'Kony 2012' and the Politics of Representation

By Connor Joseph Cavanagh, NAI study scholarship holder

Should advocacy NGOs, no matter how noble their intentions, be forgiven for misrepresenting inconvenient facts – and completely ignoring others – to more effectively raise awareness (and revenue) through their campaigns?

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On Monday, March 5th, American advocacy NGO Invisible Children released Kony 2012, a short film about the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander Joseph Kony, and the war crimes that his organization has committed in East/Central Africa since the 1980s. In the language of social media, it ‘went viral’ almost immediately. In lay terms, this means the video was extensively shared over Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, Wordpress.com, and other applications - very, very quickly.   Indeed, after only four days, the film has received approximately 50 million views on Youtube, and another 14.5 million on Vimeo, making this initiative one of the most effectively distributed advocacy campaigns of the last decade.

Yet, immediately after the video was released, academics, researchers, journalists, and conflict analysts levelled serious criticisms at both the film and its producers. Among these, a recurring theme is Invisible Children’s massive simplification of the LRA crisis. Critics point out that the LRA has not been active in Uganda since 2006 – a point that is only briefly acknowledged in the film – and that Kony’s current freedom is perhaps due more to the region’s complex politics than to a lack of personnel, resources, or Western support. Further, the film does not clearly state exactly how Invisible Children will contribute to Kony’s arrest, or, more importantly, exactly how the revenue raised through its campaign will be used.   The film mentions that Invisible Children will campaign against the removal of US military personnel from Uganda, but State Department officials have responded that no plans currently exist for their extraction, regardless.   As such, radical analysts have suggested, somewhat nihilistically, that the Kony 2012 campaign is primarily about raising money for Invisible Children, and not about capturing Joseph Kony or contributing to post-conflict transformation in northern Uganda or elsewhere.

For researchers, the debate surrounding the release of Kony 2012 raises a number of serious issues regarding the politics of representing conflicts and other crises to broader public audiences. As with any effort to mobilize people with little or no previous exposure to East /Central African history and politics, a degree of simplification is necessary. Conversely, the danger of deceitful misrepresentation, rather than mere simplification, is omnipresent. Indeed, the current debate surrounding Invisible Children’s ethics suggests that the line between the two has been blurred.

Researchers should continue to monitor this debate as it unfolds. In the meantime, for detailed background information to both the LRA insurgency in northern Uganda and Invisible Children’s history, please see the following article by LRA experts Mareike Schomerus, Tim Allen, and Koen Vlassenroot in Foreign Affairs.

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