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In defence of the bandwagon: Kony 2012 makers should check their facts, but so should critics

“Kony2012” is trending worldwide on Twitter. Really, people? Why couldn’t we just stick to making tweets about the Kardashians, Justin Bieber, Angelina Jolie’s leg and sexist hashtags? Snark aside, I knew…

Would you have recognised this man before today? chris shultz

“Kony2012” is trending worldwide on Twitter.

Really, people? Why couldn’t we just stick to making tweets about the Kardashians, Justin Bieber, Angelina Jolie’s leg and sexist hashtags?

Snark aside, I knew who Joseph Kony was before this week, but then again I’m not the target market of the Kony 2012 campaign.

If what Invisible Children wanted to do was get its message out to a lot of people in its target demographic using the methods used by that demographic, it’s achieved that target several times over.

But the responses haven’t all been positive. Many have criticised the charity for the campaign.

Ironically, those criticising the Kony 2012 campaign, or the organisation behind it (Invisible Children), are falling victim to the very thing they accuse those who have linked to the video of doing: forwarding something without assessing its content or debating the quality of the evidence.

The key anti-Invisible Children messages are that the not-for-profit organisation is financially suspect, that it supports the Ugandan or Sudanese governments who are accused of some of the same horrors perpetrated by the Lord’s Resistance Army, that it calls for military intervention, and that Joseph Kony no longer threatens the people of these countries (or the threat posed by the LRA is greatly diminished).

Most not-for-profit organisations do not spend 100% of their donations on direct services. That said, I think Invisible Children’s inability or refusal (so far) to have their financial details audited by an independent third party deserves scrutiny, although the organisation says it is aware that this is a problem.

While much has been made of charity watchdog Charity Navigator’s two-and-half star (out of four) rating for Invisible Children in terms of its financial transparency, but few of the organisation’s virulent critics have acknowledged that it rates the maximum four stars for the delivery of its programs.

The campaign might be misguided, but do you know any better? chris shultz

Invisible Children denies ever having funded the governments of the countries in which the LRA operates. Indeed, proof of this is very difficult to come by, unless a photo of the filmmmakers with members of the Ugandan army counts as proof of their financial contributions to the Ugandan government.

Is it proof that Invisible Children are in cahoots with these governments? Certainly, as an international not-for-profit organisation, it has to work within the confines of the system set by the state (and its security apparatus).

The Red Cross and Red Crescent must work with what it’s given by the Syrian government. Appreciating that the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies are larger, more established and more financially accountable or transparent organisations, the fundamental analogy is still pertinent – does working with Syrian authorities prompt us to ask if the Red Cross and Red Crescent are supporting the Syrian government and military?

The main blog posts being circulated in favour of a more robust critique of Kony 2012 and Invisible Children do not link to evidence of the organisation’s or the campaign’s supposed support for military intervention.

The documentary calls for Kony to be hauled in front of the War Crimes Tribunal, and includes as part of its case interviews with UN prosecutors. Calling for the prosecution of one of the UN’s most wanted men on charges of crimes against humanity is not supporting military intervention – but then again, do we want to get bogged down into a conversation about semantics?

chris schultz

Technically speaking, there are already US military advisers on the ground and a form of military intervention already exists in Uganda. Is it correct to simplify the issue (which is a key argument levelled against the campaign and Invisible Children) by saying military intervention is always a flat out mistake? Was it a mistake in Iraq? How about Libya? Would it be a mistake right now in Syria?

That Invisible Children exaggerates the scale of the problem in Uganda and neighbouring countries is a valid criticism that should be looked into further. But attacking the campaign for being too late misses the point, which is that Kony is still on the run.

Is it conceivable to attack the UN war crimes tribunal in Cambodia on the basis that it’s a couple of decades too late, and that the Khmer Rouge no longer represents the threat it once did to Cambodia?

There are also conceptual issues with the campaign that its critics have raised, such as the video’s narrative containing an implicit “White Man’s Burden” undertone.

I thought the video was well made, but I don’t want to argue that Kony 2012 should be above questioning.

I do believe that criticism, however, should be subject to the same scrutiny that opponents of “Kony 2012” say is lacking in the campaign, the organisation behind it and the people who support it.

Join the conversation

20 Comments sorted by

  1. Fi Caryl

    logged in via Twitter

    With respect, you say the key criticism leveled against the IC regards their dubious financials, but then give only one reference as such. Most of the criticism I've read about this campaign has argued that reducing decades of complex political and civil unrest into such a simplistic (bracelet-bearing) narrative is as naive as it is condescending.

    http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/136673/mareike-schomerus-tim-allen-and-koen-vlassenroot/obama-takes-on-the-lra?page=2

    http://blogs.independent.co.uk/2012/03/07/stop-kony-yes-but-dont-stop-asking-questions/

    http://innovateafrica.tumblr.com/

    http://ericswanderings.wordpress.com/2012/03/06/invisible-children-and-joseph-kony/

    http://www.stand-news.co.uk/kony-2012-the-worst-campaign/

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    1. Nasya Bahfen

      Senior Lecturer in the Journalism and Media Centre at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Fi Caryl

      The issue financial transparency is only one of the key criticisms - and one of the most solid ones so far. For an NGO to not have an independent audit of its outgoings isn't a good look. I think Invisible Children are (belatedly, perhaps) realising this.

