Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Unpacking Kony 2012

Traduzido para o Português por Natália Mazotte e Bruno Serman

This Monday, March 5th, the advocacy organization Invisible Children released a 30 minute video titled “Kony 2012“. The goal of the video is to raise awareness of Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army rebel group, a wanted war criminal, in the hopes of bringing him to justice.

By Thursday morning, March 8th, the video had been viewed more than 26 million times, and almost 12 million more times on Vimeo. (Needless to say, those numbers are now much higher.) It has opened up a fascinating and complicated discussion not just about the Lord’s Resistance Army and instability in northern Uganda and bordering states, but on the nature of advocacy in a digital age.

My goal, in this (long) blogpost is to get a better understanding of how Invisible Children has harnessed social media to promote their cause, what the strengths and limits of that approach are, and what some unintended consequences of this campaign might be. For me, the Kony 2012 campaign is a story about simplification and framing. Whether you ultimately support Invisible Children’s campaign – and I do not – it’s important to think through why it has been so successful in attracting attention online and the limits to the methods used by Invisible Children.

Who’s Joseph Kony, and who are Invisible Children?

Joseph Kony emerged in the mid 1980s as the leader of an organization, the Lord’s Resistance Army, that positioned itself in opposition to Yoweri Museveni, who took control of Uganda in 1986 after leading rebellions against Idi Amin and Milton Obote, previous rulers of Uganda. Museveni, from southern Uganda, was opposed by several armed forces in the north of the country, including Kony’s group, the Lord’s Resistance Army. Since the mid-1980s, northern Uganda has been a dangerous and unstable area, with civilians displaced from their homes into refugee camps, seeking safety from both rebel groups and the Ugandan military.

Kony and the LRA distinguished themselves from other rebel groups by their bizarre ideology and their violent and brutal tactics. The LRA has repeatedly kidnapped children, training boys as child soldiers and sexually abusing girls, who become porters and slaves. The fear of abduction by the LRA led to the phenomenon of the “night commute“, where children left their villages and came to larger cities to sleep, where the risk of LRA abduction was lower.

The Ugandan government has been fighting against Kony since 1987. In 2005, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Kony and four LRA organizers. The United States considers the LRA a terrorist group, and has cooperated with the Ugandan government since at least 2008 in attempting to arrest Kony.

Invisible Children is a US-based advocacy organization founded in 2004 by filmmakers Bobby Bailey, Laren Poole and Jason Russell. Initially interested in the conflict in Darfur, the filmmakers traveled instead to northern Uganda and began documenting the night commute and the larger northern Ugandan conflict. The image of children commuting to safety became a signature for Invisible Children, and they began a campaign in 2006 called the Global Night Commute, which invited supporters to sleep outside in solidarity with children in Northern Uganda.

As a nonprofit, Invisible Children has been engaged in efforts on the ground in northern Uganda and in bordering nations to build radio networks, monitoring movements of the LRA combattants, and providing services to displaced children and families. They’ve also focused heavily on raising awareness of the LRA and conflicts in northern Uganda, and on influencing US government policy towards the LRA. In 2010, President Obama committed 100 military advisors to the Ugandan military, focused on capturing Kony – Invisible Children was likely influential in persuading the President to make this pledge.

The Kony 2012 campaign, launched with the widely viewed video, focuses on the idea that the key to bringing Joseph Kony to justice is to raise awareness of his crimes. Filmmaker and narrator Jason Russell posits, “99% of the planet doesn’t know who Kony is. If they did, he would have been stopped years ago.”

To raise awareness of Kony, Russell urges viewers of the video to contact 20 “culturemakers” and 12 policymakers who he believes can increase the visibility of the LRA and increase chances of Kony’s arrest. More concretely, Russell wants to ensure that the 100 military advisors the Obama government has provided remain working with the Ugandan military to help capture and arrest Kony.

Criticism of the Kony 2012 campaign

As the Kony 2012 campaign has gained attention, it’s also encountered a wave of criticism. Tuesday evening, Grant Oyston, a 19-year old political science student at Acadia University in Nova Scotia published a Tumblr blog titled “Visible Children“, which offered multiple critiques of the Invisible Children campaign. That site has attracted over a million views, tens of thousands of notes, and evidently buried Oyston in a wave of email responses.

The Visible Children tumblr points out that Invisible Children spends less than a third of the money they’ve raised on direct services in northern Uganda and bordering areas. The majority of their funding is focused on advocacy, filmmaking and fundraising. It also questions whether the strategy Invisible Children proposes – supporting the Ugandan military to seek Kony – is viable and points out that the Ugandan military has a poor human rights record in northern Uganda. (Invisible Children reacts to some of these criticism in this blog post.)

As a set of Kony-related hashtags trended on Twitter yesterday, some prominent African and Afrophile commentators pointed out that the Invisible Children campaign gives little or no agency to the Ugandans the organization wants to help. There are no Africans on the Invisible Children board of directors and few in the senior staff. And the Invisible Children approach focuses on American awareness and American intervention, not on local solutions to the conflicts in northern Uganda. This led Ugandan blogger and activist Teddy Ruge – who works closely on community development projects in Uganda – to write a post responding to the Invisible Children campaign titled “A piece of my mind: Respect my agency 2012“, asking supporters of Invisible Children to consider whether IC’s framing of the situation is a correct one, whether IC’s efforts focus too heavily on sustaining the organization, and whether a better way to support people of northern Uganda would be to work with community organizations focusing on rebuilding displaced communities.

Other criticisms have focused on more basic issues: Kony is no longer in Uganda, and it is no longer clear that the LRA represents a major threat to stability in the region. Reporting on an LRA attack in north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a UN spokesman described the attack as “he last gasp of a dying organisation that’s still trying to make a statement.” The spokesman believes that the LRA is now reduced to about 200 fighters, as well as a band of women and children who feed and support the group. Rather than occupying villages, as the LRA did when they were stronger, they now primarily conduct 5-6 person raids on villages to steal food.

