My first, visceral response. Yuck.
To be fair, the film is well shot, compiled an well intentioned. It raises awareness in the West of an issue that is serious, devastating and deserves international attention. It has been viewed by over 67 million people (which is crazy) and Invisible Children has become the poster child for effective use of social media for that past few years. Kudos to them for mobilizing so many people to get involved and talk about capturing a war criminal rather than the latest episode of Jersey Shore.
However, I can’t help but wonder if the Kony campaign is damaging and irresponsible. The film kicks off with Jacob, one of Kony’s victims, explaining his tragic story. All I could hear was the voice of a white Southern Californian asking in an incredibly affected and bizarre accent if Jacob wanted to die because he felt so hopeless, and then repeating the question over and over again as Jacob begins to sob, eventually promising that he would make it better. Other major problems include distortion of facts, oversimplification, and an overall bad theory of change.
Can you say white man’s burden?
One commentator, Ethan Zuckerman explains the major problem of the campaign’s oversimplification:
Much of [Jason Russell’s] short film features him explaining to his young son that Kony is a bad guy, and that dad’s job is capturing the bad guy. We are asked to join the campaign against Kony literally by being spoken to as a five year old. It’s not surprising that a five year old vision of a problem – a single bad guy, a single threat to eliminate – leads to an unworkable solution. Nor is it a surprise that this extremely simple narrative is compelling and easily disseminated.
Lina Srivastava, a fellow human rights colleague and transmedia expert who I deeply respect explained it quite it well on Beth Kanter’s blog:
No campaign should be bigger than its mission, or aim at participation for the sake of participation. Our increasing connectedness should be celebrated as an effective method of achieving change, not as the change itself. This campaign is [paternalistic] besides being deeply manipulative and factually incorrect, and perpetuates a stereotype of the outside DIY “activist” saving the Africans, without a clear path from their narrative to their methodology to their desired outcome of apprehending and prosecuting Kony. (“Buy a bracelet, we’ll hunt him down?” Is that that the story?) And where is the local community in all of this? Nowhere to be found in this video. As activists, professionals in social good, and as storytellers, we have to move beyond engaging the community to really parsing out what is the right change and the effective path to the solution.
Another problem suggested by Zuckerman are the unintended political consequemces os the IC Campaign:
What are the unintended consequences of the Invisible Children narrative? The main one is increased support for Yoweri Museveni, the dictatorial and kleptocratic leader of Uganda. Museveni is now on his fourth presidential term, the result of an election seen as rigged by EU observers. Museveni has asserted such tight control over dissenting political opinions that his opponents have been forced to protest his rule through a subtle and indirect means – walking to work to protest the dismal state of Uganda’s economy. Those protests have been violently suppressed.
The US government needs to pressure Museveni on multiple fronts. The Ugandan parliament, with support from Museveni’s wife, has been pushing a bill to punish homosexuality with the death penalty. The Obama administration finds itself pressuring Museveni to support gay and lesbian rights and to stop cracking down on the opposition quite so brutally, while asking for cooperation in Somalia and against the LRA. An unintended consequence of Invisible Children’s campaign may be pushing the US closer to a leader we should be criticizing and shunning.
A huge issue I personally have with Kony 2012 (aside form commentary above) is the way this piece depicts the developing world – most notably, black people in the developing world – as the helpless victims of international greed and corrupt warlords. Add a bunch of white kids traveling to “Africa” to save the black people, and I can’t help but cringe. I do not have nearly the amount of knowledge on the alleged factual distortions and the apparent over-simplification of the dispute in Uganda, but it was easy to find resources of practitioners who do (as cited) – and their commentary very quickly validated my instincts.
I deeply appreciate Zuckerman’s blog, and suggest you read it. Here is his idea of how we could tell the Kony story – and he notes that it is unfortunately not quite as simple as daddy catching the bad guys:
A more complex narrative of northern Uganda would look at the odd, codependent relationship between Museveni and Kony, Uganda’s systematic failure to protect the Acholi people of northern Uganda. It would look at the numerous community efforts, often led by women, to mediate conflicts and increase stability. It would focus on the efforts to rebuild the economy of northern Uganda, and would recognize the economic consequences of portraying northern Uganda as a war zone. It would feature projects like Women of Kireka, working to build economic independence for women displaced from their homes in Northern Uganda.
So, Invisible Children, props for your slick media campaign. But I am not a fan.