A Response to Kony 2012

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Like many others, I awoke this morning to find my Facebook wall plastered with KONY 2012 logos and heartfelt pleas to help spread the message. Now, for those who don’t know me, I’m very much a cynic, but I like to think that I do give everything a fair chance. I simply choose to live solidly by the mantra ‘question everything’, and when I see flashy slogans and buzzwords suddenly flying in about such a complex issue as child soldiers, alarm bells start ringing.

I’m not going to write a piece about the very real and detailed criticism that’s already been levelled at the Invisible Children campaign. There’s plenty of it out there for those interested, written by people who know what they’re talking about, and covering such diverse topics as how they support a corrupt military, their organisation’s sketchy finances, and much broader concerns about US foreign policy.

Instead, I’m going to try to keep this grass roots and as relevant to Southampton students as I can.

A few months ago, we had on campus a very large and well publicised campaign advocating the removal of Nestlé products from the union store. This campaign was based on well-established evidence and was thoroughly focused on university life. It didn’t set out to change the world. Any action that would have been taken because of it would have been largely symbolic. Its aims were small, yet very specific.

Through the course of their campaign, the organisers tried very hard to inform the student body. That is to say, they weren’t tied up with slogans or hype; they were ultimately trying to get people to research the issue for themselves, to develop opinions and engage with each other. They held film nights and were very forward about their sources.

And yet, what happened? Their motion was thrown out, and we had such debacles as this article and the provocative actions of the victors passing around KitKats at the AGM.

I noticed something interesting while this was going on. Through platforms such as Facebook, it became clear to me that a lot of people saw the actions of the organisers as a personal attack on themselves. They didn’t like facing up to the uncomfortable truth of what Nestlé get up to, but rather than sympathising with the victims, they chose to lash out at those who were making a lot of noise about it. This is understandable. People don’t like to admit that they’re wrong.

Fast forward to this morning and we have those same people championing an issue that they probably hadn’t heard of yesterday. What are Invisible Children doing that’s so different to cause such a radical response? I’d argue it’s this: dumbing down.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t for one second mean that the people who are supporting this campaign are stupid. Nor that they have anything less than good intentions. My beef is with Invisible Children, and I’d like to take a very brief look at a couple parts of their campaign that I feel are most worrying.

Firstly it’s this: they purport to promote a very real, very specific solution that busy people around the world can bring about simply by sharing their video. Their reasoning is this: if people spread their work, the US government will take notice of ‘what the people want’, and thus continue to provide military intervention in Uganda, which will in turn lead to the arrest of Joseph Kony and an end to the prevalence of child soldiers in that country.

Political opinions aside, I take issue with this for a very specific reason: they completely leave out the fact that the arrest of Joseph Kony will require the death of many of his child soldiers. Whether this is a necessary evil or not isn’t the point, the fact is that they refuse to mention it at all. They attempt to take from their supporters the ability to consider and decide for themselves whether this aspect of their solution is viable or not. For me, this is the purposeful misdirection of the public, and that is something that can never be supported, no matter what the issue.

My second problem is with their use of advertising. Specifically, with this poster. This is an association that is also made in their most recent video. Whatever else he may be, Joseph Kony is not Adolf Hitler, and he is not Osama Bin Laden.

Tapping in to the inherent fear and anger that is associated with these men is dangerous and it is misleading. The situation in Uganda is an incredibly complicated and unique one. Attempting to ignore all that and simply plastering the man with words like ‘evil’ and ‘tyrant’ serves to erase the voices of those who are the real sufferers in all this. And they are who I feel are ultimately hurt by the actions of Invisible Children. Because there is not just one Joseph Kony doing this; there are many. It is a problem that spans families, local towns and international policy. Dumbing down the issue to allow ease of consumption directly harms those that Invisible Children claim to be attempting to help. And that is why I feel the need to speak out.

So yes, I do think it’s a fantastic thing to see so many people promote an issue. I do not for one second mean to criticise that. But I do feel that what is needed is critical consumption and intelligent activism. I do not claim to have the answers to Uganda’s problems. However, I do feel that if even half of the millions of people who have already shared these videos were to critically engage with the issues, and to discuss their findings with each other, then real solutions would be found.

