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The Kony Controversy: Activism, “Slacktivism,” or Misinformed?

“It’s hard to look back on some parts of human history. Because when we heard about injustice, we cared, but we didn’t know what to do. Too often we did nothing.”
So says Jason Russell, the primary filmmaker behind the newest activism-inciting viral video, “Kony 2012.” The video, produced by San Diego-based NGO Invisible Children, is a call to action for the youngest, technologically-fixated generation of activists.
Invisible Children’s campaign is posed as an experiment of sorts that follows in the footsteps of last year’s Arab Spring uprisings: Can a population inundated in the current age of social media globalization change the world in ways that would not have been feasible even ten years ago?
The cause, as the much-watched video portrays it, is an important one. Joseph Kony formed the Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA, 25 years ago in Uganda during a tumultuous political environment. Ever since, the LRA has allegedly terrorized the people of Uganda, abducting children to use as child soldiers or sex slaves, forcing them to murder and mutilate even their loved ones. Since 1987, they have moved from Uganda into South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Kony was the first individual indicted by the International Criminal Court, a global tribunal established in 2002 in order to prosecute those who commit genocide, crimes against humanity, wars crimes, and crimes of aggression.

“Kony 2012” outlines several steps for viewers to take in order for Kony to be arrested by the Ugandan army and tried for his crimes in 2012. In order for American specialists to remain in Uganda, helping the army to locate him, the United States government must be aware of widespread public support behind their efforts. With this in mind, Invisible Children urges viewers to make Kony a household name. Efforts will culminate in “Cover the Night.” On April 20th, supporters will plaster posters of Kony all over major American cities, covering them with Kony’s name. In the morning, every city dweller in the United States will be confronted with Kony and his crimes, as well as their own ignorance and apathy.
Since it was released last week, the video has been watched by over 77,000,000 people on youtube, received celebrity endorsements from the likes of Angelina Jolie and Oprah, and inspired numerous local campaigns to “Cover the Night,” including one here at Brandeis.
Yet despite its initial buzz, the KONY 2012 campaign is already facing a substantial backlash. Invisible Children’s video elicits strong emotional reactions in those who view it, to be sure. But although many were moved to action after watching it, many more still saw through what they view as “propaganda.” They have criticized what they view as an overly-simplistic and sensationalistic attempt at publicity. Although the video frames Kony as a ruthless criminal without any motivation beyond the advancement of his own power, the reality of Uganda’s political history is much more complex and raises questions about both Kony’s and the United States’ intentions. In addition, the voices of actual Ugandans, those most affected by the LRA’s violence, are strangely absent from Invisible Children’s discourse. Online reactions from Ugandans, however, have not been positive, citing their ambivalence about Invisible Children’s motives. Others are dubious of the campaign’s apparent message that only Western outsiders are able to solve the problems of central Africa, denying its inhabitants’ agency.

As the debate rages online, April 20th continues to draw nearer. Whether you ultimately decide to “cover the night” or to disapprovingly stand by, the most important action you can take is to research the issues at hand. It’s complicated, but an informed choice will enable you to look beyond facebook sound bites and discern for yourself where exactly you stand. In order to face an increasingly information-dominated age, the ability to make an informed decision will be vital. Begin now or be left wondering what you should have been doing on April 20, 2012.
For more information, visit Invisible Children: http://www.invisiblechildren.com/ and Visible Children: http://visiblechildren.tumblr.com/.

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