Invisible Children’s theory of change… and the problem with that theory

I’d like to start an analysis of Invisible Children’s techniques by giving Jason Russell and his colleagues the benefit of the doubt. I think they sincerely believe that Kony and the LRA must be brought to justice, and that their campaign is appropriate even though Kony’s impact on the region is much smaller than it was five to ten years ago. While it’s very easy to be cynical about their $30 action kit, I think they genuinely believe that the key to arresting Kony is raising awareness and pressuring the US government.

I think, however, that they are probably wrong.

Kony and his followers have fled northern Uganda and sought shelter in parts of the world where this is little or no state control over territory: eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, eastern Central African Republic and southwestern Southern Sudan. The governments that nominally control these territories have little or no ability to protect their borders, and have proven themselves helpless when international agencies like the ICC have demanded their help in arresting Kony.

Finding Kony isn’t a simple thing to do. The areas in which he and his forces operate are dense jungle with little infrastructure. The small size of the LRA is an additional complication – with a core group of a few hundred and raiding parties of a handful of individuals, satellite imagery isn’t going to detect the group – that’s why Invisible Children and others are trying to build networks that allow people affected by the LRA to report attacks, as those attacks are one of the few ways we might plausibly find the LRA.

Russell argues that the only entity that can find and arrest Kony is the Ugandan army. Given that the Ugandan army has been trying, off and on, since 1987 to find Kony, that seems like a troublesome strategy. Journalist Michael Wilkerson, who has reported on the LRA for many years, notes that the Ugandan army is poorly equipped, underfed, incompetent and deeply corrupt. Past efforts to crack down on Kony have failed due to poor planning, poor coordination and Kony’s deeply honed skills at hiding in the jungle.

Complicating matters, Kony continues to rely on child soliders. That means that a military assault – targeted to a satellite phone signal or some other method used to locate Kony – would likely result in the death of abducted children. This scenario means that many northern Ugandans don’t support military efforts to capture or kill Kony, but advocate for approaches that offer amnesty to the LRA in exchange for an end to violence and a return of kidnapped children.

Invisible Children have demonstrated that they can raise “awareness” through a slickly produced video and successful social media campaign. It is possible – perhaps likely – that this campaign will increase pressure on President Obama to maintain military advisors in Uganda. As Wilkerson points out in a recent post, there’s no evidence the President had threatened to pull those advisors. And as Mark Kersten observes, it’s likely that those advisors are likely in Uganda as a quid pro quo for Ugandan support for US military aims in Somalia. In other words, the action Invisible Children is asking for has been taken… and, unfortunately, hasn’t resulted in the capture of Kony.

The problem with oversimplification

The campaign Invisible Children is running is so compelling because it offers an extremely simple narrative: Kony is a uniquely bad actor, a horrific human being, whose capture will end suffering for the people of Northern Uganda. If each of us does our part, influences powerful people, the world’s most powerful military force will take action and Kony will be captured.

Russell implicitly acknowledges the simplicity of the narrative with his filmmaking. Much of his short film features him explaining to his young son that Kony is a bad guy, and that dad’s job is capturing the bad guy. We are asked to join the campaign against Kony literally by being spoken to as a five year old. It’s not surprising that a five year old vision of a problem – a single bad guy, a single threat to eliminate – leads to an unworkable solution. Nor is it a surprise that this extremely simple narrative is compelling and easily disseminated.

Severine Autesserre, a scholar focused on the Democratic Republic of Congo, has recently written an important paper on the narratives and framings of the conflict in eastern DRC. (I know of this paper only through the good graces of Dr. Laura Seay, whose Texas in Africa blog is required reading for anyone who is interested in Central Africa, and who has been one of the prominent voices on Twitter calling for reconsideration of Invisible Children’s strategy.)

Autesserre’s paper argues that the wildly complicated conflict in eastern DRC has been reduced to a fairly simple narrative by journalists and NGOs: to gain control of mineral riches, rebel armies are using rape as a weapon of war, and they should be stopped by the DRC government. This narrative is so powerful because “certain stories resonate more, and thus are more effective at influencing action, when they assign the cause of the problems to ‘the deliberate actions of identifiable individuals’, when they include ‘bodily harm to vulnerable individuals, especially when there is a short and clear causal chain assigning responsibility'; when they suggest a simple solution; ad when they can latch on to pre-existing narratives.”

Sound familiar? The Kony story resonates because it’s the story of an identifible individual doing bodily harm to children. It’s a story with a simple solution, and it plays into existing narratives about the ungovernability of Africa, the power of US military and the need to bring hidden conflict to light.

Here’s the problem – these simple narratives can cause damage. By simplifying the DRC situation to a conflict about minerals, the numerous other causes – ethnic tensions, land disputes, the role of foreign militaries – are all minimized. The proposed solutions – a ban on the use of “conflict minerals” in mobile phones – sounds good on paper. In practice, it’s meant that mining of coltan is no longer possible for artisanal miners, who’ve lost their main source of financial support – instead, mining is now dominated by armed groups, who have the networks and resources to smuggle the minerals out of the country and conceal their origins. Similarly, the focus on rape as a weapon of war, Autesserre argues, has caused some armed groups to engage in mass rape as a technique to gain attention and a seat at the negotiating table. Finally, the focus on the Congolese state as a solution misses the point that the state has systematically abused power and that the country’s rulers have used power to rob their citizenry. A simple, easily disseminated narrative, Autesserre argues, has troublesome unintended consequences.

What are the unintended consequences of the Invisible Children narrative? The main one is increased support for Yoweri Museveni, the dictatorial and kleptocratic leader of Uganda. Museveni is now on his fourth presidential term, the result of an election seen as rigged by EU observers. Museveni has asserted such tight control over dissenting political opinions that his opponents have been forced to protest his rule through a subtle and indirect means – walking to work to protest the dismal state of Uganda’s economy. Those protests have been violently suppressed.