Education, rather than marketing, is what’s needed. As hard as it may be to accept, it takes more than a Facebook ‘like’ to bring about real change.

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Discussion14 Comments

  1. avatar

    The Nestle campaign set a good precedent at Southampton Uni for other organizers to try and educate students and their representatives when it comes to campaigns. While I’m not going to comment on campaigning tactics or the behaviour of their opponents, it was an issue which ultimately failed because it didn’t become a part of public consciousness. With this in mind, I don’t think you can really compare Kony to a very localized Students Union campaign.

    Kony is an issue which yes, though some clever marketing and timing – has become an issue that has reached public consciousness, hence the viral reach it has had. It has done this through tampering into different imagery and emotions; both positive and negative which make it a successful message.

    In an age where political awareness and knowledge about our democracy’s institutions is just about average (See here: http://hansardsociety.org.uk/blogs/parliament_and_government/archive/2011/03/30/audit-of-political-engagement-8.aspx) I would say that your charge of “dumbing down” a political issue such as this is unfair and also a little unrealistic if you expected it to be in another way. I’m not saying we should celebrate ignorance and not educating people through campaigns, but getting individuals to sign up to a campaign or policy debate in the first place is incredibly difficult even when you simplify the message. Don’t quote me – but having someone pay attention to you talking about politics for 30 seconds is “good” but with this video keeping individual’s attention for 30 minutes is a miracle!

    We should not ask the public to engage in rigorous intellectual debate if they don’t want to or don’t have the time. However, we can’t discount them completely as they are the demos in our democracy. As such, adapting our politics and campaigns to encourage users to cross the threshold of awareness on a political issue does start with a facebook like or share. All political issues and contexts are unique and complicated and as such making it simple to encourage users to participate in a debate is a good thing. Once this occurs, then we can have a discussion with each other and find solutions to problems.

    In this case, the aim is to send a clear message to elected representatives that people do care about this issue. Mass activism of this scale will make elected politicians pay attention to it and then debate it as an issue. So if you’re still worried about proper political analysis and debate, then be patient and it will come. In the meantime, let us set a precedent to those in power that we do care and we will shine a light on what you’re doing.

    Hannah North
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    Got to agree with Jonathan on this one. This video and the surrounding campaign may have allowed some people to feel like an activist without researching the surrounding issues or even leaving their chair. But it’s also sparked a global conversation.

    Journalists everywhere are exploring the problems in Uganda and evaluating the solutions. Some people have just watched the video and that’s fine, they’re not going to be making any vital policy decisions. The aim of this campaign is to raise awareness, in one day they’ve got the world talking about something important.

    Comprehensively educating every internet user who mentioned Kony 2012 is a little demanding, it’s been one day. Claiming Invisible Children are hurting people in Uganda seems unnecessary and innaccurate. They are shining a light on a forgotten issue and encouraging people to voice their concerns.

    Their petition does not demand war or misdirect the public. It supports an international effort to arrest a war criminal. Liking something on facebook may not bring about real change and a charity pub quiz isn’t going to cure cancer, but it’s a start.

    Anon
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    It does misdirect the public, IC aren’t regarded well in Uganda (they’ve given money to the ugandan army). We all pat ourselves on the back for being informed, but there is already a global conversation about Kony and attempts have been made to capture him.

    Ben Whipp
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    Don’t get me wrong guys, I think it’s fantastic that they’ve brought so much attention to an issue in such a short space of time. However, I don’t view public awareness of an issue and complexity of argument as two mutually exclusive things. I’m concerned that in reducing a problem down to it’s most consumable, shareable, ‘likeable’ form Invisible Children risks harming those they’re trying to help. Spending more time explaining some of the nuances of the situation in Uganda may alienate or bore some, but ultimately I feel we shouldn’t always cater to the lowest common denominator when it comes to these sorts of things. At the end of the day, who do we want to make life easier for: the Ugandan children, or the people ‘liking’ the video?

