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Kony as a Catalyst

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Surely you have heard by now about Kony2012, the viral media campaign launched by 'Invisible Children' (IC) to educate the masses about war criminal Joseph Kony, and galvanize a legislative push to bring the man down.

For all its merit and getting people to care about a serious issue a world away, the campaign is taking a fair share of criticism so far: foreign policy experts claim IC's storyline of the conflict is inaccurate, and they have "manipulated facts for strategic purposes", NGO evaluators criticize IC's low financial transparency and spending almost 70 percent of their budget on travel, filmmaking, and salaries (not aid to their development programs in Uganda), and some commentators call out their egotist antics and "white savior" narrative and dub them "douchebags".

Yet at the same time, the campaign has been a massive success -- tens of millions of eyes are on their video, the Twittersphere is full of Kony shoutouts from famous celebrities with vast audiences, and you'll find loads of Facebook events created and pictures changed and statuses updated and "Like" buttons clicked.

As the film's narration says: "Right now there are more people on Facebook than were on the planet 200 years ago... Humanity's greatest desire is to belong and to connect."  If you are familiar with my Everyday Ambassador principles on social media, you will see that I agree with the value of this connection. But we must keep in mind that viral campaigns should bring people far away closer together, not push people farther away from each other.

And so I hesitate to endorse Kony2012, because I fear they're doing more of the latter. Here is why:

- Issue Oversimplification:  No doubt narrative oversimplification is necessary to catch the attention of the perpetually distracted online audience.  And don't get me wrong: I am thrilled that millions more people know who Kony is, and feel inspired to stop his atrocities by living democracy the way it was meant to be lived (i.e. by citizens, not corporations, setting priorities!).

But the true story of war in and around Uganda is, like most war stories, not straightforward.  (If you're interested, the fuller history ignored by IC's narrative is explained well in this Foreign Affairs article by Schomerus/Allen/Vlassenroot and this Foreign Policy blog post by Joshua Keating.)  Oversimplifying problems means we may chase the wrong solutions (i.e. systemic governance reform would help more than knocking off one person).  All this hype and no end result?  How empty the effort becomes!

- Spinning Stereotypes:  IC spins a damaging stereotype of "evil African warlord is massacring poor, helpless everyday Africans" -- and for any readers still learning about the African continent, rest assured that this is definitely not an accurate portrayal of our neighbors across the Atlantic.  While tweeting and buying Kony2012 bracelets gives contributors an immediate satisfaction of 'doing good' , it comes at the expense of Uganda doing well -- would anyone be inspired to invest in Ugandan enterprises and reform movements after seeing it presented as a basket-case of a country, or would they avoid it altogether?

- Poor Coordination: Whether tweets, FB posts, or t-shirt slogans, IC's campaign is designed (brilliantly) to speak in self-promotional sound bytes.  While that is strategically part of it's success, it means IC does not inform the public about other organizations who have been working tirelessly on this issue and more general humanitarian relief (African Medical and Research Foundation or Doctors without Borders).  Or Ugandan leaders like Betty Bigombe, member of Parliament with a decades-long track record of negotiating peace.  Don't be fooled by the thought that many little contributions can aggregate into one loud voice -- this only happens when the action fits within longstanding systems and consensus on strategies.

- Insult to Identity:  If you watch the doc you'll see very clearly that IC supporters and Ugandans are not depicted as full human beings, but rather very superficially as heroes and victims, respectively.  The saviors and the saved.  And that's just insulting.  I would prefer that, for every time we tweet or post about Kony2012, we also share news on how much 'Africans' are helping the rest of the world!  Remember the AkiraChix? How about Everyday Ambassador bloggerGlory Kimonge? Don't even get me started on how advanced Africa is in mobile app development for social change. (hint: very advanced!)  Please, let's think past their strategic casting of characters and recognize how many people are already playing highly active, strategic roles in preventing conflict and promoting stability -- and they deserve to share this cleverly constructed platform with IC -- not be overshadowed by it.

So be careful with the hype: tens of millions of hits is really impressive, but it's a YouTube accolade also won by videos of kitten antics.

There is one hugely positive point to Kony2012.  It is not number of hits, but rather the productive discourse that has resulted from the documentary ('douchebag' comments aside).  Social media can be pretty brilliant when people act respectfully in the space, and learn from challenges posed by those who disagree with us, ultimately (hopefully) seeing a shared set of concerns.  Had IC not launched this campaign and pissed off a lot of experts on the issue, I would have likely never learned the deeper details of the matter.

And so I hope you will be part of expanding the intelligent discourse that pushes us all, together, towards more meaningful action.

Change certainly requires a powerful spark, but then it is a long and hard road to actually make progress.  Social media can launch initial awareness, but it's up to you and me to leverage this as a catalyst to take the next steps, and assume a position in the bigger set of solutions.