The US government needs to pressure Museveni on multiple fronts. The Ugandan parliament, with support from Museveni’s wife, has been pushing a bill to punish homosexuality with the death penalty. The Obama administration finds itself pressuring Museveni to support gay and lesbian rights and to stop cracking down on the opposition quite so brutally, while asking for cooperation in Somalia and against the LRA. An unintended consequence of Invisible Children’s campaign may be pushing the US closer to a leader we should be criticizing and shunning.

Can we advocate without oversimplifying?

I am now almost three thousand words into this blogpost, and I am aware that I am oversimplifying the situation in northern Uganda… and also aware that I haven’t simplified it enough. It makes perfect sense that a campaign to create widespread awareness of conflict in northern Uganda would want to simply this picture down to a narrative of good versus evil, and a call towards action. While I resent the emotionally manipulative video Invisible Children have produced, I admire the craft of it. They begin with a vision of a changing global world, where social media empowers individuals as never before. They craft a narrative around a passionate, driven advocate – Jason Russell – and show us the reasons for his advocacy – his friendship with a Ugandan victim of Kony. The video has a profound “story of self” that makes it possible for individuals to connect with and relate to. And Invisible Children constructs a narrative where we can help, and where we’re shirking our responsibility as fellow human beings if we don’t help.

The problem, of course, is that this narrative is too simple. The theory of change it advocates is unlikely to work, and it’s unclear if the goal of eliminating Kony should still be a top priority in stabilizing and rebuilding northern Uganda. By offering support to Museveni, the campaign may end up strengthening a leader with a terrible track record.

A more complex narrative of northern Uganda would look at the odd, codependent relationship between Museveni and Kony, Uganda’s systematic failure to protect the Acholi people of northern Uganda. It would look at the numerous community efforts, often led by women, to mediate conflicts and increase stability. It would focus on the efforts to rebuild the economy of northern Uganda, and would recognize the economic consequences of portraying northern Uganda as a war zone. It would feature projects like Women of Kireka, working to build economic independence for women displaced from their homes in Northern Uganda.

Such a narrative would be lots harder to share, much harder to get to “go viral”.

I’m starting to wonder if this is a fundamental limit to attention-based advocacy. If we need simple narratives so people can amplify and spread them, are we forced to engage only with the simplest of problems? Or to propose only the simplest of solutions?

As someone who believes that the ability to create and share media is an important form of power, the Invisible Children story presents a difficult paradox. If we want people to pay attention to the issues we care about, do we need to oversimplify them? And if we do, do our simplistic framings do more unintentional harm than intentional good? Or is the wave of pushback against this campaign from Invisible Children evidence that we’re learning to read and write complex narratives online, and that a college student with doubts about a campaign’s value and validity can find an audience? Will Invisible Children’s campaign continue unchanged, or will it engage with critics and design a more complex and nuanced response.

That’s a story worth watching.

92 Responses to “Unpacking Kony 2012”

  1. Ethan with all due respect when you can’t get figures right due to lack of due diligence in the 2nd paragraph of your novel – how can I trust the rest of the numbers you provide.

    You need to click twice on YouTube stats then your get the full breakdown of how 67,106,844 people have now watched the video. On Thursday they were were over 50 million.

    The fascinating thing for me is the spread across the world this video has attracted. This really is now a global campaign.

  2. D0me says:

    Why are people even wasting time trying to get Kony. It annoys me that people just blindly follow what the video is trying to get people to do. My reasons why this is a waste of time.

    #1. First off, your not gonna find a man hiding in the jungles of Africa, good luck
    #2. It won’t matter if send in troops, the moment we leave, they’ll just come running back in full force and take over the country again. Ex 1993-94 U.S entering Somalia. Outcome? It failed.
    #3. You will NEVER SOLVE the problem, it doesn’t matter what you do. Like I said in #2, the moment we leave they’ll just come running back
    #4. Other countries in Africa do the same thing, should we spend money to help them and send in troops/advisers as well?
    #5. We have issues of our own in the country like the U.S still recovering from the recession, lets fix that before we fix another country, honestly makes no sense as to why WE must fix THAT countries issues before fixing our own.. Just mind boggling

  3. Jay Collier says:

    I’m grateful that Kony 2012 was made so that I now have the opportunity to read your post, Ethan.

    I hope you’re wrong about the film doing more harm than good. I hope people move past this first level of engagement to deeper study and understanding of what’s happening on the ground.

  4. aaron says:

    This campaign is war propaganda. Uganda has been called the next Saudi Arabia in terms of oil. This is the same movie we keep seeing over and over again. Chase bad man, bomb his country, take their oil. “What CAN we do?” Demand that your president not go to war without the approval of the people and their Congress. Support the rights of american children who can now be assassinated within or beyond the border’s of the US–like the 16 year old boy from Denver, CO who was targeted and killed by the administration. If the president does not need the people (their legislature) to make war and it does not need the courts to determine who can be executed at their hand, then we live in Uganda too. Our children also need saving.

  5. I have my own take on this — the smart folks in the international justice movement are terribly jealous of the enormous play this Kony2012 campaign got in ways they could never have managed with their own access to the liberal media and establishment and even their high mindshare with large numbers of Twitter followers. And that’s a large part of it. Oh, I get all the things wrong with the simplification of the story — I’ve been raising the issue of the LRA for 15 years at the UN and I totally get how it works. But simplistic of not, this campaign got primarily teens on Tumblr and Facebook to think about one of the world’s bad actors and what might be done about him, and that can’t be all bad.

    I reject this narrative that the campaign constitutes a “theory of change” or even a “bad” theory of change. The notion that the LRA might finally come in from the bush with offers of an amnesty that would avoid them killing any of their child recruits seems dubious at best. Any kind of commando raid also seems fraught with things going awfully awry. But what’s wrong with a campaign that lets the world’s “culture makers” and “political decision makers” (even Stephen Harper!) know that people really, really care and they should try to find a way? It’s like Syria — or anything else.

