KONY 2012: Easy Targets, Hard Truths

“People will think you’re an advocate of awesome.”

The first mention of Kony2012 to show up in my Facebook newsfeed was a link to the action kit shopping page, which has the above tagline. I ignored it without a second’s thought, because the inanity of the call to action was obvious. It wasn’t a call to action: no need to be informed, no need to commit to a cause. Just buy a kit and continue on with your awesome life (or so it will appear to be to others). What a bizarre, ego-stroking way to go about advocacy.

Granted, altruism at its best can still be self-serving, something you do because it makes you feel good that you’ve done some good. There’s no harm in that. I might choose to ignore a campaign designed on such a basis, but neither would I criticize it. That is, unless it started to gain a lot of traction and spark a backlash to wit. Given my knee-jerk reaction to the tagline, I read the critique by Visible Children before watching the video itself.

Let me start by saying, the Kony2012 video has created the discursive space we’re all in, whether we write in support or against. You can’t deny that Invisible Children has already been successful in achieving one of its major objectives: bringing Joseph Kony into the limelight. After years in hiding with limited media coverage, suddenly he is everywhere. Yes, he’s been vilified as the “Kurtz-like embodiment of evil,” without reference to the greater complexities and geopolitical reality surrounding him. Nonetheless, bloggers and the media are writing about those very issues: articles point to discrepancies in facts, the dubious aim of advocating military intervention to capture Kony, and the need to incorporate the views and agency of Central Africans themselves. All this is happening because Invisible Children mounted a media campaign, no matter how misguided the critics (including me) think its intentions may have been.

If you haven’t seen it yet, suspend your doubts for a moment and join the 40 million others who have given it a gander:

Now that you’ve given it a fair shot, here’s what I don’t like about it.

1. Cutting out context for the sake of an easy meme may spread the message more widely, but at what cost? Having worked in nonprofit communications and advocacy, I realize that advocacy and marketing, especially via social media, toes a fine line between substance and stickiness. The more substance you have, the harder it is to cram it into a thirty-second viral video.

That’s part of why Kony2012 is both so impressive and so problematic. It’s not a 30-second video that well knows it could just be a flash in the pan. It’s a quasi-documentary that splices footage from adorable home videos, campaigns run by Invisible Children and the machinations of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) into an easy, five-year-olds-can-get-this dichotomy: Kony–bad, evil / children–good, pure.

What’s unfortunate is that it’s a wasted opportunity. For a 30-minute video to focus so much on Gavin, filmmaker Jason Russell’s son, and tout the work of Invisible Children, yet put so little time or effort into actually depicting the situation seems dishonest. It’s essentially a glorified ad. This quote from The Atlantic sums up it up eloquently:

Campaigns that focus on bracelets and social media absorb resources that could go toward more effective advocacy, and take up rhetorical space that could be used to develop more effective advocacy. How do we go from raising awareness about LRA violence to actually stopping it? What’s the mechanism of transforming YouTube page views into a mediated political settlement?

2. The video is self-glorifying and lacks sensitivity. It may be a matter of calling a spade a spade. This video is not a documentary, and I hope it makes no pretense to be. I mean, Gavin is really cute. It’s adorable that he wants to go to Africa and be just like his dad. But I don’t understand the creative vision or the premise of a video that would make his son more central (i.e., a fixture of the opening scenes) to the narrative than the “invisible children” themselves. This quote by Jason Russell says so much:

“No one wants a boring documentary on Africa,” he said. “Maybe we have to make it pop, and we have to make it cool.”

Really? Russell believes his audience, mostly young people under 25, won’t be interested in human rights unless it’s “cool,” or perhaps that they can’t process it unless it’s phrased in very simple terms, in the way he explains the situation to his son. Bogeyman in Africa, bad.

I think he doesn’t give them enough credit. Instead, he simplifies the formula: With a click, you’ve saved Africa. Perhaps this self-centric perspective is the very reason that the video has caught on so rapidly. That’s what sells to the “Me Generation” right? As the blog Africa Is Not a Country puts it, the narrative shift is awkward at best, if not belying flat-out colonialist superiority: “remember how we fall down into Uganda from the heavenly realms of Jason Russell’s Facebook page?” Many have observed Russell’s tendency to slip on the “white man’s burden,” or to let slip a “soft bigotry” in claiming that well-meaning Westerners are needed step in and fix yet another African problem. The censure from the media has been overwhelming, perhaps in some cases unduly harsh. In fairness, I’ll link to Invisible Children’s response to the critique here.

3. The fact that this video lacks depth, most disturbingly, suggests to me that Invisible Children has not grown since it started. Though the video claims that 99% of the world don’t know who Joseph Kony is, I actually have known for a while. Truth is, I probably first heard of him through watching the original film put out by Invisible Children in 2006. I was in college when I first saw it, and I found it deeply moving. Even then, I was skeptical of the approach that three random Americans stumbling upon a problem could go in and be the solution, but I was inspired by their passion to stoke up advocacy back home. It seemed to make sense, since this was something they could do well, building on an overwhelming response to the film.

See it, be inspired, learn about it, commit to it, spread it. Of the stages of “conversion” in marketing, the hardest are the last two. Kony2012 makes it easier to round the cycle by cutting out the learning step, glossing over details that don’t fit the message (like the fact that the LRA is no longer in Northern Uganda.)

I admit that I haven’t followed Invisible Children closely over the six years since, but the fact that the next big wave that they make is like this? It’s disappointing. Kony2012 actually conveys less depth than the original film did. The urgency feels manufactured, the argument oversimplified. If Invisible Children is redoubling its efforts to get the word out to people who haven’t heard about Joseph Kony and might never, then they should measure up to a responsibility to convey that message with as much accuracy and nuance as they can in 30 minutes. If they’re asking influencers and celebrities for support, which amazingly they have succeeded in procuring, even from The White House, they should put greater focus on packaging an accurate message with a clear call to action, rather than on selling a package that puts money in their pockets (regardless of how it’s allocated).

Another incisive quote from The Atlantic:

Invisible Children has turned the myopic worldview of the adolescent — “if I don’t know about it, then it doesn’t exist, but if I care about it, then it is the most important thing in the world” — into a foreign policy prescription. The “invisible children” of the group’s name were the children of northern Uganda forcibly recruited by the LRA. In the group’s narrative, these children were “invisible” until American students took notice of them.

On finances. Frankly, I’ve never been much of a believer of the Charity Navigator ratings, which are based on the percentage of funding that gets put into direct service provision and programs relative to administrative, overhead and other costs. Nonprofits try to get around that in lots of ways in their budget allocations, skimming as close to the regulatory guidelines as they can. They keep salaries low, encouraging high turnover rates that damage institutional longevity and efficiency, but that’s all a topic for another day. You can find a problem anywhere if you go looking for it. In short, the funding question, I’m not as worried about.

But as a communications professional who believes that information must be handled responsibly and framing matters exponentially—and that advocacy campaigns must prioritize staying power and convey realistic expectations about long-haul, long-term, community-integrated solutions because that’s what it takes—I can’t support what Kony2012 attempts to do. I realize that all of the above is marbles in the mouth of a viral video. A gun-wielding villain, a manhunt in the jungle and a silver bullet are a much easier sell. But that doesn’t make it the right one.

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