Unpacking Kony 2012

Child soldiers, Image: k-ideas/flickr

On Monday, March 5th, the advocacy organization Invisible Children released a 30 minute video titled “Kony 2012“. The goal of the video is to raise awareness of Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army rebel group, a wanted war criminal, in the hopes of bringing him to justice.

By Thursday, March 8th, the video had been viewed more than 26 million times, and almost 12 million more times on Vimeo. It has opened up a fascinating and complicated discussion not just about the Lord’s Resistance Army and instability in northern Uganda and bordering states, but on the nature of advocacy in a digital age.

My goal, in this (long) blogpost is to get a better understanding of how Invisible Children has harnessed social media to promote their cause, what the strengths and limits of that approach are, and what some unintended consequences of this campaign might be. For me, the Kony 2012 campaign is a story about simplification and framing. Whether you ultimately support Invisible Children’s campaign – and I do not – it’s important to think through why it has been so successful in attracting attention online and the limits to the methods used by Invisible Children.

Who’s Joseph Kony, and who are Invisible Children?

Joseph Kony emerged in the mid 1980s as the leader of an organization, the Lord’s Resistance Army, that positioned itself in opposition to Yoweri Museveni, who took control of Uganda in 1986 after leading rebellions against Idi Amin and Milton Obote, previous rulers of Uganda. Museveni, from southern Uganda, was opposed by several armed forces in the north of the country, including Kony’s group, the Lord’s Resistance Army. Since the mid-1980s, northern Uganda has been a dangerous and unstable area, with civilians displaced from their homes into refugee camps, seeking safety from both rebel groups and the Ugandan military.

Kony and the LRA distinguished themselves from other rebel groups by their bizarre ideology and their violent and brutal tactics. The LRA has repeatedly kidnapped children, training boys as child soldiers and sexually abusing girls, who become porters and slaves. The fear of abduction by the LRA led to the phenomenon of the “night commute“, where children left their villages and came to larger cities to sleep, where the risk of LRA abduction was lower.

The Ugandan government has been fighting against Kony since 1987. In 2005, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Kony and four LRA organizers. The United States considers the LRA a terrorist group, and has cooperated with the Ugandan government since at least 2008 in attempting to arrest Kony.

Invisible Children is a US-based advocacy organization founded in 2004 by filmmakers Bobby Bailey, Laren Poole and Jason Russell. Initially interested in the conflict in Darfur, the filmmakers traveled instead to northern Uganda and began documenting the night commute and the larger northern Ugandan conflict. The image of children commuting to safety became a signature for Invisible Children, and they began a campaign in 2006 called the Global Night Commute, which invited supporters to sleep outside in solidarity with children in Northern Uganda.

As a nonprofit, Invisible Children has been engaged in efforts on the ground in northern Uganda and in bordering nations to build radio networks, monitoring movements of the LRA combattants, and providing services to displaced children and families. They’ve also focused heavily on raising awareness of the LRA and conflicts in northern Uganda, and on influencing US government policy towards the LRA. In 2010, President Obama committed 100 military advisors to the Ugandan military, focused on capturing Kony – Invisible Children was likely influential in persuading the President to make this pledge.

The Kony 2012 campaign, launched with the widely viewed video, focuses on the idea that the key to bringing Joseph Kony to justice is to raise awareness of his crimes. Filmmaker and narrator Jason Russell posits, “99% of the planet doesn’t know who Kony is. If they did, he would have been stopped years ago.”

To raise awareness of Kony, Russell urges viewers of the video to contact 20 “culturemakers” and 12 policymakers who he believes can increase the visibility of the LRA and increase chances of Kony’s arrest. More concretely, Russell wants to ensure that the 100 military advisors the Obama government has provided remain working with the Ugandan military to help capture and arrest Kony.

Criticism of the Kony 2012 campaign

As the Kony 2012 campaign has gained attention, it’s also encountered a wave of criticism. Tuesday evening, Grant Oyston, a 19-year old political science student at Acadia University in Nova Scotia published a Tumblr blog titled “Visible Children“, which offered multiple critiques of the Invisible Children campaign. That site has attracted over a million views, tens of thousands of notes, and evidently buried Oyston in a wave of email responses.

The Visible Children tumblr points out that Invisible Children spends less than a third of the money they’ve raised on direct services in northern Uganda and bordering areas. The majority of their funding is focused on advocacy, filmmaking and fundraising. It also questions whether the strategy Invisible Children proposes – supporting the Ugandan military to seek Kony – is viable and points out that the Ugandan military has a poor human rights record in northern Uganda. (Invisible Children reacts to some of these criticism in this blog post.)

