The Legitimacy of #Kony2012 & Other Online Campaigns?

The recent surge to “make famous” Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has also put focus on the importance of being knowledgeable about an online campaign before throwing one’s support behind it.  While social media has proven to be a unique platform for organizations to campaign directly to other likely supporters, there is also another side to online organizing that can have a negative long-term effect.

The above film created by the California-based organization Invisible Children has been seen by millions of viewers since it was posted last week.  The filmmaker says it was made to bring more awareness of the “crisis” to more people through social media. However, many activists feel the campaign is manipulating the facts.  For one thing, the LRA has been around for nearly 30 years and Kony has allegedly not been seen in the country since 2007.  However, the film presents this issue as if the LRA just came on the scene and that these crimes are currently happening.  Kony’s power has since been reduced significantly as he allegedly only has a couple hundred soldiers on his side.  While the crimes against his victims were very real and deserve legal recourse, many activists don’t see the Kony cause as being important today as other current global disputes like in Syria.  Michael Deibert, author of Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair, says in the Huffington Post that Kony isn’t the only one to blame for the suffering in Uganda.

The problem with Invisible Children’s whitewashing of the role of the government of Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni in the violence of Central Africa is that it gives Museveni and company a free pass, and added ammunition with which to bludgeon virtually any domestic opposition, such as Kizza Besigye and the Forum for Democratic Change.

By blindly supporting Uganda’s current government and its military adventures beyond its borders, as Invisible Children suggests that people do, Invisible Children is in fact guaranteeing that there will be more violence, not less, in Central Africa.

I have seen the well-meaning foreigners do plenty of damage before, so that is why people understanding the context and the history of the region is important before they blunder blindly forward to “help” a people they don’t understand.

Then there are others like Visible Children who question the process of the campaign.

“These problems are highly complex, not one-dimensional and, frankly, aren’t of the nature that can be solved by postering, film-making and changing your Facebook profile picture, as hard as that is to swallow.”

Invisible Children has addressed the critics

“In our quest to garner wide public support of nuanced policy, Invisible Children has 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,’’ Invisible Children says on its website. “In a 30-minute film, however, many nuances of the 26-year conflict are admittedly lost or overlooked.’’

This is certainly not the first online campaign to be criticized for simplifying the central cause of concern.  A few months ago we discussed the lessons learned from the Troy Davis campaign.  A memorable quote came from Flip the Media’s Jonathan Cunningham.

…Many of the people retweeting petitions and posting notices on their social media accounts had never heard of Davis until a week ago — or less. Reading and signing a physical petition, or writing a parole board takes effort and research at the very least. Retweeting a petition for clemency in a capital murder case only takes dexterity in one finger as you click a button.  Online activism, while noble and potentially powerful, typically involves the short-winded enthusiasm of the uninformed. If Troy Davis is the triggerman and he’s guiltier than sin, there would still be just as many wide-eyed folks on Twitter sending around links to save his life today. Frankly, that’s uneducated and unwise at the very least and potentially dangerous at the extreme…

Capital punishment and proof of guilt are very complex issues.  The Haiti earthquake was also not so simple.  When the disaster struck, the natural instinct everyone had was to donate anything that would help the victims as soon as possible.  So many people began to donate large sums of money quickly, thanks to the convenience of giving money online or via text message.  Many people donated to the Yele Foundation, a charity founded by musician Wyclef Jean, who asked his Twitter followers to text in US$5 and was able to raise US$1 million in one day.  Donors felt they could trust Jean with their money since he was Haitian-American and at the time seemed to be credible and had a real connection with his home country.  The good feelings all changed a short time later when Yele was accused of poor and unethical accounting, including allowing Jean to use the money for personal use.

Invisible Children’s finances are also coming under question.  According to the organization’s most recent financial statements, it spent $8,676,614 last year, but only 32 percent of it went to direct services in Uganda.  The rest of it went to staff salaries, overhead and film equipment.  This wouldn’t be such a bad thing if Invisible Children presented itself as an online video advocacy group.  However, IC’s programs description and about pages on their website presents the organization as a humanitarian aid group working full-time on the ground helping Ugandans, comparably to Oxfam or ActionAid. Even Charity Navigator rates IC’s accountability at two of four stars because the charity has only four independent board members instead of five.

To sum it up, as easy as it is to retweet a YouTube video or sign an e-petition these days, the Internet has also made it easier to find out everything you need to know about a social issue beforehand.  This is why it is still very important to do both online and offline research about any campaign or organization before becoming a supporter.

Posted in Accountability/Transparency, Africa, E-petitions, Films and filmmaking and tagged , , , , , , , , .


  1. His frustration is apparent… With this whole Kony 2012 spiel there has been a lot of misunderstanding. The message, in my opinion, is to bring this dark unfortunate situation into light.

    In the US… We hear what we want to hear and we educate ourselves accordingly. I think that the campaign to find Kony was an attempt to remove that sheltered mindset.

    I think that because of this movement–even through their latest misfortune– Invisible Children has opened the eyes of many, sparked a voice and created a community.

    This could start a much needed change.

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