let’s talk about kony

On Monday, the human rights advocacy organization Invisible Children released “KONY 2012,” its latest documentary on the nine year-old student movement to end mass atrocities by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). In approximately twenty-four hours, the Kony documentary received more than one hundred thousand views on YouTube; when I last checked (2 am EST, 3/7/12), Kony-related hashtags occupied six of Twitter’s ten “global trending” spots (the hashtags, in order: #stopkony, the leading campaign hashtag; Invisible Children; Action Kit, the primary platform for anti-LRA activism; Cover the Night, referring to an upcoming national wave of guerilla flyering events; Uganda, the LRA’s country of origin; and, lastly, LRA). Depending on whose Twitter account you’re watching, whose Facebook friend appears in your live feed, and whose listserv emails you receive, Kony fervor has likely occupied a fair share of your evening’s Internet traffic. Suffice it to say that the Kony documentary has mobilized a remarkable wave of emotional uproar, from the most remarkable constituencies: on any given day, I see a handful of Facebook updates about human rights in sub-Saharan Africa; today, the numbers are in the tens, potentially hundreds–from STAND students, as expected, but also from my younger brother’s high school friends and Facebook acquaintances from esoteric Jewish advocacy retreats.

To add a fifth question to the Passover repertoire, why is this night different from all other nights? Why, on this night of all nights, do we post human rights videos throughout the social media sphere?

From an organizing perspective, the answer is simple: Invisible Children’s messaging, narrative, and network resonate with us. Organizing literature refers to the entry-narrative as the “story of self”–that is, the compelling, values-based narrative that motivates activists, organizers, and otherwise passive citizens to action. The most effective “story of self” I’ve heard comes from Kristen Dore, a curriculum specialist at the Marshall Ganz-inspired New Organizing Institute: Kristen tells the story of her college experiences visiting her father in prison, building a local, engaged constituency for prisoners’ rights in southern California. Kristen’s story evokes values of fairness, justice, and community, values which mobilize concerned activists the world over. Kristen uses her story to underline her participation in something larger than herself–in her case, President Obama’s 2008 campaign. In building a temporary, values-based constituency (her active listeners), Kristen mobilizes a “story of us” and a “story of now”: a way to recognize the broader community’s role in local mobilization, and a way to convey the urgency of political action.

Invisible Children’s Kony documentary is an organizing narrative, to a tee. From a purely quantitative perspective, KONY 2012 is not about the LRA, Joseph Kony, or political violence in northern Uganda. Rather, it’s a story of one man (Jason Russell, Invisible Children’s co-founder and the documentary’s director), scaled up to the story of common humanity (young students, mobilizing their communities in support of justice, human rights, and peace in northern Uganda) and the urgency of active action against LRA atrocities in Central Africa (“This movie expires on December 31, 2012”). Invisible Children’s effectiveness as a grassroots organization stems from this fundamental, narrative pattern: it’s about atrocities, yes, but more than that, it’s about what our mobilization against these atrocities suggests about our common virtues, transnational connections, and moral strength. Invisible Children’s success is predicated upon its ability to convey these stories, to manifest individual challenges within a broader narrative, and to maximize the political, social, and organizational potential of a transnational voice.

As my angry Twitter timeline suggests, Invisible Children’s public narrative relies on basic, nigh unavoidable failings. Let’s start with the flip-side of the human rights coin: the recognition that, despite their constructed nature, perceived ethnic, cultural, and historical boundaries exist across nations, states, and physical borders. Colonialism’s historical baggage matters, and the competition for voice-representation is, for all intents and purposes, a zero-sum game. Ugandan civil society participants, particularly the ones engaged in the non-Invisible Children-affiliated reconstruction, reconciliation, and post-conflict development work, are noticeably absent from Jason Russell’s narrative. In two and a half years of grassroots advocacy work, I’ve met enough intelligent, morally sensible advocates to know that monolithic accusations of neo-colonialism, Africa-saving, and cultural condescension are, frankly, tripe. At the same time, we’re not doing enough to define the terms of empowerment, to balance our advocacy perspectives with an understanding of civil society mobilization in conflict-affected areas, and to establish meaningful, sustained cross-cultural linkages that prioritize empathy, rather than sympathy. It’s quite simply a matter of changing the conversation, and I’m not sure that Invisible Children’s Kony documentary gets us there.

