” Kagumire said this week.

This brings us to the heart of the matter. A well meaning man, Jason Russell, while in Uganda 9 years ago, met a young victim of Kony’s insanity, and as a result, he decided to dedicate his life to stopping the conflict and bringing Joseph Kony to justice. Unfortunately, Kony is still at large and the video was created as part of a campaign to bring more attention to the issue. The video attracted a massive audience in a very short time and with this unexpected success, a group of critics and attackers came out of nowhere to savage Russell and his organization.

Russell and Invisible Children had this to say about the criticism: “The video makers conceded they “sought to explain the conflict in an easily understandable format, focusing on the core attributes of LRA leadership that infringe upon the most basic of human rights. In a 30-minute film, however, many nuances of the 26-year conflict are admittedly lost or overlooked.” Russell went on to say, “It definitely oversimplifies the issue. This video is not the answer, it’s just the gateway into the conversation. And we made it quick and oversimplified on purpose,” he said. “We are proud that it is simple. We like that. And we want you to keep investigating, we want you to read the history.”

In response to the critics, certain facts must be pointed out. The people behind Kony 2012 didn’t start this movement yesterday. It has existed for almost a decade. The organization is not made up of one white American but has a staff of hundreds of employees and volunteers from every corner of the globe as well as over two million Facebook supporters. The group has a hard working outreach program in Uganda, run by Ugandans, that is doing exactly what the critics say should be done. They are rebuilding Uganda, focusing on building new schools, one after the other.

Is humanity so bitter and divided that anytime someone wants to help those in need or dedicate themselves to a cause that inspires them to action, they must meet racial, national and political requirements, before they are allowed to step up and help? Would a child soldier from Uganda refuse to rescued because the person extending his hand is white and American? If the angry assertions of people like Teju Cole become the standard by which we are judged when we want to right a wrong and put a stop to evil, then the world will soon become even more violent and divided than it is now.

Yes, Kony 2012 is a bit simple and yes, it doesn’t examine all the details of the conflict. But it is making a serious effort to help the children who are victims of a madman like Joseph Kony. It has shone a spotlight on an evil that has been allowed to exist and ravage Central Africa for almost three decades. We can only hope that Kony 2012 will be the beginning of an outpouring of support from every corner of our long suffering planet to right the wrongs that have been done to the citizens of Uganda. We can only hope that the individuals who are so dedicated to bringing Joseph Kony to justice will be equally dedicated to bringing true freedom, justice and prosperity to the long suffering people of Africa. Unlike some of the cynics out there, we still believe that there are good people who really want to change the world for the better, regardless of their race, politics or nationality.

Perhaps Sarah Margon, an Africa expert at the Center for American Progress, sums it up in the best way possible. On her Think Progress blog, she had this to say, “So, instead of continuing to debate the strengths and weakness of the Kony2012 video, or attack Invisible Children for their lack of financial transparency, let’s figure out how to turn this momentum into a constructive opportunity that can result in smart policies that will have a positive, real-time impact in the affected areas of central Africa. Let’s harness this energy and turn it into something productive that ensures we’re telling the right stories, inspiring well-informed advocacy, and working together across governments, academia, grassroots activists, and local populations to help bring this chapter of the LRA — and the impact in affected areas —to a close.”

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