News of The Lord's Resistance Army, its leader, Joseph Kony, and their brutal tactics, including using kidnapped children as soldiers have been around for years. This week a video and an intense social media campaign brought the story to life in a big way.
Both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal describes how it happened.
Joseph Kron in the NYT wrote:
This week, in a testament to the explosive power of social media, he managed to do so in a matter of days, baffling diplomats, academics and Ugandans who have worked assiduously on the issue for decades without anything close to the blitz of attention that Mr. Russell and his tight-knit group of activists have generated.
Since being posted on Monday, their video, “KONY 2012,” has attracted more than 50 million views on YouTube and Vimeo, generating hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations on the first day alone and rocketing across Twitter and Facebook at a pace rarely seen for any video, let alone a half-hour film about a distant conflict in central Africa.
Though Mr. Russell is at a loss to fully explain it, he has clearly tapped into a vein of youthful idealism that the authorities the world over have been struggling — and failing — to comprehend and keep up with. YouTube said the popularity was driven by viewers in the United States and those younger than 25. Many parents, including at least one in the State Department, discovered the video only after their children showed it to them.
On the NYT's blog "The Lede", J. David Goodman and Jennifer Preston detail how the producers targeted celebrities and certain sites to get the word out.
How did “Kony 2012″ go viral so quickly?
Invisible Children, which has already produced 11 films over the years and has brought its case to college students around the country, had a strong base of followers to begin with on Facebook, Twitter and its YouTube channel.
In addition to using social media tools to help distribute the film, Jason Russell, the film’s director and narrator, talks in the film about how social media is empowering people all over the world to bring about change. He then asks viewers to join him in this campaign to capture Mr. Kony after describing his friendship with one of Mr. Kony’s victims and then sharing a compelling narrative about how he became involved in this effort.
In the film, Mr. Russell explains the social media strategy, which includes getting people to enlist celebrities on Twitter, including Oprah Winfrey and others with large followings, to help get out the word about the film and Mr. Kony. The group also specifically asked people who viewed the film to share it with their personal networks on social media platforms so that “Kony’s name is everywhere.”
Of course, as quickly as the story went out the criticism came in.
For one thing, says Joshua Keating in Foreign Policy, the situation is more complicated than the film indicates and the solution is not as simple.
n Foreign Policy magazine, Joshua Keating also noted that the situation in central Africa was more complex than Mr. Russell had presented, including the fact that Mr. Kony is no longer in Uganda, making it even more difficult to arrest him. He also writes: “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.”
There are also complaints that the group Invisible Children spends too much money on itself and not enough money on its stated charitable goals. But since their main tool for doing their work is filmmaking, it is hard to know if the costs the critics point to are out of line. The point is that with all of the attention also comes greater scrutiny and that this accountability can be just as viral as the message itself.
Many Africans are unhappy that this video has gotten so big so fast...that it does nothing to portray Africa as it is and plays into the worst Western stereotypes. Some say that the video is a cover for Christian evangelizing in Africa. Others say that it is a pre-text for Western military incursion. Others say that the film reinforces the idea that Africans are powerless victims and must depend on Western aid.
BoingBoing.net has a round up of African responses including this:
TMS Ruge, the Ugandan-born co-founder of Project Diaspora is pissed. He says he wants to "bang my head against my desk" to "make the dumb-assery stop." writes, "It is a slap in the face to so many of us who want to rise from the ashes of our tumultuous past and the noose of benevolent, paternalistic, aid-driven development memes. We, Africans, are sandwiched between our historically factual imperfections and well-intentioned, road-to-hell-building-do-gooders. It is a suffocating state of existence. To be properly heard, we must ride the coattails of self-righteous idiocy train. Even then, we have to fight for our voices to be respected."