It seems that just about everyone is talking about the Kony 2012 video that's received more than 70 million views since it was posted last week. It's part of a campaign by the non-profit group Invisible Children to bring awareness to the evil deeds of rebel leader Joseph Kony who's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has been terrorizing Ugandans and people in Congo, the Central African Republic and South Sudan since the 1980s. "Kony stands accused of overseeing the systematic kidnapping of countless African children," goes the film's narration, "brainwashing the boys into fighting for him, turning the girls into sex slaves and killing those who don't comply."
The video, which features the group's co-founder Jason Russell trying to find ways to explain Kony's atrocities in an age-appropriate way to his very young son, is compelling and moving. It ends with a three point call to action: 1. "Sign the Pledge to Show Your Support;" 2. "Get the Bracelet and the Action Kit" (for $30); and 3. "Sign Up to Donate a Few Dollars a Month."
The group is appealing to young people and, from what I can see on Facebook and Twitter, it seems to have garnered quite a bit of support from youth. In some ways I'm pleased. It's great to see young people engaging with issues beyond their immediate lives and thinking about the plight of other youth thousands of miles away. But, as has been pointed out in numerous articles and videos, the group has many critics. As the Washington Post reported, some experts argue that the crimes of the LRA "have been exaggerated and the attention they are receiving is disproportionate," while others say that Kony and his group are indeed despicable international criminals but that there are many more effective campaigns to stop him, including some that have been working on the ground for many years. Others argue that the video and the campaign represent a "white savior" approach to the problems of Africa as the New York Times reported.
I'm not going to repeat what's in the countless number of articles about this film (you can find them by searching Google News for Kony), but after reading several of them, it's pretty clear that the issue is not as simple as depicted in the film and that Invisible Children -- while deservedly getting credit for raising awareness -- is not necessarily the best place to donate if you want to help the children of Africa. If you scroll down, you'll see a video of Ugandan blogger Rosebell Kagumire who has major problems with Russell's video. "He plays so much that this war has been going on because millions of Americans are ignorant about it, but this is not entirely true." She also says that "the situation has improved in Northern Uganda and that it's about conflict recovery right now." And, she reminds us, "this is another video where you see an outsider trying to be a hero rescuing African children ... it does not end the problem."
Lessons for kids and parents
Which leads to the issue of critical thinking and media literacy. As an Internet safety advocate, I've been saying for years that one of the most important skills that young people (and older ones too) need is the ability to think critically about what they see online. Whether that's a pitch from a company, an invitation to meet up with an appealing stranger or even a news items or an opinion piece from a pundit like me, it's important to look beyond the page -- or in Kony's case the video. Use a search engine and whatever other tools you have to learn more about anything that you're on the verge of buying into. Ask your online friends but also consult as many expert sources as you can. There is often more than one side to a story and even well intentioned campaigns by decent people can have nuances worth exploring.
Parents can use this as an opportunity to talk with their child about a variety of things ranging from how great it is to get involved in issues to how important it is to do your homework before signing an online (or printed) petition, donating money, showing up at a demonstration or supporting a politician who's rhetoric may be initially appealing.
One way to check out a charity is at Charity Navigator, which rates charities on a variety of criteria. The site often shows data from the group's Form 990 tax return which shows that Invisible Children raised more than $10 million from the general public between July 1, 2010 and June 30, 2011. Charity Navigator gives Invisible Children a 3 (out of 4) Stars for as an overall rating but only 2 stars for Accountability and Transparency with a score of 45, compared to 70 for the American Red Cross and 59 for the American Heart Association, just to give two examples. Its founders salaries were between $84,000 and $89,000 which is not at all high for an organization of its size and impact, but it's not clear if they received other compensation (such as speaking fees or payment for services) besides their salaries.