Swat STAND on the Mixed Message of KONY2012

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Last Tuesday, I woke up at 7 a.m. only to discover that I was already behind on the news: My Facebook newsfeed was inundated with chatter about some “KONY2012” affair.  Along with now over 73 million others, I gave into my curiosity and watched the full thirty-minute video, detailing the not-for-profit Invisible Children’s establishment and the atrocities committed by a Ugandan guerilla group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), under leadership of Joseph Kony.

As a member of STAND, a national student organization focused on mass atrocities education and advocacy, I was astounded by the overwhelming and instantaneous popularity of the video.  Not only were the usual policy wonks sharing and weighing in on the video, but friends of all penchants and proclivities, from my high school classmate’s twelve-year old sister to my regular lunch crew.  The ability of Invisible Children and their video to inspire so many people to learn about, discuss, and act on a previously obscure international human rights issue is absolutely incredible and laudable.  Their message was clear and direct, and their use of YouTube, Facebook, and other social media to deliver it demonstrated a formidable example of how to effectively harness popular culture and put it to work on a social and political cause.

However, I, along with many of my compatriots in STAND, also have a sizeable list of diverse concerns over Invisible Children’s campaign on Facebook and beyond.  First, in addition to its clarity and directness, the video also significantly oversimplifies a very complex crisis, perhaps exemplified by the ability of the director’s young child to understand “the conflict” in a matter of minutes.  In contrast, the LRA insurgency to which the video refers is one of the longest-running conflicts in Africa (26 years), and is also a relatively mobile one, with violence occurring in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Central African Republic (CAR), and (now South) Sudan.  The LRA left Uganda in 2006.  Moreover, in the video’s emphatic condemnation of Joseph Kony’s actions as head of the LRA, it seriously underrepresents the notable human rights abuses of its proclaimed “good guys,” the Ugandan army and Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, each of which have repeatedly been accused of rape, looting, and murder.

Second, the video drastically underrepresents Ugandan or other African-national voices.  While Invisible Children states on its website that 95% of its leadership and staff on the ground are Ugandan, few of them are given space to discuss the conflict in the video, and no mention is made at all of Invisible Children’s local partners or Ugandan diaspora and civil society organizations working on the issue.  In this way, the video perpetuates a savior complex, or “the white man’s burden,” in that only Western — and within this category, mostly white — people are presented working for change and having the ability to affect change with regard to this very non-Western conflict.

Third, the effectiveness of the actions Invisible Children asks the video’s viewers to take is not promising.  To review, Invisible Children hopes to keep attention on the conflict so that policy makers don’t revoke current governmental support for the Ugandan army, in the form of financial assistance, military personnel, and critical technology.  In order to do this, the organization calls on its audience to pressure twenty “culturemakers” and twelve “policymakers” through Tweeting at them, writing letters, and making phone calls.  Additionally, the video asks its audience to raise public awareness about Kony by sharing the video, participating in an overnight flyering event (“Cover the Night”), and purchasing its action kit, which includes various posters, stickers, and bracelets.  Ultimately, Invisible Children’s focus on “getting Kony” as the sole necessity to ending the conflict undermines understanding of the complex environment created by a long-running conflict, and neglects many other social and political issues that also threaten regional peace.  This aside, however, asking politicians simply not to undo what they’ve already done and intensifying Kony’s public image are likely not effective means to ending his stubborn 26-year reign.

Conversely, the International Crisis Group released a thorough report on this conflict in November of 2011, which did describe further actions that the US, in particular, can be take to promote progress toward conflict resolution.  These primarily involve heightened diplomatic efforts in the form “support[ing] AU [African Union] political leadership in word and deed and ensur[ing] all its interventions, civilian and military, complement those the AU plans to make in the near future.”  The report does reference the need to “muster and maintain political will,” but rather than US political will, it refers to ensuring the “full political commitment of Uganda, the DRC, the CAR and South Sudan to a military operation that seeks to eliminate the LRA while ensuring civilian safety.”  The report suggests that Washington “should appoint its own special envoy for the Great Lakes region to collaborate closely with the AU [African Union]” and should “be prepared to scale down military and other aid if the four [AU] presidents do not demonstrate that will.”  In all of these suggestions, there is great potential for civilians to engage in productive political activism by calling for new and progressive action from our government.

Ultimately, I firmly believe that the conversations that have and continue to arise out of the KONY2012 phenomenon are equally if not more fruitful than the video itself, in that they are building a stronger and more informed activist community, critical of itself and the way it collectively works on the issues it values.  For this reason, Swarthmore STAND will host a campus-wide viewing of the KONY2012 video followed by a critical discussion of its strengths and weaknesses, ideally engendering a deeper understanding of the conflict it addresses and ways in which those interested can continue to engage with this cause in a productive and effective manner.  Please join us!

Campus-Wide Discussion of KONY2012
Thursday, March 15th, Kohlberg 115
4:30-5pm: Video showing
5-6pm: Discussion
Refreshments will be provided!


  1. I recently read (another) criticism of the KONY campaign that I’d never considered. How does KONY 2012 also perpetuate this image of Uganda as yet another African state to be afraid of, and to reject its integration into the world market?

    “Uganda was voted by Lonely Planet amongst the top destinations for 2012 but has this NGO just undone the potential for Uganda’s tourism?” asks Ida Horner, a Ugandan expat who remembers well a much harsher life under Idi Amin. “After all the tourism industry provides a real opportunity for Ugandans to work their way out of poverty through providing services that tourists want to consume.”

    I mean, this partly sounds like a Ugandan government plug, but all the same, something else to think about.

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