The Need for Intelligent Activism

To stop Joseph Kony, the Kony 2012 campaign and Invisible Children must be reassessed 


In recent days, Kony 2012–a campaign run by an advocacy group called Invisible Children (or I.C.)–has exploded in the social media world. People have been sharing a promotional video released by I.C., they’ve changed their Facebook profile pictures to the Kony 2012 logo, they’ve tweeted about it, and they’ve invited people to a worldwide “protest” that’s occurring on April 20th. All this has been done in the name of increasing awareness of Joseph Kony and his crimes against humanity, with the ultimate goal being his arrest. While this campaign seems well-intentioned and generally good, the work of I.C. is highly controversial. The way in which this organization conducts its business is objectionable. If real change is to be brought about to the situation regarding Joseph Kony in Uganda, Kony 2012 and Invisible Children must first be reassessed by the public.

Background on the Issue

Joseph Kony is the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda. The goal of Kony and his organization is to overthrow the Ugandan government and establish a Christian theocracy that is based on the Ten Commandments. In order to accomplish this, Kony and his followers have been known to kidnap children and train them to be soldiers of the cause. Kony has been charged with crimes against humanity that include murder, rape, perpetuation of sexual slavery, and enslavement. The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a warrant for Kony’s arrest on July 8, 2005–an indication that his crimes are significant enough to warrant the attention of the major adjudicating body of international criminal law. Since that time, Kony has been on the run from forces that would capture him and bring him to the ICC for trial.

Background on Invisible Children

Invisible Children is an organization founded in 2006 as a 501(c)3 non-profit. The founders are three filmmakers who travelled to Africa on a filmmaking adventure in the spring of 2003 and stumbled upon the Ugandan conflict. In 2005, they produced a documentary called “Invisible Children: Rough Cut.” As the film’s attention grew, the organization was founded with the mission of bringing Joseph Kony to justice. The organization’s goals include lobbying the American government to help bring about an end to the Ugandan conflict, which would include supporting the Ugandan military through financial and military resources. I.C. seeks to use social media to bring about awareness of Kony and his actions, with the hopes of getting the U.S. government to intervene and bring about his arrest.

Criticism of Invisible Children and Kony 2012

As Invisible Children and its activism have become more visible in the discourse surrounding Uganda, a large movement of critics has also grown. First, I.C. has been heavily criticized about how it handles its finances. As a 501(c)3, its financial information is publicly available–according to their financial records, the organization spent $8,676,614 last year. Of that spending, only 32% went to direct services (i.e. the actual actions taken to accomplish their goals). Where did the rest go? It went to overhead–staff salaries, travel, and film production. In other words, if a donor were to donate one dollar to the organization, only 32 cents would be used to directly aid the Ugandan people. The other 68 cents would go towards administrative costs, essentially (including 19 cents to pay the salaries of the administrators). While much of this money is assuredly going to produce videos, merchandise, and graphics that raise awareness about Joseph Kony, whether or not these actions are effective at creating change is an issue of contention. Another criticism of I.C. is their support of the Ugandan army–or UPDF. I.C. and the Kony 2012 campaign call for U.S. support of the UPDF to find Kony and bring him to justice. But the UPDF has also committed criminal acts. A dossier titled “The Lord’s Resistance Army in the Central African Republic” was recently authored by the Social Science Research Council. The report alleges that some soldiers in the UPDF operated a prostitution ring, raped civilians, looted, and infected Congolese girls with HIV. Other research groups have accused the Ugandan army of plundering gold and other precious resources. Invisible Children’s support of the UPDF and their failure to acknowledge the troubling nature of these allegations is at the very least perplexing. And besides that, it’s troubling that I.C. seems determined to support an institution that is accused of committing many of the same acts of which Kony is accused. Finally, I.C. has been accused of manipulating facts and presenting the issue at hand in an over-simplified way. The following is taken directly from an article titled “Obama Takes on the LRA,” published this past November in Foreign Affairs.

“In their campaigns, such organizations [as Invisible Children] have manipulated facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders and emphasizing the LRA’s use of innocent children as soldiers, and portraying Kony — a brutal man, to be sure — as uniquely awful, a Kurtz-like embodiment of evil. They rarely refer to the Ugandan atrocities or those of Sudan’s People’s Liberation Army, such as attacks against civilians or looting of civilian homes and businesses, or the complicated regional politics fueling the conflict.”

In the Kony 2012 campaign literature and media, the issue in Uganda is portrayed in a very simplistic way. No mention of the atrocities committed by the Ugandan army are mentioned. The complexities of the political situation in Uganda aren’t alluded to. Instead, I.C. portrays Joseph Kony as the sole source of evil in Uganda, and the sole source of misery for the Ugandan people. Such a blatant distortion of the truth calls the integrity and motives of the founders of I.C. into question. They may be well-intentioned, but their handling of the organization, their support of the UPDF, and their distortion of facts should raise many red flags in the minds of those who pay attention to this issue. But it seems that many people have been duped and thus hopped on the bandwagon that is the Kony 2012 movement. It is social media as a primary means of activism that has made this possible.

