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What Invisible Children's Kony 2012 Shares With Obama's 2008 Social Media Election Campaign -- and What it Does Not

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For me the Kony 2012 video and the issues it has raised is one big déjà vu and here's why: From 2005-2008 I spent almost all my time agonizing over and trying to explain to people the complexities of the situation in northern Uganda while at the same time trying to ensure that the message was simple and compelling enough for them to grasp and care... and hence likewise get involved, make a difference (and all that good stuff). As if out of nowhere hash tags such as #StopKony, #makeKonyFamous and even #Uganda were trending globally on Twitter for days in a row. So, needless to say, the viral video explosion of the topics and taglines surrounding the release of the Invisible Children (IC) video brought all those efforts and emotions back.

Oh the many hours I have spent lamenting Invisible Children's depiction of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) conflict about which Kony is just one protagonist (albeit a nasty m'f-er). And I admit it, my initial inclination is to go off on one of my old diatribes about IC -- about its mischaracterizations and oversimplifications, its self-aggrandizing about how it can and did end a war, etc. But for now I am going to refrain.

Instead, let me offer a partial critique of the critics. Critiquing the video because it is not sophisticated enough is like critiquing the 2008 Obama campaign for shallow messaging in lieu of detailed policy positions. I, for one, reveled in the beauty of simplicity of Obama's "Yes We Can" speech and would be a hypocrite if I trashed Invisible Children for its artful use of social media to keep people engaged in a matter of genuine humanitarian concern.

I wish uNight had Invisible Children's marketing team! uNight is an NGO I started around the same time as the Invisible Children movement -- my guess is that both organizations are born out of similar concerns and deep connections and commitments made to the victims of the conflict in northern Uganda. And both organizations continue to endeavor to run successful youth rehabilitation and development programming in northern Uganda. But of course, such activities need dime, and for every charitable dollar you have to compete with a myriad of worthy causes for the world's attention. To this end the video's seven million-plus hits speaks for itself and I commend IC for it. The point is that the simplicity works. Indeed, its essential.

The IC video is a piece of social media fundraising par excellence. In terms of resource allocation -- whether the money raised is then appropriately spent is another matter. To make your own assessment and to see IC's response to this and other criticisms leveled against the organization see here.

The difference between the Obama campaign though and IC's is that the latter doesn't only over-simplify, it trivializes, and where the root cause of a problem is not properly understood, the proposed solutions are likewise doomed. "Yes We Can" roused young Americans into a youth movement that won Obama the presidency. "Stop Kony" does what exactly? According to Invisible Children, the campaign's goal is to capture Kony and see him brought to justice. From the Kony 2012 website:

"Invisible Children has been working for nine years to end Africa's longest-running armed conflict. U.S. military advisers are currently deployed in Central Africa on a 'time-limited' mission to stop Kony and disarm the LRA. If Kony isn't captured this year, the window will be gone."


Alas, to me the image looks a lot like the victory headlines for the U.S. invasion of Iraq upon Saddam Hussein's capture. Whatever your position on Iraq, Saddam's capture didn't result in victory or peace.

If the aim, as IC purports, is ending armed conflict, then the "capture Kony" route is at best of limited effectiveness -- more likely still it is a myopic policy with a plethora of unintended consequences. For instance, my biggest issue with the latest IC video (Kony 2012) is the film-maker's plea in the 18th minute to keep up the pressure to ensure that the Ugandan army be allowed to continue its efforts to track down and catch Kony. Meanwhile, the Ugandan army is notorious for crossing international borders under the guise of conflict resolution only to loot, plunder and rape (Congo, Rwanda etc.). For example, in a ruling issued on Dec. 19, 2005, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) found Uganda's military operations in the DRC between 1998 and 2003 to be in violation of international law. Specifically, according to a citation of the ICJ verdict from Relief Web:

The ICJ Uganda's armed forces, "committed acts of killing, torture and other forms of inhumane treatment on the Congolese civilian population, destroyed villages and civilian buildings, failed to distinguish between civilian and military targets and to protect the civilian population in fighting with other combatants as well as training child soldiers.


Let's be inspired, sure, let's all do something to contribute to our collective humanity. Let's not forget the formerly invisible children of northern Uganda. Let's not neglect the currently abducted and formerly abducted children of South Sudan or Central African Republic either.

Let's continue to advocate for -- and indeed give money to and offer our professional expertise towards -- northern Uganda's post-conflict development in the long-term. These former child soldiers, and millions of other young people affected by war continue to be plagued by isolation, depression, a totally anemic school system and a crumbling social structure. Let's invest in their education, support talented young people as the endeavor to start small businesses (or big ones!) as they pick themselves up out of poverty. Just while we are at it, let's not be manipulated into ignoring sovereign boundaries or funding already bloated military budgets of governments with questionable legitimacy, all in the name of community organizing, not to mention "peace."