Why did Invisible Children’s 30-minute documentary KONY 2012 achieve the improbable goal of getting Americans excitedly talking about child soldiering in Africa, after years of failed media efforts by a constellation of anti-Kony NGOs and four national governments?
The video is closing in on 100 million YouTube views but has been heavily criticized for its partial and un-nuanced presentation of a complex tragedy. For filmmaker Jason Russell, Uganda's agonizing history can be boiled down to a simple call for the arrest of Lord's Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony.
The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) originated in a 1986 insurgency against Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni that was led by a woman who called herself Alice Lakwena and is believed to have been Kony's aunt. Lakwena claimed to have supernatural powers and to be possessed by the spirit of an Italian army officer. She left the armed rebellion in Kony's hands in the late-1980s, fleeing to Kenya where she died in a United Nations-run refugee camp in 2007.
Kony's movement is credibly accused of slaughtering thousands of civilians and kidnapping children in order to force them to become soldiers or sex slaves. Invisible Children’s latest video is an effort to "make Joseph Kony famous, not to celebrate him, but to raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice." The video seems to advocate a military intervention to capture or eliminate Kony for good, but part of Kony 2012's appeal is that the video makes its goals seem as content-free as the presidential campaign slogan implied in the title.
Over the past few decades, efforts on the part of both the Ugandan military and joint missions involving foreign help have failed to snuff out the LRA, which has fled Uganda and operates in a remote, loosely governed area that encompasses parts of southern Sudan, northeastern Congo, and eastern Central African Republic.
"The LRA is a raggedy bunch of a few hundreds at most, poorly equipped, poorly armed, and poorly trained," writes Mahmood Mamdani in the Ugandan Daily Monitor. Mamdani, who grew up in Uganda, is director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research in Kampala and professor of government at Columbia University. "In short, the LRA is no military power."
Mamdani also notes that in the mid-1990s, while on missions ostensibly to provide protection from the LRA, the Ugandan military allegedly murdered Acholi people (Kony's ethnic group) in northern Uganda, even burning entire villages. Museveni is still in power today, and his government has a recent track record of stifling freedom of speech and press with jail time, tear gas, or rubber bullets.
Nevertheless, the non-profit Invisible Children, Inc. has gotten 77 million people to watch KONY 2012. This production is the 11th such video released by Invisible Children since founders Russell, Bobby Bailey, and Laren Poole began working in Uganda in 2003. The film's superficial, easily digestible message and glossy production value explain some of the success, but the organization’s masterful P.R. campaign also deserves credit.
Invisible Children promoted the video through myriad social media platforms, notably by reaching out to celebrities with huge Twitter followings. Justin Bieber, Rihanna, and P. Diddy combined to tweet about the video to more than 38 million followers.
Like a campaign commercial, Kony 2012 provides rhetoric in lieu of substance, appeals to emotion instead of reason, and frames partisan decisions in the language of universality and collective purpose. The anti-LRA position is shown to flow naturally from a New-Agey celebration of Web 2.0 interconnectedness. The case against Kony is presented as right and natural because Russell has a cute preschool-age son—who is himself pressed into service as the film's audience representative and Socratic straight man. A very specific call for an offensive by U.S. troops is given equal weight with an effort to get good sound bites from George Clooney, Bono, and Taylor Swift.
The video crafts its message as simple common sense, as a bipartisan if not apolitical matter devoid of geopolitical context or human nuance. The group’s "One Thing We Can All Agree On" graphic showing an elephant and donkey overlapping, set off with vibrant red and blue colors, embodies this sentiment.
The trackable crowd-sourcing and number-coded support bracelets in Kony 2012 show how far international crisis communications have evolved since Franjo Tudjman's Croatian government was paying the PR firm Rudder-Finn to fax anti-Serb news briefs to the mainstream media from its "Bosnia Crisis Communication Center" in the 1990s. But around the 21-minute mark, the video lets its old-school propaganda roots show, in a highlight reel featuring images of Rwandan massacre victims, skulls that may or may not be from Pol Pot's killing fields, and Hitler.
Invisible Children's media contact is the PR firm Sunshine Sachs Associates. Co-founder Ken Sunshine is a self-described former community activist, Obama event organizer, and "New York Democrat" who specializes in representing labor unions, environmental groups, and celebrities.
Invisible Children’s call for international intervention to bring Kony to justice clearly aligns with the decision of the Obama administration last October to send about 100 "advisors," mostly special forces troops, to Central Africa to help track down the LRA. U.S. troops are now stationed in Uganda, Congo, South Sudan, and Central African Republic.
Back in October, when the United States sent advisors, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) denounced the LRA as "one of the most horrible groups to ever inhabit the earth" but also provided words of warning about the intervention: "I remember Somalia. I remember Lebanon. We’ve got to be very careful about how we engage. This slippery slope thing could happen there."
McCain has a point, as interventions to hunt down the LRA, like the one led by the Pentagon in 2008, have backfired horribly. Kony put children on the front lines; they wound up as casualties while he escaped unscathed. (Notably, however, McCain wants an intervention in Syria, a country backed by Russia, China, and Iran, where there is a much greater likelihood of seeing the United States drawn into a larger shooting war than there is in Central Africa.) A U.S. military offensive, even for a benign-sounding goal like "the arrest of Joseph Kony so that he can be tried by the International Criminal Court," is redundant. There are already four national militaries engaging Kony's forces. And there is no shortage of well-armed governments in the region that can lend a hand if apprehending Kony is truly an important international goal.
The wild success of the KONY 2012 blitz doesn't just obscure the complexity on the ground in Central Africa. The campaign also seeks to make it untenable for viewers and policymakers alike to reject a false narrative about bipartisan support for an international intervention against a decades-old rural insurgency half a world away.
Tate Watkins is a freelance writer based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and a one-time Reason intern.