    That being said, I am hopeful that the amount of awareness they’ve brought about will lead to larger debates of the issues, and I hope my article goes some way towards being a part of that, however small. My concerns are that Invisible Children aim to do more than raise awareness, though others have criticised the practical side of their work already far better than I could.

    As for the Nestle association, I simply found it interesting how it was the same group of people championing Kony 2012 that were decrying the Nestle banning a few months ago. Maybe this is just local to my friend group, I don’t know. Thanks for the comments anyway!

    Luke Goodger
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    I would mention that the funding of the Ugandan army by IC actually worsens the problem, the Ugandan army is mostly corrupt and violent. Financing them is really financing a viscous cycle of repression and violence which creates figures like Kony.

  2. avatar

    Nothing like a bit of Soton Tab bashing to tie into the cause. You’ll probably not have seen their take on it all a whole hour before this article: http://sotontab.co.uk/pictures/2012/03/07/kony-2012-is-it-all-its-cracked-up-to-be/

    I agree that it is the wrong way to publicise an issue, but in a way they don’t care about the money its all about the publicity. This’ll be in the papers tomorrow and an item to be flagged up that people care about it. In my eyes thats a successful marketing campaign a la MPH (oxfam + aging rock stars)

    However i do feel that trying to tie it into the Nestle debate and the attitude you have taken towards the stance we took at the time is wrong. We opposed that motion as it came about without informing the student body or attempting to make them aware. Only a select few people knew it was happening, we found out by chance. Yes they did run campaigns to inform people, but only after several council meetings that went in circles. Maybe what Nestle do is wrong, but the case in point was a removal of choice. If it had been done sensibly, and informed about nestle then said howd you like to make a statement it might have gained our backing rather then bolting the door after the horse of change had bolted. Taking a dig at the Soton tab and its readership is of very small use in this article and actually slightly undermines what is a well written argument imho

    Ben Whipp
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    I didn’t mean to bash the tab, my criticism was aimed specifically at the article mentioned. I count myself in their readership and yes, I have read Liv’s article. I liked it a lot, hence why I’ve shared it with others.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think they’ve done a great thing to publicise the issue. I’m just very sceptical of them as a company, and of their methods. I’m not a believer that any publicity is good publicity, and I’m concerned that their efforts may ultimately be pushing the real victims and their voices out of the limelight, in favour of something a lot more marketable and ‘consumer friendly’.

    I tie in the Nestle debate simply because I noticed it was the same people championing Kony2012 now that were bashing it most at the time. I just found it an interesting role reversal. Glad you liked the article though, thanks for the comment!

  3. avatar

    Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Kony 2012 intervention – and it’s right that these are discussed critically and seriously, with multiple opinions expressed – I’ll say only this: anyone who can produce a half-hour video about a political issue that I (a Politics graduate) hadn’t heard about before and make it a viral hit on social media has pulled off something absolutely astonishing.

    Ben Whipp
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    Totally agree, they’ve definitely got the issue circulating. I’m just worried they’ve got people talking about the wrong things, or more specifically, are trying to lead people to see their own company and solution as the only one. I hope that out of this better solutions are found, and that the voices of those who have been most hurt by Kony and his like are given an equal platform as the heads of Invisible Children.

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    I have several issues with the Kony 2012 campaign, but my main one is the idea that arresting Kony is the solution. Kony is on the ICC list because the Ugandan government, who are also guilty of atrocities, referred him. When the ICC arrest warrant was issued it pushed Kony away from the Juba peace talks- because why would he come out of bush to sit around a table when he knows he is going to be arrested? By pursuing justice before securing peace the conflict was perpetuated. Research has been done in northern Uganda showing the majority of the people would rather have peace than Kony on trial whilst the conflict continues.

  5. avatar

    I concur with Ben Whipp, Kony has been there, I have had articles written about him in the local newspapers over the years like many others. The child soldiers are victims just like the people they have butchered, they are rebels without a choice.
    But most important is eliminating Kony and not just commercializing his fate or the fate of the children. The government of Uganda must have the capacity to eliminate Kony and rescue these Kids afterall they are in Somalia fighting Alshabab. How can you claim to be able to liberate another country when you can not liberate your own, the children, the future. Otherwise we are just mercerneries in Somalia.

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