As a set of Kony-related hashtags trended on Twitter yesterday, some prominent African and Afrophile commentators pointed out that the Invisible Children campaign gives little or no agency to the Ugandans the organization wants to help. There are no Africans on the Invisible Children board of directors and few in the senior staff. And the Invisible Children approach focuses on American awareness and American intervention, not on local solutions to the conflicts in northern Uganda. This led Ugandan blogger and activist Teddy Ruge – who works closely on community development projects in Uganda – to write a post responding to the Invisible Children campaign titled “A piece of my mind: Respect my agency 2012“, asking supporters of Invisible Children to consider whether IC’s framing of the situation is a correct one, whether IC’s efforts focus too heavily on sustaining the organization, and whether a better way to support people of northern Uganda would be to work with community organizations focusing on rebuilding displaced communities.

Other criticisms have focused on more basic issues: Kony is no longer in Uganda, and it is no longer clear that the LRA represents a major threat to stability in the region. Reporting on an LRA attack in north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a UN spokesman described the attack as “he last gasp of a dying organisation that’s still trying to make a statement.” The spokesman believes that the LRA is now reduced to about 200 fighters, as well as a band of women and children who feed and support the group. Rather than occupying villages, as the LRA did when they were stronger, they now primarily conduct 5-6 person raids on villages to steal food.

Invisible Children’s theory of change… and the problem with that theory

I’d like to start an analysis of Invisible Children’s techniques by giving Jason Russell and his colleagues the benefit of the doubt. I think they sincerely believe that Kony and the LRA must be brought to justice, and that their campaign is appropriate even though Kony’s impact on the region is much smaller than it was five to ten years ago. While it’s very easy to be cynical about their $30 action kit, I think they genuinely believe that the key to arresting Kony is raising awareness and pressuring the US government.

I think, however, that they are probably wrong.

Kony and his followers have fled northern Uganda and sought shelter in parts of the world where this is little or no state control over territory: eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, eastern Central African Republic and southwestern Southern Sudan. The governments that nominally control these territories have little or no ability to protect their borders, and have proven themselves helpless when international agencies like the ICC have demanded their help in arresting Kony.

Finding Kony isn’t a simple thing to do. The areas in which he and his forces operate are dense jungle with little infrastructure. The small size of the LRA is an additional complication – with a core group of a few hundred and raiding parties of a handful of individuals, satellite imagery isn’t going to detect the group – that’s why Invisible Children and others are trying to build networks that allow people affected by the LRA to report attacks, as those attacks are one of the few ways we might plausibly find the LRA.

Russell argues that the only entity that can find and arrest Kony is the Ugandan army. Given that the Ugandan army has been trying, off and on, since 1987 to find Kony, that seems like a troublesome strategy. Journalist Michael Wilkerson, who has reported on the LRA for many years, notes that the Ugandan army is poorly equipped, underfed, incompetent and deeply corrupt. Past efforts to crack down on Kony have failed due to poor planning, poor coordination and Kony’s deeply honed skills at hiding in the jungle.

Complicating matters, Kony continues to rely on child soliders. That means that a military assault – targeted to a satellite phone signal or some other method used to locate Kony – would likely result in the death of abducted children. This scenario means that many northern Ugandans don’t support military efforts to capture or kill Kony, but advocate for approaches that offer amnesty to the LRA in exchange for an end to violence and a return of kidnapped children.

Invisible Children have demonstrated that they can raise “awareness” through a slickly produced video and successful social media campaign. It is possible – perhaps likely – that this campaign will increase pressure on President Obama to maintain military advisors in Uganda. As Wilkerson points out in a recent post, there’s no evidence the President had threatened to pull those advisors. And as Mark Kersten observes, it’s likely that those advisors are likely in Uganda as a quid pro quo for Ugandan support for US military aims in Somalia. In other words, the action Invisible Children is asking for has been taken… and, unfortunately, hasn’t resulted in the capture of Kony.

The problem with oversimplification

The campaign Invisible Children is running is so compelling because it offers an extremely simple narrative: Kony is a uniquely bad actor, a horrific human being, whose capture will end suffering for the people of Northern Uganda. If each of us does our part, influences powerful people, the world’s most powerful military force will take action and Kony will be captured.

Russell implicitly acknowledges the simplicity of the narrative with his filmmaking. Much of his short film features him explaining to his young son that Kony is a bad guy, and that dad’s job is capturing the bad guy. We are asked to join the campaign against Kony literally by being spoken to as a five year old. It’s not surprising that a five year old vision of a problem – a single bad guy, a single threat to eliminate – leads to an unworkable solution. Nor is it a surprise that this extremely simple narrative is compelling and easily disseminated.

Severine Autesserre, a scholar focused on the Democratic Republic of Congo, has recently written an important paper on the narratives and framings of the conflict in eastern DRC. (I know of this paper only through the good graces of Dr. Laura Seay, whose Texas in Africa blog is required reading for anyone who is interested in Central Africa, and who has been one of the prominent voices on Twitter calling for reconsideration of Invisible Children’s strategy.)

