A smoothly produced, 29-minute video, "Kony 2012," about elusive African warlord Joseph Kony, has gone viral on the Internet by tapping the power of social media. But critics think it's too smooth.
Even after decades of well-documented murder and plunder, even after the International Criminal Court indicted him and a U.S. president dispatched a special-forces team to help catch him, African warlord Joseph Kony remained largely obscure to the West.
That changed with startling swiftness this week, with the viral proliferation of a smoothly produced, 29-minute video, “Kony 2012,” that calculatedly taps the power of social media in an effort to make the fugitive leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) a meme of misery.
By Thursday, less than a week after it was placed online on Vimeo and three days after it was uploaded to YouTube, the video had been viewed more than 50 million times, fueled by tweets from celebrities including Rihanna, Oprah Winfrey and P. Diddy.
“Can I tell you the bad guy’s name?” Jason Russell, co-founder of San Diego-based nonprofit Invisible Children, asks his young son in the video. Russell then shows him Kony’s picture, and explains to viewers that the LRA abducts children for use as sex slaves and child soldiers. Russell then inveighs against the possible withdrawal of U.S. troops sent by President Obama last year to help African troops catch Kony.
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The video marks the latest example of how social media have transformed political activism — a phenomenon seen in events including Obama’s election and the “Arab Spring” uprisings. The video’s popularity reflects the power of Facebook and Twitter to galvanize a generation moved by instantly downloadable images and the entreaties of celebrities.
But it reflects, too, how quickly the same online universe can erupt with countermessages. No sooner had “Kony 2012” gone wildly viral than critics on the blogosphere were attacking the video and Invisible Children for a host of perceived sins, from sentimentality to Western arrogance to dangerous oversimplification.
“The war was more than just an evil man killing children. The war is much more complex than just one man named Joseph Kony,” Ugandan journalist and blogger Rosebell Kagumire said in a response posted to YouTube. “This is another video where I see an outsider trying to be a hero by rescuing African children.”
In October, Obama sent a 100-man special-forces team to Uganda with orders to train the Uganda military to pursue the LRA and specifically to help capture Kony.
The problem: Uganda’s military is not free of human-rights abuses itself, and some doubt its resolve to finish the war.
“Some say (Ugandan President Yoweri) Museveni has done his best for 20 years to not catch Kony,” Jean-Sebastien Munie, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for the Central African Republic, said in a January interview. He noted that not everyone agrees that a military solution is the answer.
He was referring to a popular conspiracy theory, acknowledged among officials, that Museveni and his generals — reaping the benefits of U.S. military support and foreign plunder — purposefully have failed to rein in Kony.
Three other countries — Central African Republic, Congo and South Sudan — are receiving U.S. aid for their help, and the U.S. troops also are employed now in those countries.
The burst of attention also has brought other criticism of Invisible Children’s work, including the ratio of the group’s spending on direct aid, its rating by the site Charity Navigator and a 2008 photo of three Invisible Children members holding guns alongside troops from the country now known as South Sudan.
Invisible Children posted point-by-point rebuttals on its website.
The group was founded in 2003 by three California film students moved by their experiences with victims of war in Africa. On Thursday, some 30 college-age workers were answering phones in a San Diego office resembling a boiler room.
“We’re at a place of deep emotion, humility and thankfulness that this is finally catching on,” movement coordinator Lauren Bailey said. Each semester, she said, about 100 college interns are sent to spread the word about Kony, whom she called “the worst living criminal in Central Africa.”
The massive response to the video has stunned better-known humanitarian groups.
“We didn’t get celebrities going onto Twitter,” said Anneke Van Woudenberg, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, which also produced a video on the subject. “In our video, we tried to get Africans to describe their experiences in their own words. … But often, people will pay less attention when an African person tells the story.”
Jonathan Taplin, a documentary filmmaker and professor at the University of Southern California, described the video as “wonderfully done” and said critics were forgetting it is the work of activists, rather than of journalists obliged to say “on the one hand, on the other hand.”
“There are activist documentary filmmakers all over the world, and all of a sudden they’ve got new tools,” Taplin said. “It used to take you months, if not years, to get a documentary distributed.”
Mamood Mamdani, a Columbia University professor, said some Ugandans worry the video could trigger further bloodshed.
“We all know that the inevitable result of military activity is that civilians get hurt,” he said, cautioning against the influence of “millions of well-meaning and well-intentioned but ill-informed people.”
Some, such as Joshua Keating on ForeignPolicy.com, stressed that Kony hasn’t been in Uganda for six years, and now is believed to be in the Central African Republic.
“Unfortunately,” he wrote, “it looks like meddlesome details like where Kony actually is aren’t important enough for Invisible Children to make sure its audience understands.”
Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.