Kony 2012: A humanitarian illusion

The viral video campaign may have reached tens of millions of people, but its message is simplistic and misleading.

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Invisible Children's "Kony 2012" video has been viewed by nearly 80 million people so far [AP]

Paris, France – Joseph Kony, the Ugandan warlord and leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), recently gained a sudden fame which he probably would have preferred to do without: he became the number-one enemy of internet users around the world, thanks to a viral online campaign launched by a US-based non-profit organisation.

Invisible Children posted a video called “Kony 2012” on its Youtube account on March 5, 2012. In only seven days, nearly 80 million people have viewed it. Although it is undisputed that Kony is a criminal who has committed crimes against humanity and must be brought to justice, the viral campaign of Invisible Children fails to convince many, including myself.

The propaganda used by the organisation to “raise awareness” is highly questionable, and allows dangerous and misleading messages to be spread. One such message is that the African continent, and, in this specific case, the northern part of the Great Lakes region, is a playground where international law and respect of sovereignty have no place.

 Inside Story – ‘Kony 2012’: The future of activism

The humanitarian smokescreen meme

According to online video consulting group Visible Measures, “Kony 2012” is the fastest-growing social video campaign ever.

The genius of the campaign is due partly to the video’s two filmmakers, Jason Russell and Bobby Bailey, and their dramatic narrative style.

But the real innovation of the campaign may be the work of a former employee of Invisible Children, Javan Van Groningen, who founded the agency Fifty and Fifty, which was responsible for the design of the website Kony2012. While most campaigns of this kind suggest online activists write to politicians, the first objectives of this campaign were to gain the attention of celebrities with large numbers of Twitter followers, such as Lady Gaga, Rihanna, and Bill Gates. Together, they have over 45 million followers.

And it worked: On March 6 Oprah Winfrey, who has some 10 million followers, responded to one Twitter user who had watched the video and tweeted at her. “Have watched the film,” Oprah wrote. “Had them on show last year. Made big donation. #KONY2012“. This propelled the campaign by spurring others to share the video.

This strategy – which is not based on experts or specialists, but entertainment industry icons – is singular. This campaign is part of an ensemble theorised by French sociologist Guy Debord, who explained 50 years ago that mass disinformation carried out by the entertainment industry can, under certain conditions, counterfeit reality and make illusion appear as truth. A sentence he writes in the introduction to his essay on “The Society of the Spectacle” could just as easily be referring to the age of social media:

But certainly for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, fancy to reality, the appearance to the essence, … illusion only is sacred, truth profane. Nay, sacredness is held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness.

The strength of these types of campaigns is that one can spread messages to millions of viewers at the speed of light. But its great weakness is that their messages tend to be reductive.

The Invisible Children campaign has fallen into this trap. The viral campaign portrays Ugandans – often referred to merely as “Africans” – needing to be saved by young Americans, whose overflowing humanity will carry the burden of a history they are not responsible for. It’s understandable. Indeed, it seems easier to picture needy “Africans” than proactive ones – and surely sells more.

But times have changed, and this type of simplified and misleading message will now more than ever face the reactions of young and connected Ugandans, Kenyans, Congolese, Cameroonians, Ivorians, et cetera, who also see the Internet as a tool to spread their story. The Invisible Children team probably did not think that it would get such responses to a video that, while well-intentioned, had a stench of old-school paternalism.

Law-free playground?

Beyond the typical “Ugandans – and Africans in general – need to be saved” message, what is even more striking is the video’s implication that the northern part of the Great Lakes Region could still be a playground for powerful countries, where international law and its fundamental principle of sovereignty have no place.

In fact, if Joseph Kony was one of the first indictees at the International Criminal Court, it was only very recently that the larger public started to hear his name: in October 2011, when US President Barack Obama announced that the US had a new enemy in the person of Kony. The president therefore announced the sending of 100 military advisers “to provide assistance to regional forces that are working toward the removal of Joseph Kony from the battlefield”.

Does that mean kill him? Or simply capture him, and bring him to a court whose mandate the US hasn’t recognised? Obviously, this can mean anything in the vocabulary of international law. Furthermore, there is no clear evidence as to where Kony is hiding at the moment, but it is highly probable that he is located in the Central Africa Republic. This means that to catch or kill him, the military advisers would have to cross the Democratic Republic of Congo or South Sudan.

Words matter, especially when the stakes are important. The rather naive and humanitarian campaign could produce the exact opposite of its initial goal. Worse, it has already succeeded in giving respectability to Yoweri Museveni’s regime – which has played a significant role in the northern Uganda conflict, and which is not known for its strong attachments to human rights or democracy.

Finally, it is true that Invisible Children probably wouldn’t have been able to raise so much awareness of the northern Uganda war if it had chosen to adopt a just-the-facts storytelling approach rather than a spectacular, Hollywood-like one. But is it better to have nearly 100 million spectators at war against Joseph Kony – spectators who are not asked to question the human, legal and geopolitical consequences of sending military troops into a sovereign country? Or is it better to mobilise fewer citizens, who may be better-informed about the complexity of an abysmal conflict, and will think hard about the consequences of launching such an enterprise in the region? Truth and education versus instant emotion: this is a big dilemma facing non-profit organisations such as Invisible Children.

Julie Owono is a freelance Cameroonian journalist and international relations consultant based in Paris. She blogs at Global Voices and is the Africa Desk Cordinator at Internet Sans Frontières, a French NGO which promotes online freedom of expression.

Follow her on Twitter: @JulieOwono