The Kony Kerfuffle

In yesterday’s links post, I mentioned the “Kony 2012” film recently released by the group Invisible Children, and the strong criticisms it received. I linked to a couple of particularly thoughtful posts by one of my former students, a development worker now living in Uganda, where Kony first came to infamy.

Invisible Children (2006)
The poster for the original Invisible Children film (2006)

Brief overview: Joseph Kony is a Ugandan warlord who espouses syncretic-Christian beliefs and is most notorious for kidnapping children and coercing them into fighting for his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a widely-reviled force long since diminished in numbers but never entirely dispersed. African troops continue to seek Kony — an effort aided, since last year, by U.S. Special Forces ordered to East Africa by President Obama — in the hope (at least, this is the hope of Invisible Children) of bringing him to justice at the International Criminal Court, which indicted Kony and several of his deputies in 2005. In 2006 a documentary on the LRA, entitled Invisible Children, began to spread awareness in this country of the “child soldier” phenomenon; it birthed an NGO by the same name. For a good summary of the new video from Invisible Children, the criticism it has received, and the response of the filmmakers, see this post by The Atlantic Wire. (H/T David Stewart)

Whoever’s most in the right in the debate, it’s proven to be wonderfully timed for me as the teacher of a course on Human Rights in International History. TomorrowThis afternoon I’ll be transitioning my students in that class from the theoretical questions of the first half of the semester (what are rights? are they universal or natural? what is their source? should they be balanced with duties?) to the highly practical questions that will dominate the remainder of the semester, several of which are raised by the Kony controversy: what’s the role of NGOs in promoting and protecting human rights? (or that of international courts? or of U.S. foreign policy?) how effective is “awareness-raising”? does Western involvement in human rights problems in the Global South constitute a revival of the “White man’s burden” idea? how are priorities assigned (and by whom) when there are scarce resources with which to combat human rights abuses?

I’m sure I’ll have more to say about such questions and my students’ responses as the semester continues, but today I’m struck by another side of the past few days’ debates: the difference between “new” and “old” media.

The “Kony 2012” film received millions of views on YouTube within mere days of its release. One of my colleagues even speculated that Invisible Children had underestimated the response, since they intended their campaign to roll out more fully next month; he wondered if the energy might not have dissipated by then.

If so, it makes for an interesting contrast with the original Invisible Children film released in 2006, when social media were not quite so pervasive. The 2006 film also reached much the same audience (college students and other young people), but it spread more slowly: through networks of activists, by college campus screenings, and at vigils and other gatherings. I happened to be teaching my Human Rights class for the first time that year, and remember well the impact it made on students like this alumna of our department, who went on to study in Uganda and work as an intern for International Justice Mission (whose president, Gary Haugen, has been sympathetic to Invisible Children, tweeting this last Thursday).

I’m willing to buy that this month’s Twitter/YouTube/Facebook-driven version of the Invisible Children movement might have a similarly transformative effect on some college students. But for all the video views and retweets (and the numbers are astonishing), social media still strike me as being rather superficial. (I say this as someone who blogs daily, tweets semi-regularly, and uses Facebook far too often.) How much of the thirty-minute video (which, by its makers’ admission, barely scratches the surface of the complex problem that is Joseph Kony) do most YouTube users watch? How much attention do Twitter users like this one and this one and the millions who follow them pay to the topic past the effort it takes to read and retweet? How many actually click through to links? How many proceed to engage in further research? How many investigate just where their donation goes, or how it’s used, or if giving money to a Western NGO that primarily seeks to raise awareness is the best use of those funds?

(By the same token, of course, the backlash against the video also spread through social media — if not “virally,” quickly. But I wonder if social media users — fewer of them, most likely — interacted differently with that response than with the initial campaign…)

So this whole kerfuffle makes me appreciate yet again the role played by “old” media that ask the aforementioned questions and don’t expect simple answers.

I’ve read serious reflections on both sides (and in the middle) of the debate in media outlets too easily dismissed as “MSM” or “establishment”: e.g., Michael Gerson’s post Saturday morning at, in which he acknowledged the critiques of “Kony 2012” but also reiterated the seriousness of Kony’s crimes; and the more skeptical Joshua Porter, who warned that “Kony 2012” would likely not result in Kony’s capture and could “even worsen some problems” if it puts more money in the pockets of Uganda’s corrupt ruler, in a post on Foreign Policy magazine’s Passport blog.

The New York Times Building
The New York Times building - Creative Commons (Haxorjoe)

As it continues to do in so many ways, the New York Times led the way. When I started getting students asking about #StopKony on Thursday, I was again glad that I pay the paltry sum it takes to get full online/mobile access to the Times. By continuing to invest in local, national, and international reportage (with bureaus around the world) and by providing thoughtful commentary from a diverse (and not exclusively American) roster of contributors, and then making it all available in a number of ways, the “Gray Old Lady” seems to have survived the supposed collapse of the newspaper and remained the American news medium “of record.” (I read it half the time on my laptop, half the time on my iPad; if I miss something, I’ve got several Times Twitter accounts there to alert me.) All those strengths were on display in recent days in response to the Kony controversy. In addition to a nicely reported article by two correspondents stationed in Uganda, the Times has dedicated one of its “Room for Debate” roundtables to the topic (featuring eight perspectives — two of the most critical from African writers) and published op-eds by journalist Dayo Olopade (who argued that “Kony 2012” distracted from more serious problems) and author Lisa Shannon (who shared her conversations with some of those victimized by Joseph Kony), two essays that added much-needed perspective rooted in experience and expertise.

2 thoughts on “The Kony Kerfuffle

  1. Many years ago I heard Senator Mark Hatfield speak a Gran High School baccalaureate service. As I recall it, he told how it was in intern of his who researched the source of Eidi Amin’s wealth, which kept him in power. They discovered it was coffee exports to the US. Hatfield led an effort resulting in a Ugandan coffee embargo. This led to the diminishing of Amin’s resources and ultimately to his overthrow.

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