      The reduction of the narrative is also a strong criticism, but then again the mainstream media does this all the time - this campaign merely uses social media instead of CNN or the New York Post to get its point across. It isn't targeting professional…

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    2. Fi Caryl

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Nasya Bahfen

      You're quite correct, of course. The video and accompanying hype was perfectly targeted at their chosen demographic. But pandering to the lowest common-denominator, because that's what media outlets do, does nothing to raise that denominator. I think there was scope to expand on the realistic issues in a way that was still accessible without a reduction to a "kill the bad guy = win" world-view.

      It's good that IC mention Human Rights Watch on their website though (but with no links). People visiting their site may become curious enough to find out more for themselves. There are a lot of despots out there after all - and they can't all have slick videos made about them.

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    3. Nasya Bahfen

      Senior Lecturer in the Journalism and Media Centre at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Fi Caryl

      But are they pandering to their audience, or the lowest common denominator though? That's a little condescending to the college students the campaign wanted to reach - it was simply using their language and their communication modes to get across the idea that this particular bad guy (and yes there are plenty of them), on account of one particular promise made by the filmmaker to one of the bad guy's victims, should be made to face trial over the war crimes that bad guy is accused of. Unfortunately, in the process they did (feel they had to?) oversimplify things. Don't get me wrong - I think the criticism of a reductionist narrative is still valid, but the IC isn't alone in being guilty of it.

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  2. Jasmine Zheng

    PhD Candidate in Economics at Australian National University

    This video has certainly created a great degree of visibility of what's happening in Uganda, with regards to Kony and the LRA.

    But, I do not like how this video has gone on to create this one view that "Uganda is in need of sympathy and help". Certainly, this isn't what Uganda is all about, and definitely not the only issues Uganda is facing. That said, there are limitations of what a 29 minutes video can do. So, this is understandable.

    However, the most disturbing bit, at least in my perspective, is how Jason Russell has used his son, Gavin, in the video. When Gavin was asked when should be done about Kony, he replied "We should stop him." While that certainly reinforces the purpose of the video, I can only hope this isn't the one and only view of Uganda that Gavin grows up knowing.

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    1. Nasya Bahfen

      Senior Lecturer in the Journalism and Media Centre at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Jasmine Zheng

      I would certainly agree that people are disturbed by Gavin's role in the video - although I don't have an issue with it, because I suspect that Gavin will in the course of his life make his way to Uganda to see it with his own eyes, as well as talking to his father's friends about it. Jason does reiterate in the film that Uganda is safe and a good place to visit - although I agree with you in that if we're going to talk about the need for helping any African country, Zimbabwe would be much higher up on the list than Uganda.

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  3. Pip Archer

    Student

    The criticism I've seen isn't so much directed at IC and they're internal workings or motivations, it's more a scepticism about whether youth-targeted, viral awareness campaigns are effective and whether it's a desirable way to conduct foreign policy. Also, the usual questions have come up about whether foreign aid and charity does more harm than good.

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    1. Nasya Bahfen

      Senior Lecturer in the Journalism and Media Centre at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Pip Archer

      Totally. The same discussion might be (has been?) applied to the role of social media in the Arab Spring - although these campaigns don't actually conduct foreign policy (I guess the question is whether they influence it).

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    2. Nathan Vadeboncoeur

      PhD Candidate

      In reply to Pip Archer

      In response to the usual questions about aid/charity I feel I should make the point that there isn't much debate among economists over the good that foreign aid does, and in assessing this it's important to distinguish between aid and charity (mostly NGO) activity. Foreign aid includes things like building roads so that a poor economy can access a port and get their goods to market and begin to climb the economic ladder. The questionable bit is when there are large volumes of donations that distort…

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  4. Christopher Bergen

    logged in via email @bigpond.com

    Sorry. Western governments knew about the Nazi campaign to 'Rid Europe of Jews' through the former eastern block countries before any recognition... Kosovo is a great example of knowing what was going on and doing nothing about it... even when intervening not firing shots to protect people for being who they are... people. People sit here and argue/debate that they know better, that it should have been done this way, that the funding is suspect... we spend so much time criticising each other that…

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    1. Nasya Bahfen

      Senior Lecturer in the Journalism and Media Centre at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Christopher Bergen