The Problems Social Media Poses to Activism

In our ever-changing world, social media has no doubt played a major role in the way people perceive issues and spread awareness about them. This is one of the major strengths of social media–it is has a profound capacity to create widespread awareness about current issues and events. This point is not contested. What is contested, however, is the capacity for campaigns that have social media as a primary means of organization and action to create real change. On October 4, 2010, The New Yorker published a piece by Malcolm Gladwell titled “Twitter, Facebook, and social activism: Why the revolution will not be tweeted.” Gladwell argues that social media is effective at increasing participation in social activist causes, but that is actually decreases the level of motivation (on the part of individuals) to take action. The following are some quotations from this piece:

  • “The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960. ‘Social networks are particularly effective at increasing motivation,’ Aaker and Smith write. But that’s not true. Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires.”
  • “The civil-rights movement was high-risk activism. It was also, crucially, strategic activism: a challenge to the establishment mounted with precision and discipline. The N.A.A.C.P. was a centralized organization, run from New York according to highly formalized operating procedures. . .This is the second crucial distinction between traditional activism and its online variant: social media are not about this kind of hierarchical organization. Facebook and the like are tools for building networks, which are the opposite, in structure and character, of hierarchies. Unlike hierarchies, with their rules and procedures, networks aren’t controlled by a single central authority. Decisions are made through consensus, and the ties that bind people to the group are loose.”
  • “The drawbacks of networks scarcely matter if the network isn’t interested in systemic change—if it just wants to frighten or humiliate or make a splash—or if it doesn’t need to think strategically. But if you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment you have to be a hierarchy.”

The weaknesses of the Kony 2012 campaign lie in the fact that it is being driven by social media. Throughout American history, there have been many successful social advocacy movements, such as the women’s suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, and the anti-Vietnam War movement. These movements were able to achieve success because they had a hierarchical structure, and their activism was done face-to-face. These people were out on the front lines organizing people and convincing them to leave their homes and take action. Much of modern-day activism has not seen this success because of its reliance on social media. This activism–or “slacktivism”–makes it possible to “join” a cause by liking a Facebook page, following a cause’s Twitter feed, or sending in money over the Internet. But none of these actions serve as motivators for people to leave the home and take action. An excellent example of this is found in the Occupy movement. This movement is comprised of loosely associated groups of protestors who wish to fight for the bottom 99 percent of earners and create a more progressive tax code. Occupy has been driven largely by social media, with several Twitter feeds and Facebook pages being dedicated to the cause. But what the movement lacks is a hierarchy of people to coordinate events and place real pressure on the government to make a change. And what has the movement accomplished? Raising awareness, and nothing more. The same holds true for Kony 2012. While Invisible Children is a formal non-profit organization, it has heavily relied on social media as an organizing tool. This is precisely why the movement will fail to create any kind of change. The campaign has certainly increased awareness about the situation in Uganda (albeit the information presented by I.C. is distorted), but the movement won’t accomplish its goal of pressuring the government into giving the Ugandan army the kind of support they are calling for. If the people wish to create real change, they will reject social media as their primary organizing tool. They will turn off their computers, go out into the world, and rally people for the cause, just as our forebearers did. Liking a page on Facebook, using a certain hashtag on Twitter, or posting a specially designed profile picture will raise awareness, but will not be a rallying cry that will result in change.

Working With the International Community

In order to effectively solve the situation in Uganda, an understanding of the ways of the international system is needed. The International Criminal Court has already issued a warrant for Kony’s arrest. Under international law, it is the responsibility of states to capture him and bring him to trial. This demands that the United States not act on its own, but instead engage the international community to form a coalition that will bring different perspectives to the issue and how to resolve it. The United States has acted as the world’s savior for too long. The actions of the ICC make it clear that the international community cares about the situation in Uganda, but the hesitancy of governments around the world to act with haste indicates that they have a more nuanced understanding of the issue than do the proponents of campaigns such as Kony 2012. Rushing into military action in Uganda would be costly in both financial capital and in human lives–not only for our own people, but for the people of Uganda. Bringing Kony to justice is by no means a guarantee that the atrocities will end, given the allegations against the Ugandan army. The real solution to Uganda lies in careful decision making to determine what the best course of action is, and this process must involve not only the United States, but the entire international community. A multilateral, well thought-out solution will be the most likely to produce the best outcome.

A Plea for Intelligent Activism

The Kony 2012 campaign, Invisible Children and the widespread support they’ve received highlights our society’s desperate need for intelligent activism–activism that examines all sides of an issue before developing a position, and relies on hierarchical, person-to-person organizational structure. The Kony 2012 campaign is destined for failure because of the apparent inability of much of the public to critically explore a situation and closely examine its nuances. The failure of recent social media advocacy campaigns to create change despite creating mass awareness demonstrates the weaknesses of activism conducted through social media. Awareness advocacy does not constitute helping to create changes that solve an issue, it merely perpetuates increased awareness. If Invisible Children–and organizations like it–intend to have a meaningful impact on human rights conditions and other global issues, it will look to the past successes of social movements and mimic those tactics. Finally, it is essential that the public carefully considers the best course of action for solving the problems facing the modern-day world, and it is imperative that people seek multiple perspectives on issue before joining an activist cause. It will only be after these changes occur that considered, meaningful action will be taken in Uganda, and the people’s suffering will end.


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