The Kony 2012 campaign does not do enough to deliver effective social change.
How could it?
The film depends on a simplistic story line, which the filmmakers claim has been key to the video's success. Most of the young fans of the Kony 2012 video have no idea of life on the ground in Uganda or the long history of mass violence in the region. And the video does nothing to fill in that blank spot. For the most part, the passionate interest in and discussions surrounding the video are trigged by just that: passion; emotional responses. Few facts. No sophisticated analyses. The campaign rallies to turn "awareness into action," but "action" means buying their gimmicks.
There are two key issues here.
First, evidently fearing that the situation is too complicated to explain, the video keeps the story simple--and provides misinformation. For example, the video and campaign make it seem as though the search for Kony can be contained to Uganda. Joseph Kony has not been living in Uganda for several years. It grips viewers with claims that Kony has trained 30,000 children soldiers. But this number covers a 30-year span. And the figure actually refers to the number of children abducted, not who were forced to soldier. The filmmakers definitely live in a time warp. They collapse past and present.
Atrocities that happened in northern Uganda years ago are presented as if they are happening right now.
Most worrying of all, the video avoids the ways that the Ugandan government and military are involved in many of the same atrocities that the filmmakers ascribe to Kony and his militia. And it is silent --dead mum-- about how the U.S. has been implicated, and how natural resources are key. The basic plea of the campaign is to send money to its foundation, Invisible Children, and to keep American army "advisors" in Uganda to train the military with weapons and strategy to find Joseph Kony. Alas: uninformed policy prescriptions make bad situations worse. Quite possibly, this hunt for Kony will simply foment more senseless violence.
Is that the change young people should be spurred to demand?
Further: when those who supported action on the basis of the misinformation learn the facts (as they inevitably will through the same viral media that has promoted the video), they will grow jaded, cynical, and utterly disengaged from political activism. Correctly feeling that they were fooled into action, they will refuse to invest energy again.
That's one problem. The second and greater problem is that this campaign is largely about consumption, not social activism. It is about buying a poster or bracelet, or sending a donation to Invisible Children. It is about purchasing and acquiring a product rather than tackling complexity. And let us be clear: just because a situation is complex does not mean there are no answers. But those answers come with education, context, and critical questioning. Not with passing fads.
The on-going violence in Uganda and neighboring states isn't a sound bite issue. We must not let ourselves off the hook by thinking that watching a 29-minute video is the same as participating in real social action. Nor is buying a $30 action kit. Young people need to learn about the issues, and schools and universities need to be invested in teaching about them.
Thanks to this campaign, millions of people who had never heard of Kony now know his name. But, misinformed by the video and encouraged to believe that supporting this campaign is all they need to do to spur fruitful change, viewers do not know enough to recognize what they are demanding. Knowledge is power. Americans, young or old, need to be informed in order to be critical. We need to hold the Kony 2012 campaign, and ourselves, to high standards in order to be thoughtful about the actual end goal.
A video gone viral is a dangerous substitute for informed activism.