The impact of KONY 2012 has been inspiring. Released on March 5th, it has already garnered over 100 million views on Youtube and Vimeo. The documentary film looking to make the World’s Most Wanted Criminal one of the most famous men on earth has brought advocacy to the mainstream. While hardly the first viral campaign to turn heads on the internet, the reach and speed with which KONY 2012 spread elevates it to a landmark moment. The world is abuzz about a human rights issue (!!) in Central Africa (!!), and critical mass seems to only be building to the crescendo of April 20th’s “Cover the Night” campaign, which promises to be incredible. Or at least that was the way it all seemed to be going until cynicism from the human rights community, backlash from the Ugandan citizens it looks to help, and a very public mental breakdown allowed us to divert our attention away from the central message of the video and focus instead upon its flaws.
The video is flawed. The criticisms launched by experts on Central Africa and human rights advocacy groups are for the most part true. The video does simplify the situation in Central Africa to appeal to a large audience, it does make it seem as though Uganda continues to suffer from the destabilizing effects of Joseph Kony, and it does preach a message of Western neo-liberalism or the infamous White Man’s Burden. Invisible Children issued an explanatory statement in response to much of the criticism lobbed at it. The fact remains that many of the 100+ million people who watched the film still know almost nothing about the wars and insurgencies in the Great Lakes region of Africa. Sitting at your computer, watching a video, and feeling bad about the LRA may make you feel good about yourself, but it isn’t making a difference for the people in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan.
All of these are fair criticisms. But to say only that is to miss the point. A human rights documentary has as many views on the Internet as a Nicki Minaj music video, people care about Central Africa and child soldiers, and Washington and the African Union have responded. I would wager that a fair number of people were introduced to the nation of Uganda by watching this video. KONY 2012 is struggling against ignorance. It is broadcasting its message to an audience in an innovative and effective way and I think it deserves more credit for how it is achieving all of this success, despite its flaws.
The central message of the Kony video is that we can make a difference in the world if we truly care. The human rights community should not write off KONY 2012 as a blip on the radar because it is inspiring; it has shown that people will at least listen if you package your message in a way that appeals to them. While it may not have appealed to Ugandans, who were upset that the film focused on white activists far more than it did Ugandan victims, it was not necessarily meant to. In fact, the film worked so well among the audience it was targeting that the world is abuzz talking about all its flaws.
What is the point of all this cynicism? I understand the frustration surrounding the factual deficiencies of the movie. Human rights activists and Ugandans see the KONY 2012 phenomenon through the perspective of communities that have long struggled to get their voices heard angry that their big chance is not exactly to their liking. Despite this understandable reaction, I don’t see any positive aspect to delegitimizing the campaign. The Prime Minister of Uganda recently posted a countervideo that both praises the video for demonstrating that people do care about other people’s suffering and clarifies some of its deficiencies. The takeaway is mostly positive, as opposed to much of the Western press. Sitting behind a desk writing books or policy memos is one way of dealing with issues like Joseph Kony, and it is an important way, but 20 years after he took over the LRA he is still in power. Obviously the classic method of human rights advocacy is not the most effective means of alleviating suffering, and I think it is time to accept appeals like KONY 2012 as an example to be built upon and corrected. The movie put Kony and Central Africa in the news, giving activists a chance to publicize the facts not covered in the video’s 30 minute run time. Extending the scope of the video by providing additional information about Kony is helpful. Disparaging the video and making a mockery out of the man who made it are not.
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