The Nation: What does the Kony video say about us?

Originally published on March 12, 2012 6:54 am

Ari Melber is a writer for The Nation.

If you are looking for the precise moment when the viral campaign against Ugandan rebel Joseph Kony turned to farce, it was probably at 6:21 pm on Friday March 9.

"Have you heard of this guy Joseph Kony?," asked the rapper-turned-reality-star Vanilla Ice, in a tweet from Dallas. "America needs to send in the hero's that killed Bin Laden and take this killer out."

Mr. Ice's blasé interventionism was retweeted over fifty times, reflecting both the reach of the haves on social media — the anti-Kony video drew a record-breaking 95 million views thanks to tweets from Oprah, Justin Bieber and Kim Kardashian — and a newfound name recognition for Mr. Kony, who was unknown to most millennials before March 5. That was the day the "Kony 2012" video was released on YouTube and Vimeo.

The sleek, twenty-nine-minute production from the Invisible Children NGO perfectly demonstrates the urgent, uplifting arc of successful web campaigns. It is part Obama 2008, part Bono — we are all connected, we all share the same core values, we have the power to solve our problems, and we can feel better about them today. The film argues that Joseph Kony is a murderous war criminal who will be stopped if we do our part to "make him famous," by lobbying, donating and, of course, sharing our advocacy online. There is even a picture imagining the future front-page account of Kony's capture. And while the filmmakers should not be held responsible for every silly celebrity tweet issued in response, they have courted stars with no demonstrated interest in Uganda. In fact, even after the video's viral success put it on the front page of Friday's New York Times, creator Jason Russell was still looking for more A-listers. "We are ready to make this bigger," he told the Times, "We are waiting for Jay-Z [to trumpet the cause]."

Critics have lined up against the notion that any more sheer promotion — for Mr. Kony, Mr. Russell or his NGO — is constructive at this point.

In a widely distributed rebuttal, Michael Wilkerson, a journalist who worked on a Fulbright fellowship in Uganda, argues that the film packs an emotional wallop by distorting the facts. "Joseph Kony is not in Uganda and hasn't been for 6 years," Wilkerson stresses, and while the film suggests an ongoing atrocity, Kony's former soldiers have dwindled to "at most in the hundreds." Another writer, Ugandan journalist Angelo Izama, said the effort misrepresents the problem, stoking a sense of ongoing conflict when the "alleged crimes in Northern Uganda are from a bygone era."

The film's largest substantive shortcoming, however, is on policy. That's because of the timing. Kony was already indicted on war crimes in 2005; he already fled Uganda; and the United States has already engaged on the ground, deploying American soldiers in October to provide advisory help to local efforts against the rebels. Short of more military action — like the musings of Vanilla Ice — there are not many tangible acts left for the international community. The Invisible Children NGO doesn't really deny that. For a film with nearly pitch-perfect urgency and clear narratives, in fact, the clunkiest moment comes in the policy payoff, when we are told, after twenty minutes of intense storytelling, what Must Be Done:

We know what to do. Here it is, ready? In order for Kony to be arrested this year, the Ugandan military has to find him. In order to find him, they need the technology and training to track him in the vast jungle. That's where the American advisors come in. But in order for the American advisors to be there, the American government has to deploy them. They've done that, but if the government doesn't believe the people care about Kony, the mission will be cancelled. In order for the people to care, they have to know. And they will only know if Kony's name is everywhere.

The premise here is that what President Obama did when few were paying attention to Uganda, last October, he may undo unless Americans start paying more attention. Given this theory of change, the matching action items are simple: Share, Sign Up, Donate.

All that draws the inevitable charges of "slacktivism" and a fairly tired, binary conversation about whether movements need marches or Facebook. (To save some time, the answer is usually "both.")

Ultimately, as an attempt at policymaking or history, the Invisible Children film comes up short. But as an attempt at inspiration and education, as a jump-off point for learning and debating a faraway problem beyond the twenty-four-hour news cycle, it is a tremendous success. And it would be much harder to get people sharing a video without an action plan — even a weak one. Jonah Peretti, the viral guru who left the Huffington Post to found Buzzfeed, says that even if people care about "human rights atrocities," videos about them "almost never go viral" because "it's a bummer to send something like that to all your friends." The Stop Kony film worked, he explained, because it "starts out not with the gruesome issue, but the fact that we're all connected to each other," and pivots to "inspiring things you can do to change the situation." Hollywood wants happy endings, and the Internet wants ways to make a difference. Even if the solutions are unlikely, it's a great way to start the conversation.

Copyright 2012 The Nation. To see more, visit http://www.thenation.com/.

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