Kony 2012's Old-Fashioned War Propaganda

With lots of social-media hoodoo, popular new campaign calls for another U.S. intervention


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.

So are we supposed to vote for or against Kony in 2012?

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.

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  1. Git r dun!

  2. Kony will always sound like Chony to me.

  3. child soldering in Africa

    I prefer child welding, myself. Bonds are stronger that way.

    1. What type of flux do you use? I'm having trouble making the little buggers stick.

  4. 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.

    Are you sure he wasn't French, honey?

    1. At last, the Kenyan connection.

    2. possessed by the spirit of an Italian army officer

      That explains her sudden urge to play the mandolin.

    3. Republicans and Democrats unite on the one thing we can all agree on: the 2012 Dream Team.

  5. So, why don't the governments of these countries just offer a million dollars, personal protection and amnesty (if necessary) for any information leading to his capture? Surely there is someone in his organization willing to turn on him and give up his location for that kind of money. Hell, it's probably cheaper for us to pay this bounty than to send in 100 military advisors.

    1. But, but, but that would be too easy! It's about the message! ONE LOVE! COMMUNISM FTW! OBAMA 2012!

      1. I hope you like slavery you fool.
        Obama is a puppet for the bankers,
        Educate yourself and then others.

        1. What is this I don't even

          1. !!!

  6. Jojo Krako: I wanna know what happened!
    Scott: It looks like we put the bag on you.
    Jojo Krako: I got rights!
    Scott: You got nothing. You mind you place, mister, or you'll be wearing concrete galoshes.
    Jojo Krako: You mean cement overshoes?
    Scott: Aye.

  7. So what is the general feeling about the Kony 2012 video? Is the implication that it was timed to "go viral" during the 2012 election campaign? Do commenters here think that this is coordinated along with the DNC and the Obama re-election campaign? Get 100 million potential voters outraged over this monster in Uganda, then our fearless leader will assassinate him days before the election? If I was Kony, I would expect not to be arrested and tried in international court. I would expect Seal Team Six to arrive sometime around November 1st.

    1. Wag the Dog.

    2. Word up. It's all bought and paid for, if you're linking this prop on facebook, you are several months behind. Yes Obama, you are doing this.

  8. Only pussies and libertards and their isolationist tools in Congress talk about small poptatos of shit sort. What we SHOULD do is occupy Africa and build democracy and Twinkie mountains until the Sun engulfs the Earth.

    1. Fuck building Democracy. Build a few Burger Kings and Starbucks. Throw up a Walmart or two. Open up a few DeVry's and some charter schools.
      If you could make a case for any region being brought kicking and screaming into the 21st century "for their own good", it's Africa.

  9. So what is the general feeling about the Kony 2012 video?

    For me? Pervasive apathy.

    Your conspiracy theory strikes a spark of mild interest, though.

  10. I remember Somalia. I remember Lebanon..."

    What about Vietnam? Do you remember that one?

    1. He probably remembers Gettysburg.

    2. Considering he was a POW and tourtured I doubt hed' forget.

  11. I dare anyone to name a problem that the United States government cannot solve with the judicious deployment of flying killer robots.

    1. Flying killer robots becoming sentient and turning on their creators.

      1. Just send more flying killer robots after them. Wasn't that the plot of that 80s kids movie?

        1. Gundam Wing?

    2. Stopping fat people from being shown on TV.

  12. If 100 special ops can't take the guy out then leave and say we tried.

    That should have been the MO in Iraq, btw.

    1. Spoilsport! Don't suggest withdrawal. Let the defense industry make some big bucks first. They'll shovel piles of cash to reelect CIC Barry.

  13. In a Democracy you can never have too many boogie men.

    1. Especially on dance night.

    2. +1

  14. When they call for "international intervention" they mean American intervention, should Chinese special forces capture Kony, then the US propaganda machine would no doubt warn about the threat of Chinese exapansionism in Africa.

    1. Indeed; plus Invisible Children would have to rename themselves Invisible Geezers & start to campaign against geriatric soldiers.

