Center for Strategic Communication

by R. Bennett Furlow

On March 5th, 2012 the non-profit organization Invisible Children (IC) released a short film which quickly went viral. Kony 2012 is the name of the film and campaign by Invisible Children to raise the profile of Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).  However it does more to publicize IC and its leaders than to expose Kony.

Founded in 2004, IC’s mission is to make people aware of the conflict in Uganda and influence policies that can aid the Ugandan people. They have done this by organizing a number of events such as the Rescue in which people would be symbolically “abducted” and then “rescued” by a celebrity or politician. This obviously attracted a fair amount of media attention due to the celebrity involvement. They have also had a sustained effort to get people to contact their senators and representatives and express their concern about the Uganda situation to them. Most notably they have made a number of short films depicting life in Uganda. Kony 2012 is the latest and most popular thus far.

The video is well made and emotionally impactful. It shows the narrator, and one of IC’s founders Jason Russell, explaining to his five year old son who Kony is and showing pictures of some of Kony’s victims. We meet Jacob, formerly one of Kony’s child soldiers, and can clearly see the emotional toll that the LRA has had on him. The intent behind Kony 2012 is to introduce the viewer to Joseph Kony, explain his criminal conduct and get people to participate in the Kony 2012 movement. The film asks that people contact the twenty Culture and Policy Makers, people such as George Clooney, Oprah Winfrey, John Kerry and Condoleezza Rice, and get them to use their notoriety and influence to raise awareness about Kony’s activities. The ultimate goal is ensuring a continued presence of U.S. military advisers on the ground in Uganda (U.S. troops have been there since October, 2011) and the eventual arrest of Joseph Kony and trial in the International Criminal Court.

The problem is that the film seems more about the filmmakers then it does about the victims. One of the more prominent features on the IC site, which currently features a splash page about the film, is a large “donate” button.  The film itself does not really educate the viewer about Kony or the LRA. It spends more time talking about the IC organization and what it has done in the past. The take away is that there is this bad guy in Uganda who does some horrible things and if we tell Taylor Swift then maybe we can stop him. They communicate a message but offer no explanation behind that message.

The Ugandan military makes up the bulk of the African Union forces fighting in Somalia, an undertaking supported by the U.S. government. Uganda fighting in Somalia and the U.S. advising on the ground in Uganda demonstrates the somewhat complex web of foreign relations that exist between the two countries. No discussion of this relationship takes place. Human rights abuses committed by the Ugandan government are not mentioned.

The quasi-religious origins of the LRA are not examined. The ethnic tensions at play between the LRA and the Ugandan government are not addressed. Kony’s motivation for committing these atrocities is not examined. Is he attempting to take over the country? Is he a religious fanatic? Is he simply a madman? What exactly is the Lord’s Resistance Army? None of this is discussed in the film.

The campaign they seek to establish seems trendy (the Action Kit that you can purchase comes with bumper sticker, bracelets, posters and buttons) and intended to make people feel good about themselves rather than be an effective examination the Uganda situation. During the 2009 protests in Iran, Facebook became a means of organizing on the ground activities of protesters. During the Arab Spring of 2011, Twitter and Facebook were used to galvanize the protest movement. Art inspired by activities in Iran, Egypt and Tunisia became popular and made the rounds through various social media sites. Invisible Children has it backwards. They have created art, created slogans, and are big on Facebook and trending on Twitter. They are attempting to tap into this era of protest without the protest happening organically. In Iran, Egypt and Tunisia social media facilitated the movement, they did not create it. There have been a number of anti-Kony 2012 pictures going around these same social media outlets illustrating the naiveté of the Kony 2012 campaign.

The hearts of the Invisible Children organization are in the right place. But the Kony 2012 film and movement seem like a missed opportunity. They are correct in stating that most people in the U.S. are not aware of the situation in Uganda, but Kony 2012 does a poor job of educating. Telling the story of the Lord’s Resistance Army is an admirable idea. Explaining who Joseph Kony is a worthwhile endeavor. This film does neither.