What's Wrong with 'Kony 2012'

The "Kony 2012" viral video created by the Invisible Children organization has taken the internet by storm, accumulating over 55 million views since it was released just a few days ago:



While on its face, the video appears to be an innocuous call-to-action (or a call-to-awareness, at least) about the crimes of the Central African LRA-leader Joseph Kony, online observers have raised several issues with this campaign, including its patronizing imperialistic tone and the fact that Invisible Children have not proven themselves incredibly responsible with their finances.

In their analysis of the video at The Atlantic, Kate Cronin-Furman and Amanda Taub describe why campaigns like these frequently fail to achieve any substantive good. In fact, these campaigns have typically exacerbated the problem because they fail to communicate the vast complexities inherent in these situations:

The problem is that these campaigns mobilize generalized concern -- a demand to do something. That isn't enough to counterbalance the costs of interventions, because Americans' heartlessness or apathy was never the biggest problem. Taking tough action against groups, like the LRA, that are willing to commit mass atrocities will inevitably turn messy. Soldiers will be killed, sometimes horribly. (Think Somalia.) Military advice and training to the local forces attempting to suppress atrocities can have terrible unforeseen consequences. Consider the hundreds of victims of the LRA's 2008 "Christmas Massacre," their murderous response to a failed, U.S.-supported attack by Ugandan and Congolese government forces. International Criminal Court investigations often prompt their targets to step up attacks on civilians and aid workers, in an attempt to gain leverage with the court. (Both Kony and Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir have tried that method.)

Their piece is a must-read and I agree with almost everything in it. The one point I take issue with can be summed up in the following excerpt from their piece:

Treating awareness as a goal in and of itself risks compassion fatigue -- most people only have so much time and energy to devote to far-away causes -- and ultimately squanders political momentum that could be used to push for effective solutions.

In other words, Cronin-Furman and Taub imagine citizens with a limited "reservoir" of attention, and conclude that an ineffectual campaign such as Kony 2012 drains precious resources from that reservoir.

While I understand that on a basic level, people only have 24 hours per day and must allocate that limited time in prudent fashion, I disagree that campaigns like Kony 2012 are necessarily harmful because of this. In an ideal world, Cronin-Furman and Taub would be correct, and people would be so busy with activism that it would be a crime for them to waste their time entertaining the viral videos of Invisible Children. But we don't live in an ideal world. We live in one with LOLCAT pictures, and Youtube videos of skateboarders injuring themselves, and iPad announcements and so forth. 'Kony 2012' pierces that world and perhaps plants the seeds of activism inside of people (even as it's also planting some seeds of misinformation).

There are a whole boatload of issues with the 'Kony 2012' video. The campaign and the efforts of Invisible Children will probably not directly effect the good they are hoping to. But maybe they will cause a politically concerned citizen to educate him/herself on the topic, to explore it more deeply, and to commit to helping in ways that are actually meaningful. And that's more than many of us can ever say about our own efforts in social justice.

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