    What’s wrong with a “narrative” about “ungovernability” in Africa, Ethan? There are parts that are really not governed and where people really suffer tremendously. Why can’t we say that? Can we never say that because we are white? Could we never care about our fellow human beings in ungoverned places in Africa on this basis?! I reject that notion, totally, and won’t be stampeded into political correctness.

    Remember when they couldn’t ever seem to capture Karadzic? And he was in a place more accessible than the African bush. When those kinds of things happen, it’s because the players don’t want it to happen. Governments back figures like that, warlords, opportunistic corrupt people. And perhaps it takes a massive wave of outpouring from children on social media to change the chemistry.

    As for the idea that we can only “empower” local actors blah blah — look, we’re in an interconnected world. “Africa for Africans” is a mantra most often wielded by corrupt and abusive governments. Obama sent 100 advisors there because lots of people wanted something done about this awfulness. Just because it’s awfulness that may be dwindling and may be on it’s last legs doesn’t mean it doesn’t merit a world campaign. And guess what — this is one time the justice elites just didn’t get to say yay or nay, and everybody stepped right over their own incompetence, indifference, and horrid selectivity in choosing some causes over others. Good!

    I’m more worried about the larger aspect to this story that has to do with the “Facebook Nation” stuff that Zuckerberg started peddling a few years ago when he warbled at SWSX to Sarah Lacey about how FB sharing was going to put the FARC on the run in Colombia (!) or prevent young Arab men from becoming terrorists (!!). Only connect, and all will be well, is his betterworld concept.

    I’m not worried only about “simple narratives that cause damages,” I’m worried about a world that has 38 million views (and their likes and shares and chats) on a video, but only 1 million views on the obvious criticism of the cause. That’s not a good coefficient for a liberal democracy; that’s not enough of a corrective as you imply. But then, that’s not what’s being built on Facebook — a liberal democracy with checks and balances.

  6. Shinmin says:

    To simplify or not to simplify is not a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question. It is more about different stages of bringing people’s attention to people’s life in Northern Uganda. Oversimplification has successfully helped Invisible Children to go viral. Now it is time to force supporters to think through this the Kony issue in a more sophisticated way.

  7. Corleone says:

    Let’s act like humans and stop KONY. Help us stop him, use the following link:

  8. Ethan says:

    This piece was posted early Thursday morning. The video continued to gain viewership during the day, and has subsequently continued to gain viewership. The figures I cite were correct when I posted them.

  9. Justin says:

    “A more complex narrative” would continue to confound the world into doing nothing. Attention-based advocacy IS a place to start.

  10. Jay Collier says:

    Does Kony2012 signal a disruption for NGO’s gatekeeper role? After raising awareness, we can now research what’s happening directly. Are jealous NGOs one of the constituencies fighting this campaign, as Catherine Fitzpatrick suggested above?

  11. Catherine says:

    Mateo, please answer me this: what should the average out of touch white westerner do? If your answer is “nothing” then that’s fine. Just say so. If we’re better off NOT having wide awareness and calls to action, that’s a perfectly legitimate position. But if that’s the case, i don’t want to hear holier than thou activists denigrating people for being out of touch when they aren’t paying attention.

    Because that’s what really bothers me, the implicit insult that westerners are both willfully ignorant and too stupid to participate when they want to get engaged. This is a moment to take advantage of the attention (“ride the coattails”) to get people to take positive action. Don’t waste it by calling them dumb.

  12. Jay Collier says:

    Good points, Catherine.

  13. Daniel Kruse says:

    Well, I´m a bit late here to comment ;-) Maybe because I´m a communications guy I see the sheer success and spread of the message as much more important than it´s mostly justified critique. Just two things: In order to be successful, campaign media HAVE TO oversimplify things to offer an emotional entry point for people to pay attention in the first place. Everything else is a damn documentary, not campaigning. IC offers a lot of in-depth information back on their website, where everyone can dig deeper (and yes, now they´ve been forced to make their spendings transparent and face criticism openly!). And secondly, we should never compare one issue against the other – yes, I wish someone would make this video for the people in Syria. But it a 40.000 kids enslaving devil a less worse cause? What means Syria opposed to the threat of climate change? This really leads to nothing, I think.

  14. John Moore says:

    Folks, the bottom line is that Kony will be stopped; and that’s all that IC wanted to do. I received the video from my 34 year old daughter who stays connected with her friends through social media. My first reaction was how cool, somebody has actually developed a disciplined and effective campaign to mobilize people to do the “right thing” re: Kony. My very next move was to research the facts in depth before deciding what was the “right thing” for me to do as an individual. And that’s what really all that IC wanted to accomplish; to mobilize action among individuals and institutions (especially the US Government) expecting that they would inform themselves before taking precipitate action. I’ve now reviewed the Resolve report–3, (have you? – Good!)and consider the action that has been taken and being proposed both appropriate and necessary. Obviously IC is a victim of its own success over the past years, and their original appeal has been overtaken by the very events they stimulated. But the simple fact is that Obama has taken and planned appropriate action and the video will make it impossible for the US not to set the benchmarks by which progess will be measured. The immediate danger IC saw was election year politics derailing the implementation of the regional planning and access needed to stop Kony from returning like the Taliban did in Afghanistan when Cheney took Bush’s eye off the ball. By NOT specifying the “ask”, they enabled and trusted people to do what they could. The circumstances are so complex and dynamic that any specific “ask” would have been paralyzed by differing opinions of what to do – the very discussion going on here. IC’s real brilliance stemmed from knowing what Saul Alinsky knew; don’t ask your people to do anything that’s outside their experience. All people had to do was forward the video, and eventully it would raise the awareness of the right people. Let it be and learn.

  15. mateo says:

    Catherine…I never called anyone dumb! Please don’t put words in my mouth. And please don’t throw names like “holier than thou activists.” My comments never used personal attacks.

    Wide awareness is a good goal. “Westerners” are not too stupid. No one is jealous of IC.

    All that is being asked is that IC think about what they are specifically asking for in their call-to-action. On whom and where are they asking the public to place their attention? And are focal points for the public’s attention the best place for real action? The IC is calling for a military response, when military responses to the LRA did not work in the past. So many people in northern Uganda have expressed a desire to rebuild. Why can’t that be the focus?

