Inside Story

‘Kony 2012’ and the future of activism

Should charities freely use the power of social media to shape public opinion around the world?

A US charity’s internet campaign to bring accused Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony to justice has gone viral.
On Monday ‘Invisible Children’ posted a half-hour film about the rebel leader online, hoping to spark international action.

The film about the abuse of children in Africa has been watched more than 50 million times on the internet in four days and almost six million people have tweeted about the campaign using #StopKony.

You have had the power of social media basically driving conversation and forcing people to talk about it, and people have responded to it very well made with video. So that’s what you want and at the end of the day, will the people of Uganda be happy that the world is talking about Joseph Kony and his atrocities? I think they will be, so I think to that extend it’s done the job.

– Sunny Hundal, editor, Liberal Conspiracy

But now the charity is being criticised for its style of campaigning on the issue and the film has triggered a vigorous online debate about the film’s accuracy.

Much of the criticism focuses on what is being called the group’s oversimplification of a complex region that has experienced fighting and human rights abuses for over 20 years.

Some have criticised the charity’s appeal for further US intervention in securing the arrest of Joseph Kony. And some online critics have accused the organisation of misusing funds and running questionable projects in Africa.
This is not the first time that charities and NGOs have been condemned for calling for international intervention in troubled areas.
The ‘Save Darfur’ campaign called for UN intervention in Sudan, yet critics said an intervention would have worsened the crisis. And in Haiti, NGOs and relief agencies were heavily criticised for their own uncoordinated response to the humanitarian crisis following the 2010 earthquake.

So what is the role of charities? Have some of them exceeded their limits? Should charities be allowed to lobby public opinion and impose their vision on decision makers? And does ‘slacktivism’ help or hinder real activism?

Joining us to discuss these issues are: Jolly Okot, the Uganda country director for Invisible Children; Mareike Schomerus, the research consortium director of the Justice and Security Research Programme at the London School of Economics and Political Science; and Jillian York, the director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“This implies that by clicking on a link and forwarding something you have done your share. If this is the future of activism, I’m really quite worried… For activism giving this idea that ‘yes, you too can do something’ by simply clicking on something that’s quite worrying… I think it’s irresponsible, to say the least, to give a deadline, an expiration date to solving a very complex political problem… The long-term consequences are completely hidden in this campaign.”

Mareike Schomerus, LSE

FACTS: ‘KONY 2012’:

  • Viral youtube video made by the charity ‘Invisible Children’ targets the alleged Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony
  • The 30-minute film ‘Kony 2012’ racked up 50 million views in the first four days
  • The video highlights abuses blamed on Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army
  • The International Criminal Court has indicted Joseph Kony for war crimes
  • The charity wants to raise awareness of Kony’s alleged human rights abuses
  • Kony’s Army is accused of committing atrocities in four African nations
  • The Lord’s Resistance Army is listed as terrorist group by the US
  • The Army is notorious for kidnapping and using children as slaves
  • Kony is accused of being behind the 2009 Makombo massacre in DR Congo
  • ‘Kony 2012’ is criticised for US intervention plea
  • ‘Invisible Children’ is facing criticism but denies it has misused charitable donations