Would you give guys like these your money if they said they would spend it well? Or follow them into a messy world of politics and power that you don’t really understand? Many thousands did this week without asking the questions that social media now enable us to ask. From at least some quarters of the internet, the online backlash was swift.
Here’s what happened. If you were anywhere near Twitter or Facebook on 6-7 March 2012, you are likely to have seen the name Joseph Kony.
A US-based organisation called Invisible Children had just launched a campaign video that called for a global social movement to form and demand the arrest of the monstrous Kony — a brutal bastard of a man who has so much blood on his hands they will never be dry.
Kony is the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a militant group famed for abducting children and forcing the boys to bear arms and the girls to spread legs — as sex slaves and mothers of the next generation of child soldiers. For 25 years, the LRA has waged war on against Uganda’s government, as part of a wider and more complex conflict.
The film — Kony 2012 — urged viewers to demand that US politicians provide military support to Uganda to catch Kony, even though it acknowledged that Kony is no longer in Uganda but has skulked across the border to a forest hideaway. It also called for cash donations, though was not at all clear about how the money would be spent.
Kony 2012 was made by Jason “Radical” Russell, a co-founder of Invisible Children, and it featured his young son throughout. Among other things, it said the organisation planned to mobilise celebrities like Bono and Rihanna, Oprah Winfrey and Mark Zuckerberg to use their influence to help bring Kony to justice.
The video is a masterwork of compelling narrative, and it has lessons for anyone who want to communicate in a way that inspires action. Links to it flew fast around the Internet. For several hours #KONY2012 was trending on Twitter. But then the backlash came.
Ugandan people and knowledgeable foreigners used the same social networks to kick back against the narrative that naive viewers of the film were perpuating with every link sent and tweet retweeted. For examples of the reaction see this Visible Children post, this piece by Musa Okwonga, and this blog post by Siena Anstis.
Critics of the Invisible Children campaign say that while it is well-intentioned and while Kony deserves international condemnation, there are questions about the organisation’s methods, money and support for military action that need to be answered. Others are revulsed by the idea of foreigners thinking they can solve an entrenched and complex problem with goodwill alone.
As I tracked the story shift on my Twitter feed, I saw a couple of tweets from Rosebell Kagumire, a Ugandan journalist whose opinion I value highly. I met Rosebell at a climate change conference but she’s a braver reporter than that. Back in 2005 she was reporting on the Joseph Kony story itself. Here’s one of her tweets that caught my eye.
I asked Rosebell to expand and here’s what she told me in an email:
I viewed it this morning and the first 5 minutes told me this was another effort by a good white American guy trying to save my people. In this story Ugandans are just mere watchers as Kony kills our children. In this story not much can an African do. It is the same old sensationalization of African stories and simplification of our problems to tell the western world using even his son that they should save Africa. How? by giving us money.
It’s a narrative that many of us of the continent who work in the media always look at in disbelief but such videos are easy to enter the hearts of an ignorant Western audience who do not question the narrative.
The film is void of any means like peace efforts that have gone on and it simplifies the war to Joseph Kony — a mad evil man. This war was bigger than Joseph Kony and those who will end it won’t be Americans. It’s a complex war that requires African governments of Uganda, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic to work together to pacify the region. And when I heard him say that Uganda is in central Africa despite [him] having visited here I almost stopped watching.
All in all it’s a very imperialistic film trying to touch sentiments of those who can ‘save’ Africa i.e. Hollywood and the West.
I am glad for social media that we are able to watch this kind of work and we react. This kind of condescending attitude towards Africa and its problems shouldn’t be given space in the 21st century.
She’s right. The internet can make us lazy, it’s true, but with social media at our fingertips, we no longer have an excuse not to ask questions of people who know what they are talking about, not to leap before we look.
[Update: 8 March 2012 -- Rosebell Kagumire has posted a video response to the Kony 2012 film. Here it is.]