Stop “Stop Kony 2012”?

I can’t resist.  I’m going to add my two cents to USA Today, Atlantic Monthly, The Washington Post, etc. about Kony 2012.

For those of you who haven’t seen the viral (or infamous?) video yet, it’s worth half an hour of your time:

Although the campaign has generated a lot of media buzz, including celebrity endorsements from Rhianna, Justin Bieber, and Oprah, there is also significant backlash.  According a recent USA Today article, many experts are now “lambasting Invisible Children for doing more harm than good.”

The tension between the Kony 2012 campaign and vocal critics raise questions about the ethics of mass-media activism.

First, there’s the issue of timing.  Obama has already committed 100 special operations troops in October to work with Ugandan forces to root out Kony and his supporters.  The increased media attention may compromise their work and exacerbate violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Southern Sudan, where the LRA is currently operating.   It is also highly ironic that Invisible Children chose to re-start the campaign focused on child soldiers in Uganda when Kony’s operations have moved to Southern Sudan and the DRC.

Second, the efficacy of Invisible Children is being called into question.  Many people are insinuating that Kony 2012 is merely a money-making scheme.  Online blogger, Amber Ha’s critique of Kony 2012 has also gone viral.  According to Ha, a student at Columbia University who spent last summer in Gulu, Uganda, locals see Invisible Children as a greater threat than Joseph Kony and believe the organization is out there “to use them and make money.”  A recent Atlantic Monthly article, entitled “Soft Bigotry” echoes the sentiments that Kony 2012 makes Africans seem “helpless” and Western civilization “the savior.”

Finally, there’s the critique of fostering “slacktivism” in place of informed “activism.”  Invisible Children makes it seem like Joseph Kony is the source of all evil and that arresting him will solve the problems in the region.  The campaign encourages people to like the video, to put up posters, and to wear the Kony 2012 bracelet.  Critics point out that blind awareness for the sake of awareness is counterproductive.  Most people have not taken the time to understand the political context of the situation.  Kony falls into the paradigm described by Malcolm Gladwell in “Small Change”: it is “effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires,” but hardly fosters informed activism.

Now, my two-cents.

Although I agree that the campaign is oversimplified and paternalistic, I disagree that the Kony 2012 campaign (and the controversy surrounding it) is largely negative.

Why?  Although USA Today, Atlantic Monthly, The Washington Post, etc. have all harped on the negative impacts, I fail to see any concrete harms (the in-country program and Invisible Children as an organization is a separate issue).

First, regarding the accusation of ill-timing: is there ever a “wrong” time for awareness? Although I acknowledge that Invisible Children has misrepresented many facts about Kony, it has been overwhelmingly successful in generating awareness, including awareness about its misrepresentation.  Moreover, the claim that this newfound awareness could compromise the strategic operations of the U.S troops is weak, at best.  The video isn’t the first thing to let Kony know that the international community is watching him; the ICC beat Invisible Children to the punch with an indictment.

Next, regarding the accusation of fostering soft-bigotry: while Kony 2012 may represent the Africans as helpless, I think that the backlash has done an excellent job combatting this notion.  Most people who have seen the video have also probably seen, heard, or read the overwhelming critiques of its paternalistic content.  And for those who haven’t, I ask, is paternalistic concern worse than ignorance?

Finally, regarding fostering slacktivism: I think the movement as a whole (including the backlash) has not only raised awareness about the LRA and child soldiers in Central Africa, but has also encouraged many people to reexamine our mass-media activism.  The fact that every major news source has published some form of critique shows that most Americans are not passively imbibing propaganda (although some may be).   As social justice issues grow increasing more global, we cannot realistically expect Americans to be invested in the same way as the generation before us in the civil rights movement.  Yes, liking a status is “slacking” compared to marching for freedom or conducting a sit-in, but given that the nature of the social issues has become increasingly international, liking a status, then feeling guilty about merely clicking a button after reading endless news tirades, may be the first step toward informed activism.

The beauty of duality of Kony 2012 and the criticism it raises is that this time, we won’t feel jaded or cheated about another social fad.  The critique (which is just as popular as the original video) lets us watch the video and judge Invisible Children with our eyes wide open.