    I am not saying that the “white westerners” should do nothing. And no, there was no implicit insult of “white westerners.” No one called “westerners” too ignorant or stupid to participate (at least I didn’t). Why does it always come down to throwing around comments like that? How is this helpful to the dialogue?

    I am saying, treat the public as intelligent, rather than through emotional pleas that fail to tell the full truth accurately. The film could have directed people to more meaningful actions than it does. I am not criticizing ICs effectiveness in gathering people together and motivating them. I am not questioning their genuineness. I am saying that the actions in the call to action are not as deep as they could be. How is it a bad thing to ask that a call to action have deeper actions? How is asking a group of advocates like IC to provide a fuller picture a bad thing? How is asking the IC to not forget about the local activists a bad thing?

    Yes, you are right. This is a moment to ride the coattails to get people to take positive actions. All that is being critiqued is whether or not the actions IC are calling for are actually positive. Shouldn’t all advocacy campaigns critique themselves to see if they are acting in the best interests of others and to explore what are the best courses of action? The millions of people now engaged can become part of this dialogue.

  16. Jason Jay says:

    Invisible Children is largely funded by Waterstone, National Christian Foundation, Malachi 3, and other large national foundations that support hardline antigay, creationist, anti choice, movements. These are the same groups that supported the Government of Uganda’s measures to make homosexuality punishable by death.

    Read it all here:

  17. Pinkovski says:

    Can’t help but to think that what should be done, and where the awareness should be directed at, is at oneself. Demonising Kony won’t help. And that is what people do: they prefer to see the enemy out there, in another country, in another person. REAL consciousness would make you aware of your own duality. And living a conscious life and taking responsibility for your own actions, is far more difficult than to identify a brute in a far off African country and to campaign against him. Thinking locally is important. Nonetheless, action in the real world is essential, and KONY 2012 and this blog post is part of that aspect of change. Just remember, it’s no “either-or” proposition. But this way of thinking is usually very difficult for the human brain to sustain. Currently.

  18. James Gemmell says:

    Professional fund-raisers know that there is a finite amount of disposable income out there for charitable purposes and they are all looking really, really hard for a way to harness social media to tap into those funds.

    I can’t help notice that much of the resentment to this video comes from professional fund-raisers and political activists who seem to be threatened by a new model that might take something away from their causes. Reading many of the comments in the NYT article on this story, one sees that many of the detractors are not individuals reacting but professionals with detailed knowledge on how to read a 990 to see where the money goes. This is fine, one should follow the money. But to criticize this effort as an oversimplification is troublesome. Most activism starts with an oversimplification of a complex issue in order to get more people involved. Development professionals have been doing this for years. Maybe the problem here is that the filmmakers were too successful too quickly.

  19. Ethan says:

    Seth, thanks for this. SOPA was in the back of my mind in bringing up the issue of oversimplification. I was involved with that campaign, and blacked out my personal site, the Civic Media site and one of the GV sites. I do feel like that movement also engaged in oversimplification, and to the extent that I’m having a “crisis of belief”, as you posit, it’s because I’m genuinely trying to figure out what the appropriate balance between simplification to make a message spread, and presenting the full and complex message. I decided to write about the Kony issue both because I was amazed at the rapid spread of the video through social media, and because it seemed like a particularly extreme case to consider, an oversimplification to the point where some of the most basic facts were obscured.

    I think you’re slightly off base in your last sentence. No, it’s not a surprise to me that misinformation spreads on the internet. Yes, I understand that all promotional material – including that of Global Voices or Center for Civic Media, I’m sure – glosses over inconvenient details. Yes, I am well aware that professional manipulators are experiencing great success in this medium. I wrote my post in anticipation of a wave of commentary about IC’s success in raising attention via social media. Given the incredible amount of attention the video – and now the subsequent controversy – has attracted, I anticipated a wave of campaigns using techniques like those IC employed, from the emotional video to the specific call to “action” through influencing celebrity attention. I wanted to put forward a preemptive strike, suggesting that one of the reasons the IC material was so “spreadable”, to use Henry Jenkins’s term, was that it had been simplified to a point where it had a substantial danger of creating unintended consequences. I’m not saying this is the first time media this simplistic has spread well – I do think there’s an interesting open question about whether less simple, more accurate media can spread via these methods.

    Thanks for your comment.

  20. scott says:

    Under threat of death, LRA child soldiers attack villages, shooting and cutting off people’s lips, ears, hands, feet, or breasts, at times force-feeding the severed body parts to victims’ families. Some cut open the bellies of pregnant women and tear their babies out. Men and women are gang-raped. As a warning to those who might report them to Ugandan authorities, they bore holes in the lips of victims and padlock them shut. Victims are burned alive or beaten to death with machetes and clubs. The murderous task is considered properly executed only when the victim is mutilated beyond recognition and his or her blood spatters the killer’s clothing.
    In 2008, Michael Gerson shared this horror story in The Washington Post:
    A friend, the head of a major aid organization, tells how his workers in eastern Congo a few years ago chanced upon a group of shell-shocked women and children in the bush. A militia had kidnapped a number of families and forced the women to kill their husbands with machetes, under the threat that their sons and daughters would be murdered if they refused. Afterward the women were raped by more than 100 soldiers; the children were spectators at their own private genocide.

  21. another useful analysis supporting the fact that oversimplification (& social media hysteria) is harmful:

    Dangerous ignorance: The hysteria of Kony 2012

    The video qualifies as irresponsible advocacy by prompting militarisation and detracting from Uganda’s real problems.

