Roger James: Will Kony 2012 video prevent us dealing with real issues?

While I admire the effectiveness of this campaign, its short-term impact may obscure the long-term issues of conflict and social justice that need to be addressed in Uganda

The Kony 2012 campaign video has been an internet phenomenon reaching 100 million views on YouTube, faster than any other video in history. The video made by the US-based NGO ‘Invisible Children’ (IC) tells us about Joseph Kony, psychopathic leader of a murderous organisation, the Lord’s Resistance Army  (LRA), who have been active in Northern Uganda, Sudan and Congo.

The campaign seeks to motivate and empower activists  to press for action to ensure the capture of Kony. Its key premise is to make Kony famous, so that once people know about his crimes the pressure for action will be irresistible.

It is a brilliant piece of communication in that its message and its call to action is clear and understandable by people not normally reached by such issues.

Commentator Jason Mogus gives us six reasons for its impact.   It encapsulates a complex problem in an engaging and emotive way with a simple evil versus good underpinned with a personalised narrative led by IC’s Jason Russell talking to his own son and linking it to a ‘promise’ made to a Ugandan boy, Jacob.

All this is brought together by advocating a concrete action, the capture of Kony, which will solve the problem.

It has reached a vast audience and created a storm of media coverage, both positive and negative. The objections became part of the video being talked about which in turn helped sustain the engagement with the video itself.

The video is very focused on ‘you’ the viewer. It has fashioned an emotional  relationship with ‘Invisible Children’ audiences,  young Americans  and others around the world who want to feel that they can make a difference in the world.

It organised a core of supporters, the strategy of influencing celebrities appears to have worked, both in involving actress Kristen Bell (who has half a million Twitter followers) in the early campaign, and in influencing other celebrities like Ryan Seacrest,  Ellen DeGeneres  and Rihanna, who has the highest number of followers on Twitter.

So what are we to make of it? It has been criticised for dangerous oversimplification obscuring  or distorting  the truth. People are asked to personalise the problem in one man, with little reference to a complex political, economic and cultural  context.

The video paints the problem as one of ignorance and the answer is education,  more attention and more money to issues. It is built on the stereotypical neo-colonial idea that ‘Africa needs saving’ – the solution lies with the viewers of the video not with any Ugandan civil society participants who are seen only as victims.

Voice Blogger Rosebell Kagumire from Kampala, Uganda, is a very eloquent voice on these concerns. One good piece of popular communication which examines some of the issues in a challenging way is Charlie Booker’s video.

Kony 2012 has caused some anger in Uganda by implying (although a graphic in the film refutes this) that northern Uganda is still ravaged by the LRA, although this has not been the case for at least six years. The LRA is now primarily focused in remote areas of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan.

The prescribed model of change is certainly open to question: public pressure and military action where US politicians and US intervention (military advisers) can help capture him and end his reign of terror campaign focuses on what America can do to help capture Kony.

The suggested supporter actions could be accused of “slacktivism” – digital activism campaigns that attempt to change the world through Facebook and Twitter. Our digital effort make us feel very useful and important but have zero social impact. The Kony 2012 campaign  has  however  demonstrated its huge impact and support  and has issued  a new video which seeks to answer its critics.

We have to judge  whether these critiques outweigh the good. Attention has been drawn to Joseph Kony and mobilised a vast army of people who would otherwise not have heard of him or been politicised in this way. It has found a vast audience of compassionate, decent people who found a message of hope and a simple way to make a difference after watching a 30-minute video, felt empowered and part of a global community, mobilising to address an injustice.

Central to the effort will be putting up at least a million Kony posters on April 20. This is a principled campaign ad, and a very, very effective one, but not one that offers fundamental change.

For me, while I admire the communication qualities and effectiveness of this campaign, its short-term impact may obscure some of the long-term issues of conflict and social justice that need to be addressed in this region.

Other international issues also bear on this situation. Oxfam is working with Amnesty to support a strong legally binding international Arms Trade Treaty that will mean that the sale of guns will finally get more regulations than bananas.  The situation in the DRC is very challenging where an estimated five million lives have been already lost in conflict. Current military action to tackle Kony may lead to other humanitarian crises.

Finally, I would say strongly, do not  let the questions that you may have about the Kony 2012 campaign stop you from taking positive action to help to end these horrific human rights violations. Use it as a stepping stone to find out more and promote more credible approaches to conflict resolution undertaken by local communities.

Roger James is a campaigner for Oxfam South West in Bristol

2 Responses to Roger James: Will Kony 2012 video prevent us dealing with real issues?
  1. Roger James
    March 23, 2012 | 12:31 pm

    What happened when the film was shown in Uganda? ’Georgiana Keate speaks to Victor Ochen, who screened the film in northern Uganda.

  2. Roger James
    March 22, 2012 | 11:36 am

    If you want to get a really good briefing on Kony and related issues see this new Human Rights Watch Q&A

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