Kony 2012: A Lesson in Critical Thinking

As an Internet safety advocate, I've been saying for years that one of the most important skills that young people need is the ability to think critically about what they see online. There is often more than one side to a story.
03/11/2012 07:06 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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. ᅡᅠIt's part of a campaign by the non-profit groupᅡᅠInvisibleᅡᅠChildrenᅡᅠto bring awareness to the evil deeds of rebel leader Joseph Kony who's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has beenᅡᅠterrorizingᅡᅠUgandans and people in Congo, the Central African Republic and South Sudanᅡᅠsince 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. ᅡᅠIn 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. ᅡᅠBut, as has been pointed out in numerous articles and videos, the group hasᅡᅠmany critics. As the Washington Post reported, some expertsᅡᅠargueᅡᅠthat 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 indeedᅡᅠdespicableᅡᅠinternational criminals but that there are many more effective campaigns to stop him,ᅡᅠincludingᅡᅠsome 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 Kagumireᅡᅠwho has major problems with Russell's video. "He plays so much that this war has been going on because millions ofᅡᅠAmericansᅡᅠare 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. ᅡᅠAs 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. ᅡᅠThere is often more than one side to a story and even well intentioned campaigns by decent people can have nuances worthᅡᅠexploring.

Parents can use this as an opportunity to talk with their child about aᅡᅠvarietyᅡᅠof 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)ᅡᅠpetition, donating money, showing up at a demonstration or supporting a politician who's rhetoric may be initially appealing.

Investigating charities

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'sᅡᅠForm 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. ᅡᅠCharity Navigator givesᅡᅠInvisibleᅡᅠChildrenᅡᅠa 3 (out of 4) Stars for as an overall rating but only 2 stars for Accountability andᅡᅠTransparency 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 otherᅡᅠcompensation (such as speaking fees or payment for services)ᅡᅠbesides their salaries.