  22. Jonathan says:

    Hey, do you know anything about the group? Apparently not! I personally know many of the people that are involved in Invisible Children. It’s funny how you say that what they are doing is oversimplifying things when that’s what you do in your column. You act like you know who they are when really you just looked up the facts off of Wikipedia. You sit there behind your computer and punch out an analysis of how they are oversimplifying things and how difficult it can be to catch him. You don’t offer any solutions and basically “simply” criticize them for their efforts to bring someone to justice. I’m not impressed and if you are so interested in bringing Yoweri Museveni to justice then why don’t you use your own money, go to Uganda for over 10 years and bring him to justice? Or is that oversimplifying things. Hey folks, let’s sit back and don’t do anything. After all, we don’t want to risk oversimplifying things. Instead of googling all your information and copying it off of Wikipedia how about coming up with some original thoughts? I’m insulted by your simple writing. Get some facts and write another article in which you are offering a solution to the problem. Also, maybe stick to something you know as a fact. That might help. You look like a real idiot acting like you know something about a situation when clearly all you did was google “Invisible Children”. I apologize for exposing you, but I’m sure your a big boy and can handle it. t

  23. Dante says:

    Mr. Zuckerman, this article is extremely well written! I agree whole-heartedly with your viewpoint and assertions regarding Invisible Children and their campaign. Although I am sympathetic to their cause, I am much more interested to see how things play out.

    Well done sir.

  24. Shannon B. says:

    I completely agree with this blog, but then again i agree with a few of the people that had commented and said the best way to fix this problem is to fix the problems in our own backyard. Spending money that isn’t even ours is not going to help the situation. I am an American and i see plenty of horrible things going on here everyday. I understand where people are coming from and most do just want to help in one way or another. People need to stand up an get control back over our government. Then think about helping other people. The video was moving an definitely had a way of capturing audiences. Well the world for that matter. How can anyone think it is a good idea to dump millions of dollars into sustaining people but not rebuilding them or teaching them to depend on themselves? Its like when birds push their babies out of the nest. They need to be able to support themselves. WE NEED TO BE ABLE TO SUPPORT OURSELVES TO HELP THEM.

  25. Jafar says:

    The vast majority of the people commenting on this site need to just chill. Both side have valid points, but are way too entrenched in their own sense of justice that they can not see beyond the trees.

    Those offering critiques could learn from the successes of the IC campaign (I mean seriously, how did they do it?). But the critics are also encouraging us to examine advocacy methods to ensure that the best is being done. Nothing wrong with that. I wish more charities examined themselves in the mirror.

    The supporters of IC, relax! No sense in getting so defensive. Constructive dialogue on both sides is important if the non-profit community is to ever improve upon itself. Yes, the video has accomplished something important, but unless they examine their strategy, they will not be able to build upon the momentum. And if IC does not want to or is not capable of examining themselves in the mirror without feeling attacked, then they are in this work for the wrong reasons. They should look at themselves critically and if they are professionals, would welcome the feedback.

    Rather than direct your anger at bloggers or at the IC, how about reflect on what you can do personally? This is like when Conservatives and Liberals argue over who is more patriotic. Both sides are patriotic, but have different approaches. We need to argue a bit with one another to help us see through the trees, but we can do it with civility. Can’t we?

    I am glad that Ethan and many other bloggers and journalists are discussing Uganda and the IC. Isn’t this after all what “we” wanted? Discussion?

    IC is not the demon in the room, but they are also not the angel.

  26. H.Song says:

    To argue that IC is causing more harm than damage you need to illustrate how the benefits Museveni is reaping from this situation is causing more harm than the harms IC is trying to fight.

    Autesserre’s illustration of the situation of DRC does this job (harm caused by increased rape is larger than the rape the advocacy is reducing). Yours doesn’t (Museveni might be a bad guy but seems to me at least someone we should work with as long as he can help get Kony arrested).

    In addition, I encourage you to take a look at the larger picture. You are having the chance of bringing Museveni to people’s attention only because everyone is because that 30-min clip has sparked the debate. Were it not for IC’s work, Museveni’s atrocities would have remained invisible, as well.

    As far as I know, IC doesn’t endorse this dictator (and that’s probably why you call it an unintended consequence), and as people keep talking, this guy will be pressured by the global attention he is getting and is likely to start to behave.

  27. Jason Jay says:

    Interestingly, northern Ugandans REALLY did NOT LIKE the Invisible Children video. There is a story on Al-Jazeera with accompanying news footage of a screening done in Lira, northern Uganda. The local population had heard so many wonderful things about the film that they wanted a public screening. So a local youth NGO screened the video to a crowd of 35,000 people.

    The screening ended violently as those present became enraged at what they saw as a film completely insensitive to their reality. One woman compared the IC film to someone peddling Osama Bin Laden images to Americans, even if well-intended.

    “The event ended with the angrier members of the audience throwing rocks and shouting abusive criticism, as the rest fled for safety, leaving an abandoned projector, with organisers and the press running for cover until the dust settled,” Webb reports for Al Jazeera.

    Goes to show that even though IC may have had good intention, and even if IC did gain a lot of attention here in the West, they failed at something so incredibly important: they failed to communicate and consult effectively with the community they claim to be helping.

    See Malcolm Webb’s reporting from Uganda here: Ugandans react with anger to Kony video

  28. dan bloom says:

    but Ethan, Jon Naughton quoted you in the Guardian article today and i just wanted to say you LIED, you also
    are not telling the truth. quote you said …’ acamdeics like EZ who have challlenged its simplistic analysis …..etc….”
    well said EThAN,,,,but did you also say on yr criticism that this video was paid for and planned expressly
    as a cOME TO JESUS event fort he missionary group behind it…THAT has not come out…why are you afriad to say the truth?


  29. dan bloom says:

    Invisible Children is a US-based CHRSTIAN MISSI(ONMARYU advocacy organization

  30. IC : Win, based on the 180 posts discussing the point in question, following the blog.

  31. Invisible Children are doing their “job” and filling a role that honestly, Global Voices never could. And you, with responses like this, are doing your “job” and providing an opportunity for those who are ready to look deeper at the problems and solutions.
    It seems perfect to me, and I wish this could happen without all the criticism of Invisible Children. Jason’s breakdown yesterday has made me regret that this has tuned south for him. I am confused by the tendency for activists to completely dismiss Jason and IC. You’ve clearly not done this, but this thoughtful blog post has been used as ammunition for many others who want to do nothing more than dismiss Jason and IC and tell the rest of the world that they can forget about that inauthentic disney-ified movement and go back to their apathy!

