Kony 2012, Social Media, and a Plea for Complexity

March 14th, 2012

Kony 2012

flickr / Brad Bethell Photography

If you’re not one of the 112 million people to have already watched Jason Russell’s Kony 2012 video on YouTube, you might be inclined to tune in here first.

Kony 2012 is part-documentary, part-over-produced-Hollywood-flick that has engendered an enormous amount of attention and emotion on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. It concerns Joseph Kony, a warlord from Uganda who, with the help of his forces, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), has abducted and enslaved tens of thousands of children in his own country, as well as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic. He remains at large, despite the fact that he is wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court and that President Obama has sent U.S. soldiers to help hunt him down.

But in the media, the video itself hasn’t been the dominant issue. Rather it is the fact that the video has generated so much attention itself that is, apparently, the most attention-worthy. And perhaps as a direct result of all this attention, the short film has also generated a whole lot of obloquy.

These criticisms range from pedantic to expansive. The video narrates as though Kony dominates the landscape of Uganda with 30,000 child soldiers. In fact, the LRA numbers in the hundreds at most, and has not operated in Uganda for nearly six years. Uganda, meanwhile, has witnessed a tremendous recovery in recent years. Other commentators have pointed out the video is bigoted and an extension of the “white man’s burden.” According to this line of reasoning, the message “subtly reinforces the idea that…well-meaning Westerners need to come in and fix [Africa].”

Other critics have pointed out that Invisible Children, which has raked in donations at their own request in the video, spends only about a third of the money it collects on direct aid to forces trying to stop Kony.  Much of the rest of it is spent on movies like Kony 2012 and salary, travel, and film production. This may draw limited resources away from more effective charity organizations.

Yet many remain enchanted by the fairytale rise of this video and the social-media machine that has helped it garner so much attention. In an opinion column in All Africa, Maja Rode calls the campaign “undoubtedly…one of the most successful social media-driven marketing campaigns to date.” The article goes on to say that if “causes really do want to compete with Kony 2012,” they must “Keep it simple…The easier the campaign is to understand, the better. If a five-year old gets it, you’ve hit the nail on the head. This means eliminate all complexity, nuanced messaging and clever turn of phrase.”

If this is where aid is headed in this world, then I don’t want any part of it.

Invisible Children is problematic because it’s simplistic. It simplifies the facts; it simplifies the cause and effect; it simplifies the solutions.

The truth is Kony is an evil man, and he and his movement do need to be stopped. But to isolate him from the larger problems associated with underdevelopment is not only misleading, but it is dangerous. Kony is a symptom of problems that are much bigger than one man. When Kony was strong, as an Associated Press article notes, “the Ugandan government was often accused of failing to do enough to capture or kill Kony, with some government investigations showing that army officers profiteered from a protracted war.” Joseph Kony is and was able to operate because of a larger political and economic reality in central Africa. Those conditions include corruption, conflict, insufficient government and social services, poverty, and human rights abuses.

There are limited resources for aid and development, and spending enourmous quantities of money making one man famous is not just a waste—it’s a depravation. To “Stop Kony” would rid the world of an evil man, yes, but it would do nothing to address these underlying problems.

But when the dust settles and the Internet chatter subsides–as it almost certainly will–whether or not Kony is stopped, those of us who are willing to address these issues with the nuance, complexity, and thoughfulness that they deserve will still be here. And we’ll still be trying to solve the problems. And we’ll even have enough humility to still be trying to understand them, too.

Image: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by Brad Bethell Photography

Written by Ann Hollingshead

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