      I'm a big believer in actions being judged (partly, anyway) by intentions - and looking at the intentions of the filmmakers, this video receives full marks. A person commenting on one of the "critical" blogs who happened live in an African country and was of African background said something along the lines that until you're able to look a Ugandan victim of the LRA in the eye and tell him/her what you've done to help, you shouldn't criticise the Kony 2012 campaign. While I agree with that sentiment…

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  5. Greg Perkins

    Freelance writer

    The two-star (not two-and-half) rating on Accountability & Transparency relates to their lack of an Independent Board and Independent Auditing, so their claims as to their expenses have to be taken on their word alone. This surely undermines their declaration of Project expenses (note: I'm not an accountant, so I may be wrong).

    Their manipulation of the narrative to fit the storyline may be justified in some fashion, but unfortunately child soldiers are a fact of life in many more countries such as Burma, and two little-known countries called Iraq and Afghanistan. It strikes me as a somewhat localised and indeed deflectional focus on specific suffering to isolate one "evil" warlord temporarily, rather than focus on the broader problems that a charity such as Medecins Sans Frontieres combats every year.

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    1. Nasya Bahfen

      Senior Lecturer in the Journalism and Media Centre at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Greg Perkins

      I absolutely agree that lack of financial transparency of any organisation that asks for donations is a serious issue. I think IC are (belatedly) realising this.

      In terms of manipulating narrative: they've outlined where they got their stats from (http://www.invisiblechildren.com/critiques.html), and yes Kony certainly isn't the only warlord, but the video alludes to this campaign reflecting a promise made to one particular victim of one particular warlord. Given how effective it was, perhaps such campaigns would be useful for a multitude of problems...

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  6. Rosita Randle

    student/law clerk

    I think that it is important to recognise that there are massive human rights abuses occurring in Uganda and that bringing Kony before the ICC is definitely an important goal for the protection of human rights, the issues at the base of the campaign are very much real, important and relevant. The problem, as you said is in part the medium of Facebook and twitter - watching a video, liking a Facebook group and sharing with a few friends is a really easy thing to do - our generation is need of our…

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    1. Nasya Bahfen

      Senior Lecturer in the Journalism and Media Centre at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Rosita Randle

      Agreed, and personally I'd rather see my FB timeline and Twitter feeds fill up with Kony-related stuff instead of first world problems. The case of Liam Jurrah this week illustrates the problems that exist in our own country - the massive gulf between Central Australia and metropolitan city life, for instance - perhaps we need a Kony 2012 style campaign to raise awareness about remote Indigenous communities? An important criticism of Kony 2012 might then be: what happens after the clicks and the postings and the RT's? How does this translate into action - and if it doesn't, how to make it do so?

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  7. Ian Donald Lowe

    Seeker of Truth

    We could sit here and debate the merits of this or that cause until the end of time but in the end, isn't that really just a way of avoiding making the ultimate decision, being, will I do something or not?

    "Evil happens when good men do nothing."

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  8. Sandra Kwa

    Grad Cert Ethics and Legal Studies, CSU

    The whole point in the end boiled down to bringing the world's no.1 listed war criminal to justice. Governments were failing and looked set to continue unless ordinary people did something. Now they are, and I think doing it well in the new world of social media. This is a good thing that far outweighs trivial criticisms, and the message of hope is uplifting, for those of us with children and who have seen enough of humanity's overwhelming problems to worried, very worried, for their future.

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  9. Davie Macdonald

    Political Thinker/Activist

    Against a background of not a single case of LRA activity that has been independently reported in Uganda since 2006 why the re launch of the video? For whose or what benefit ? Today there is great annoyance at the re-launch of the video in Uganda.
    See :-
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/uganda/9131469/Joseph-Kony-2012-growing-outrage-in-Uganda-over-film.htm

    Additionally who was financially behind the original and very sophisticated video which I describe as a rehash…

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  10. Willy Bach

    Post Grad UQ School of History

    Nasya Bahfen, I am concerned that media and communications might be a discipline that enables you to critique this Kony 2012 campaign only from the viewpoint of your discipline. It doesn't appear to enable you to interrogate the facts of the case. I have concerns with your statement regarding Invisible Children, that they, "...get its message out to a lot of people in its target demographic using the methods used by that demographic". Is that the measure of success? What about the quality of the…

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    1. Nasya Bahfen

      Senior Lecturer in the Journalism and Media Centre at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Willy Bach

      "I have concerns with your statement regarding Invisible Children, that they, "...get its message out to a lot of people in its target demographic using the methods used by that demographic". Is that the measure of success?"

      Hi, did you read the article? The exact quote you're referring to is "If what Invisible Children wanted to do was get its message out to a lot of people in its target demographic using the methods used by that demographic, it’s achieved that target several times over. But…

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