  32. Marisol says:

    The real villain in this story is the economic underdevelopment and lack of infrastructure in the region. This makes it impossible to apprehend Kony, or prevent the emergence of future Konys, who are an inevitable outgrowth of the economic desperation and primitive conditions. Let me be so bold as to suggest that if the ICC were legitimately concerned about human rights, they would put on trial the officials of the IMF and World Bank who have demanded austerity measures from African governments, and extracted capital from them to feed a global speculators’ bubble.

  33. Sam Gregory says:

    Hi Ethan – great post, that left me thinking through much of the following week of hoopla. I’ve posted on the WITNESS Blog on the question of when ‘simple is too simple’ and the ethics of representation and agency – and how we balance that with a real understanding of how video and advocacy operate (and the undeniable success of a group like Invisible Children in mobilizing and organizing its constituents offline and online).

    Here are some thoughts from the blog on when ‘simple is too simple’

    *Simple is too simple when oversimplifying the problem leads to modeling the wrong solutions or to counter-productive impacts for the people who are directly affected.
    *Simple is too simple if the initial action participants are asked to take is not followed by a next step in a ladder of engagement (and I would note that Invisible Children explicitly notes the video is a ‘first entry point’ to engagement).
    *Simple is too simple when it models a solution that misdirects an audience’s understanding of the systemic causes of an issue (two analyses here of this in the context of Kony 2012 are presented by Ethan again, and Conor Cavanagh).
    *Simple is too simple when a simple entry point does not allow viewers/participants to easily drill down and engage with more complexity (see Lana Swartz’s working paper on this potential for ‘drillability’ in transmedia campaigns)
    *Simple is too simple when it perpetuates stereotypes (for example, a ‘rescue’ approach) or reinforces the lack of agency in situations where agency has already been assaulted by the human rights violations themselves. At the root of human rights work is human dignity.
    *Simple is too simple for a single human rights video when it misstates facts, uses footage or interviews out of context, or when it breaches ethical ideas on representation, particularly when that compromises people’s dignity and safety.

    All these are important if we are to make clearer distinctions between ethical advocacy work and advertising or propaganda.

  34. Ethan,

    Thank you so much for your detailed post on Joseph Kony and the situation in Uganda. I really appreciate your offer of context and thought on a complex issue. Having been a life long propaganda maker, my fascination with the success of Kony 2012 is slightly different.
    However I do believe the debate and the conversation that has been generated is of value. We are a citizen of the world, we should make a practice to be more concerned and more aware. Thank you again for your thoughts and the post.


  35. Invisible Children: Doesn’t anyone recall Marshall McLuhan’s THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE?

  36. cheryl says:

    As an African born and bred in South Africa I can tell you that a lot of these movements for help are a waste of time and monry. The corruption runs very deep, especailly when there is so much pverty. I have seen may United Nations food rations being sold and small shops when they were meant as donations to the poor. Research carefully before donating your money because there ARE good charities that work in Africa. Doctors without borders is a FANTASTIC organisation where the money goes to the right place. Another really good oen is GIFT OF THE GIVERS. Run by a muslim group out of South Africa. Check them out if you are nervous of donating to Muslims-considering the issues in Sudan etc. They are very well know in S.A and donate millions of dollars worth of food and negotiate hostage release etc. basically – do your research, there are good organisations out there but there are also a lot of thieves!

  37. Larry Bremer says:

    You are a thoughtful polite person. Your dissection of KONY2012 misses by a mile. You link and unlink ideas and notions which clouds all. Like it our not, IC rebuilds schoold in Uganda. The average Ugandan wishes for Goverment change in Uganda. (don’t expect Uganda to praise anything American. Like it or not the AFRICAN UNION has reallied 5000 troops to round up KONY. Like it or not the US pols continued to discuss and agree and raise awareness, constantly speaking out for support of IC. Like it or not IC has a factory in Uganda and employs workers. Like it or not IC is scholarshipping 500 high school kids and 250 college kids. like it or not theyvebeen raising awareness for eight years. your comments miss so much. What is striking is that of the hundred million people who are now aware of the effort about a third of a million people can write and blog, and complain, and cut the legs out of the IC people. if you ask the IC – they will tell you that the most disturbing aspect of the success of KONY2012 and IC is that hundreds of thousands of people are prepared to disparage the nine year effort of creative people who care, who act, who take a stand.
    oversimplification? what’s so bad about a trial for the most wanted person (most wanted by the ICC)ask a maimed.

  38. Larry Bremer says:

    ‘musing’ is correct.

  39. Julie says:

    Awareness of a problem is the first step to solving it. I am more educated about the problems in Africa because of Kony 2012. Your blog post is another example of how I can learn more about the real, deeper issues involved.

    I realize that many people will not dig deeper, but I personally am much more informed about what is going on over there than I was before the Kony Video. Raising awareness is the starting point for any cause. Now that we know, we can dig deeper by reading, researching, and discussing with each other.

    Your post is one more valuable piece of the larger picture. I applaud the efforts of Invisible Children for getting people thinking about it, and you and others like you for spreading the word of the bigger picture.

  40. Claudia says:

    Thankyou, Ethan, for such a nuanced and comprehensive description of the situation in Central Africa, and the Kony 2012 campaign. It seems to me that we tend to veer between absolute faith in social media and its potential for activism, and a total rejection of the medium as shallow and uninformative. I truly believe it can fulfil both of these objectives, if only we are vigilant in our viewing of videos like Kony 2012. As a 17 year old, i watched so many of my friends be won over by the soaring violins and the smart info graphics: even though we live in an image saturated world, these rhetorical devices still hold enormous impact. I can’t help thinking what might have happened had a film like Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ gone viral instead of Kony. Would the world have been a different place? Maybe, maybe not. The point is that social media is extremely powerful, and we have to be wary of the potential for the online community to be manipulated.