Autesserre’s paper argues that the wildly complicated conflict in eastern DRC has been reduced to a fairly simple narrative by journalists and NGOs: to gain control of mineral riches, rebel armies are using rape as a weapon of war, and they should be stopped by the DRC government. This narrative is so powerful because “certain stories resonate more, and thus are more effective at influencing action, when they assign the cause of the problems to ‘the deliberate actions of identifiable individuals’, when they include ‘bodily harm to vulnerable individuals, especially when there is a short and clear causal chain assigning responsibility’; when they suggest a simple solution; ad when they can latch on to pre-existing narratives.”

Sound familiar? The Kony story resonates because it’s the story of an identifible individual doing bodily harm to children. It’s a story with a simple solution, and it plays into existing narratives about the ungovernability of Africa, the power of US military and the need to bring hidden conflict to light.

Here’s the problem – these simple narratives can cause damage. By simplifying the DRC situation to a conflict about minerals, the numerous other causes – ethnic tensions, land disputes, the role of foreign militaries – are all minimized. The proposed solutions – a ban on the use of “conflict minerals” in mobile phones – sounds good on paper. In practice, it’s meant that mining of coltan is no longer possible for artisanal miners, who’ve lost their main source of financial support – instead, mining is now dominated by armed groups, who have the networks and resources to smuggle the minerals out of the country and conceal their origins. Similarly, the focus on rape as a weapon of war, Autesserre argues, has caused some armed groups to engage in mass rape as a technique to gain attention and a seat at the negotiating table. Finally, the focus on the Congolese state as a solution misses the point that the state has systematically abused power and that the country’s rulers have used power to rob their citizenry. A simple, easily disseminated narrative, Autesserre argues, has troublesome unintended consequences.

What are the unintended consequences of the Invisible Children narrative? The main one is increased support for Yoweri Museveni, the dictatorial and kleptocratic leader of Uganda. Museveni is now on his fourth presidential term, the result of an election seen as rigged by EU observers. Museveni has asserted such tight control over dissenting political opinions that his opponents have been forced to protest his rule through a subtle and indirect means – walking to work to protest the dismal state of Uganda’s economy. Those protests have been violently suppressed.

The US government needs to pressure Museveni on multiple fronts. The Ugandan parliament, with support from Museveni’s wife, has been pushing a bill to punish homosexuality with the death penalty. The Obama administration finds itself pressuring Museveni to support gay and lesbian rights and to stop cracking down on the opposition quite so brutally, while asking for cooperation in Somalia and against the LRA. An unintended consequence of Invisible Children’s campaign may be pushing the US closer to a leader we should be criticizing and shunning.

Can we advocate without oversimplifying?

I am now almost three thousand words into this blogpost, and I am aware that I am oversimplifying the situation in northern Uganda… and also aware that I haven’t simplified it enough. It makes perfect sense that a campaign to create widespread awareness of conflict in northern Uganda would want to simply this picture down to a narrative of good versus evil, and a call towards action. While I resent the emotionally manipulative video Invisible Children have produced, I admire the craft of it. They begin with a vision of a changing global world, where social media empowers individuals as never before. They craft a narrative around a passionate, driven advocate – Jason Russell – and show us the reasons for his advocacy – his friendship with a Ugandan victim of Kony. The video has a profound “story of self” that makes it possible for individuals to connect with and relate to. And Invisible Children constructs a narrative where we can help, and where we’re shirking our responsibility as fellow human beings if we don’t help.

The problem, of course, is that this narrative is too simple. The theory of change it advocates is unlikely to work, and it’s unclear if the goal of eliminating Kony should still be a top priority in stabilizing and rebuilding northern Uganda. By offering support to Museveni, the campaign may end up strengthening a leader with a terrible track record.

A more complex narrative of northern Uganda would look at the odd, codependent relationship between Museveni and Kony, Uganda’s systematic failure to protect the Acholi people of northern Uganda. It would look at the numerous community efforts, often led by women, to mediate conflicts and increase stability. It would focus on the efforts to rebuild the economy of northern Uganda, and would recognize the economic consequences of portraying northern Uganda as a war zone. It would feature projects like Women of Kireka, working to build economic independence for women displaced from their homes in Northern Uganda.

Such a narrative would be lots harder to share, much harder to get to “go viral”.

I’m starting to wonder if this is a fundamental limit to attention-based advocacy. If we need simple narratives so people can amplify and spread them, are we forced to engage only with the simplest of problems? Or to propose only the simplest of solutions?

As someone who believes that the ability to create and share media is an important form of power, the Invisible Children story presents a difficult paradox. If we want people to pay attention to the issues we care about, do we need to oversimplify them? And if we do, do our simplistic framings do more unintentional harm than intentional good? Or is the wave of pushback against this campaign from Invisible Children evidence that we’re learning to read and write complex narratives online, and that a college student with doubts about a campaign’s value and validity can find an audience? Will Invisible Children’s campaign continue unchanged, or will it engage with critics and design a more complex and nuanced response.

That’s a story worth watching.


Ethan Zuckerman is director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, and a principal research scientist at the MIT Media Lab. He is also a co-founder of the international blogging community Global Voices.


This is a cross post from My Heart’s In Accra
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