International Public Enemy #1

2 days ago a video went viral. For a few hours people were inspired, but quickly it turned into vitriolic critique not only of the film but the concept. Many of the negative critiques have been targeted at Invisible Children’s practices as an organization, not whether Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, is a war criminal. It has drawn a line between optimists and pessimists. Between people who want to believe that they can help make the world better and cynics who see this kind of thing as useless and manipulative. It has quickly devolved into a discussion of whether clicking on a link can help and whether this is a money making scam. The criticisms break down like this:

This is called slacktivism – the self-deluding idea that by sharing, liking, or retweeting something you are helping out.

It would be great to get rid of Kony. He and his forces have left a path of abductions and mass murder in their wake for over 20 years. But let’s get two things straight: 1) Joseph Kony is not in Uganda and hasn’t been for 6 years; 2) the LRA now numbers at most in the hundreds, and while it is still causing immense suffering, it is unclear how millions of well-meaning but misinformed people are going to help deal with the more complicated reality.

Yes, the guy behind this campaign acted with a lot of hubris. And probably did not think about the amount of scrutiny that an idea this big would have to go through. Some are calling it a a scam because the heads of the non-profit are paying themselves ninety grand  /yr., which doesn’t really sound unreasonable to me.

For me it is a cautionary tale about dealing with a huge international issue with a simple media message. You need to craft it well, have a kick-ass communications person ready for the back-lash, and think through all the ways that you could be misunderstood. My take on this is that they thought that their concept was so good and so simple that everyone would jump on board and they would save the world.

But now I am not sure whether people think Kony or Jason Russell, Invisible Children’s founder, are the worst.

And some of the criticisms from “experts” are a bit hyperbolic on their end. For instance the leap like this:

One of the biggest issues with a simplistic “Stop Kony” message is that discussions of Navy Seals or drone strikes are inevitable when patience runs out with Ugandan-led efforts. But what about the dozens or hundreds of abducted and brainwashed kids? Should we bomb everyone?

Many of the criticisms are coming from other relief workers in Uganda who think that Invisible Children should have a different agenda. But I got tired of reading lots of bloggers and opinions and decided to go to a non-blogger for some clarification and found a UN site that stated the following:

[This was written several months ago, before Invisible Children’s video] Economic and social recovery in northern Uganda has been slow, despite more than US$600 million having been spent in foreign aid in the years since the LRA was active there. According to development agencies and local communities, many are still living in abject poverty and in constant fear of a return of the LRA.

Development agencies and local communities cannot envisage economic and social recovery in northern Uganda until the LRA is disbanded and stability is brought to the whole region. “The fear of the LRA returning is affecting development,” said Bishop John Odama.

Lobongo Eromoja, a survivor of April 2005 LRA attack on the town of Atiak, in which some 200 people died, said: “When I hear that Joseph Kony is arrested or killed, only then will I know peace has returned… until then, we can’t rule out the possibility of them returning.”

And not all report are negative. The NY Times reports:

In this case, some experts said Invisible Children’s campaign, while oversimplified, could help add to the international resolve to stop the killing.

“It’s ultimately a good thing,” said Pernille Ironside, a senior adviser for child protection at Unicef who is an expert on the Lord’s Resistance Army. “It’s not just one organization in the United States who has discovered this issue,” she said. Still, Invisible Children “is essentially distilling a very complicated 26-year war into something that’s consumable and understandable by mass media.”

And so at the end of the day, there are many shades of gray in this scenario. If it helps the traumatized people of Uganda, and focuses attention on the other child soldiers in Africa, and catches a despicable war criminal, then it is successful. It has certainly gotten millions of people across a wide spectrum talking.


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