  41. lars says:

    Wow – here we are months later, Kony is still free. and back the and forth,the questions are asked, and analyzed. But what is consistent is that IC is still advocating, and bringing the issue to the surface. Here is NYC you can kill somebody in 1960 and thirty years later, if evidence surfaces, the NYC police department will follow the lead and bring you to justice. If not for IC, who will follow Kony and his cohorts and bring him to justice? why is IC’s work questionable? what about all of the efforts IC undertakes in Uganda? like it or not over the last few years IC scholarships hundreds of High School kids. IC scholarships hundreds of college kids. IC councils affected. IC employs. (here and in Uganda). I can’t help but think the narrow critics, the narrow views, and all of the negatives really are pointless wasted effort.

  42. sylvia says:

    I don’t think that “Kony 2012″ caused more harm then good. People trying to change the world for the better is the most important aspect of this film. Every one should be more aware of what is going on around the world and stand up for those in need. To make a claim that “Kony 2012″ pushed Joseph Kony into hiding is a little far fetched.I believe Kony would have gone into hiding the moment something threatened his power. What forced Kony into hiding is not important, but that some day he should be caught.
    Also, having gotten America’s attention in Uganda, perhaps our soldiers can change their governments belief’s to make a better Uganda.
    – Sylvia Urdangaray


  1. Perils of the Echo Chamber « C-Notes - [...] release. The overwhelming attention of this video created a fever-pitch conversation that exposed other points of view. In this moment, we were …
  2. Kony 2012 – Agit Prop on Speed | - [...] To examine that question, we first have to understand what has captured the attention of people.  I doubt it’s …
  3. KONY 2012 Overview « Revisiting the Kony 2012 Campaign - [...] in 2004 by Bobbi Bailey, laren Poole and Jason Russle.. The Invisible Children organisation had already produced 11 videos, …
  4. Local Kids Fight African Warlord Kony ‹ Voice of San Diego - [...] The video has been met with strong backlash. Writers have criticized it for exaggeration, soft bigotry and hypocrisy, Reuters …
  5. Week 1. Introduction to a Contested Concept [Historical outlook in a nutshell] « Global, Digital Media: Building Communities - [...] communications and development, his work would be seminal for you. Also, here’s his famous unpacking of the KONY2012 advocacy …
  6. Kony 2012 – Agit Prop on Speed | Jen Schradie - [...] To examine that question, we first have to understand what has captured the attention of people.  I doubt it’s …
  7. …My heart’s in Accra » What Ancient Greek rhetoric might teach us about new civics - [...] received a massive amount of attention – Invisible Children’s Kony2012 campaign – is one that I’ve been very critical …
  8. Kony 2012: The Worst Case Scenario - [...] of experienced researchers, and a surprising number [...]
  9. Kony 2012: success of failureSocial Media and Development | Social Media and Development - [...] son Gavin and I found it quite disturbing too. Ethan Zuckerman in has fantastic blog post ‘Unpacking Kony 2012′ …
  10. Nate Silver and the best media writing of 2012 « John Bracken - [...] mundane march of progress in poor countries is what “awareness” campaigns often miss.” Ethan Zuckerman’s post stands as a key …
  11. Look Who’s Talking: Non-Profit Newsmakers in the New Media Age - [...] with the facts. Who wins between HRW’s dense reports and Kony 2012’s slick documentaries? (See Ethan’s post on Kony2012 …
  12. …My heart’s in Accra » Beyond “The Crisis in Civics” – Notes from my 2013 DML talk - [...] are acutely aware of the dynamics of social media. Invisible Children’s KONY2012 campaign was flawed in many ways, but …
  13. Personal Media Reflection 5: Who’s driving the Kony 2012 social media bandwagon? | New Spaces - [...] Zuckerman’s blog post “Unpacking Kony 2012” and the many comments – some quite heated – in response to Zuckerman’s …
  14. Collective Action – Kony 2012 | Contemplation Road - [...] second part of this week’s discussion was Ethan Zuckerman’s response to the Kony21012 video. I believe Zuckerman raises many …
  15. What can we learn from Kony 2012? | I Can Go Without - [...] been lauded as the most successful viral video campaign, ever and criticized as misleading, oversimplified, even racist. Before we continue with this, here’s a …
  16. What Ancient Greek Rhetoric Might Teach Us About New Civics | Engl 335, Rhetoric and Writing - [...] that’s received a massive amount of attention -– Invisible Children’s Kony2012 campaign -– is one that I’ve been very …
  17. An anniversary, a reflection | ... My heart’s in Accra - […] and a refugee situation described by a UN official as “worse than Iraq”. Ironically, the most visited blogpost I’ve …
  18. Video Advocacy – Using Cameras for Peace | NECRblog - […] is this video about Joseph Kony.  It went viral with a huge number of hits.  But some people had …
  19. Micro-blogging musings | Preservice Teacher Weblog - […] academic Ethan Zuckerman assembled a comprehensive critique of Invisible Children and their campaign on his blog. Zuckerman’s primary criticism of the […]
  20. What caused the KONY 2012 video to go viral? | Open your eyes. - […] Zuckerman, E. (2012, 8 March) Unpacking Kony 2012. Ethan Zuckerman’s online home. Retrieved September 28th, 2014, from […]
  21. Inside Invisible Children’s massive grassroots network - How “Roadies” built a movement to fight LRA violence - […] praise and a heap of donations, nearly twice as much as the organization raised in 2011, but also an …
  22. Kony 2012: Success or Failure? | Dev Research - […] son Gavin and I found it quite disturbing too. Ethan Zuckerman in has fantastic blog post ‘Unpacking Kony 2012′ describes the campaign as …
  23. The invisible lesson of Invisible Children | SomTribune | Daily Horn News & Updates - […] that we needed to learn how to use social media as effectively as Invisible Children, but with more integrity. …

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