  15. 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."

    When old man turkey neck is the voice of reason, you know we are fucked.

    1. Has John McCain ever heard of a potential American military adventure he wouldn't support?

      1. The strange thing is, he was a POW and still doesn't get it.

  16. Ultimately, the most important question for each Kony re-tweeter would be what is your price for justice? If Kony is virtually without power then any attempt to take him would be done purely to bring him to justice as opposed to eliminate a current threat. How many lives and enriched corrupt governments is that symbolism worth?

  17. quid pro quo for ugandan & ethopian troops attacking aQ affiliate, al shabab in libertarian somalia where we dare not go.

    >gosh, supporting do it work?

    1. Are you trying to win the record of the worst spelling and grammar ?

      As for allies, America likes stabbing "allies" in the back, no doubt when the tyrant Museveni (he really is) becomes an embarrassment clowns like you will quickly forget the ally part and call him Satan or the usual shit your masters spoon feed you.

      1. how brave to sit on our hands when our allies, who helped us at our request, then request help for themselves.

        >tell me moar about allies

        1. Strange how you decided to do this on an election year, funny how these things always seem to happen together.

          But like I said, in a few years time clowns like you will be supporting regime change and how evil Museveni is, I should bookmark this page in fact.

        2. Ah, triple Urine, our token chairborne tough guy.

  18. McCain found a war opportunity that he wouldn't go "all-in" for? Say it isn't so, John!

  19. So what is the general feeling about the Kony 2012 video?

    Me: "Cults make video-dating profiles now? Wow, this is really douchey and racist. Hipster Man's Burden. No one's gonna fall for this. Dude just made himself this decade's 'I kiss you' guy."

    Internet: "WHITE POWER"

  20. Joseph Kony? I thought that was Obama on those 2012 posters!

    1. see, I told you so.

  21. Let's invade the Sudan and build a functioning modern democracy there! What could possibly go wrong?

  22. Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Uganda...

    ...remember when it used to be layups like Grenada? Who in the hell thinks it's a good idea to get involved in wars in those places. People looking for the ultimate challenge?

    I realize people are suffering and I actually know someone who went through pure hell in the DR of Congo, but we can't fix these places; not at the point of a gun or any other means. They either will fix themselves or they won't (likely the latter in our lifetimes).

    Anyone who thinks Uganda's problems are due to one guy is either woefully ignorant of the recent history of the place, or is flat out lying to you.

    1. who cares about history or the place, USA USA USA !

      1. But we must do something! Right?

        Even if it makes things worse, or doesn't help, it will make us feel better.

      2. who cares about history or the place

        Those who get paid handsomely to "care", like Invisible Children's management.

    2. There's an excellent question to be asked about the Obama Administration buried in there.

      How could they be smart enough to keep our troops off the ground in Libya but stupid enough to send ground troops into that part of Africa?

      Is there any place in the world more FUBAR?

      1. Is there any place in the world more FUBAR?


  23. How is McCain not in favor of this? I figured he'd be the first one in line.

  24. ...McCain is being the voice of reason? What manner of sorcery is afoot? Shapeshifter! Body-snatcher!

  25. Will Kony end up being the African "Che"?

    1. see, I told you so.

  26. Why does the author Tate Watkins not mention the most important relevant fact and reason for the production of this propaganda? And that is Western Oil giants have discovered huge oil reserves in the region and it is necessary to manufacture a reason as to why U.S. special ops. are intervening in the affairs of yet another nation.

    1. This. Or, the Bin Laden raid is the only positive thing to come from the Obama administration so he's planning a redux right around election time. You'd think that's crazy but there's just so much money to be made....

  27. How the hell did Rick Santorum get ads on a Reason article?

    1. The Reason people thought it would be funny to let him waste resources trying to convince libertarians that he's the guy to vote for.

    2. If just one person would appreciate the sweater vest, it will have been worth it.

  28. this is a fake youtube views count;

    they used a youtube bot to get the hits

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