Next, there’s the morality question. To be “that guy,” I’ll link to two compelling TED videos on the social-scientific and cultural shortcomings of public storytelling: first, from Tyler Cowen, the economics wiz blogger; the second, from Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian novelist. The bottom line: stories can inspire. At the same time, inspiration runs the risk of perpetuating problematic, unintended cognitive biases. A “single story,” as Adichie calls it, can obscure a complex, multi-layered web of perceptive analysis, underscoring cultural stereotypes and simplifications. Fundamentally, the question is moral, rather than cognitive: How do we perceive the morality of conflict in northern Uganda and, more recently, Central Africa? Once we answer that question, how do we mitigate the moral consequences of our actions, to ensure that atrocities do, in fact, end? Invisible Children’s activism, added to the political lobbying of Resolve and the Enough Project, resulted in the deployment of approximately one hundred U.S. military advisers to Central Africa. The advisers’ purpose: to assist and, well, advise the Congolese, Central African (from CAR, rather than the region), Ugandan, and South Sudanese military forces in an escalated counterinsurgency campaign against the LRA throughout the region. Frankly speaking, the military advisers’ presence will likely improve, rather than deteriorate, the implementation of human rights norms in the multinational military campaign. The United States has likely learned its lessons, recognizing the counterproductive nature of Operation Lighting Thunder, a U.S.-backed 2008 “campaign of attrition” against the LRA in northern Uganda. That said, the U.S. operational partnership with the Ugandan, Congolese, Central African, and South Sudanese forces remains a political, moral, and social firestorm. The documentary’s purpose is not to delve into the complex, nuanced dynamics of military conflict, but, as it stands, day-to-day advocates for “action” have few platforms for the critical discussion of action’s moral consequences.

Lastly, let’s talk about the limits of policy intervention against the LRA. This isn’t a new conversation: as Bec Hamilton has detailed, the human rights advocacy community encountered the same challenge at the peak of Darfur mobilization. Come 2008, Darfur advocates began to talk about “Darfur fatigue”: the conflict in Sudan’s western provinces had grown more complicated, atrocities continued (albeit at a significantly lower rate), and the day-to-day advocates weren’t quite sure why. Part of the problem, of course, is the notion of the “story of now.” The public narrative’s third pillar works within the context of local organizing–limited labor-union resources demand quicker solutions, contract negotiations have deadlines, and infrastructure projects work on schedule. Foreign policy activists can’t say the same for violent conflict: the LRA has conducted a low-intensity insurgency against the central government in Kampala since the late 1980s, without any tangible reconciliation. So while the video has an expiration date of “December 31, 2012,” the LRA insurgency, the multinational stabilization campaign, and the marginalization of constituencies in Uganda’s Acholi region, northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan certainly don’t. If urgent, military action against the LRA is part of the solution–and, in spite of the potential moral costs, it probably should be–it’s only a part. And, as Mark Kersten’s field research has suggested, the peace/justice dilemma is perhaps more complicated in northern Uganda than in any of the other six situations currently under review by the International Criminal Court.

What does this mean? In order to move past #KONY2012, to promote credible approaches to conflict resolution in Central Africa, anti-Kony advocates need to be prepared to move past the public narrative, past the sexy, and past the action kit. On March 6, hundreds of people told me to take thirty minutes out of my evening to watch Invisible Children’s Kony documentary. If, on March 7, you’re not taking thirty minutes out of your evening to read the International Crisis Group’s November 2011 report on the way forward for stabilization and conflict resolution in LRA-affected areas, you’re not doing your job correctly.


106 thoughts on “let’s talk about kony

  1. I was equally shocked today to see my facebook/twitter feed covered in a sudden urgency to stop Joseph Kony from kidnapping children. I actually at first thought it was another Faceook Timeline glitch, but I was proven wrong and it actually was friends from high school, friends from college, friends from karate, friends of my little brother all posting about how “Where you live shouldn’t determine whether you live.”

    Through my work with STAND, I definitely at first took an almost condescending view (in all my high school knowledge) of people who would become teary-eyed and resolved to make a change one day and then completely forget about it the next. Then I viewed it as “hey, if it gets people in, then I don’t care if it was because a flying monkey told them to”. Now I’m probably somewhere in the middle of the two.

    IC has an uncanny ability to make people care and be motivated, and I will be the first to admit that I have never seen such a wide-range of Facebook friends all posting the same thing with the same opinion. At the same time, hasn’t the same thing happened before? It’s exactly what Daniel said about the Save Darfur/Africa movement in response to the genocide in the 2000’s–people were inspired, motivated, they signed up for the email list…and then what? I would bet that almost everyone I know would be able to recognize the iconic Save Darfur tree but not a lot of them will be able to tell you who saved Darfur?, is Darfur saved?, isn’t it it’s own country? (I was actually contacted last week through STAND by a journalism major who was asking about the ongoing genocide in Darfur for a report). To add to my cynicism, last semester IC came to UA and showed Tony–about 20 kids afterwards resolved to create an IC chapter at the UA and they would hold events, show movies, raise awareness, raise funds, etc. After I convinced them that STAND is already awesome and that a IC subcommittee within STAND would be the greatest thing ever: no one ever showed up. They’re all still on our listserv, they get our emails but I guess life came up…

    Before I sound completely cynical about the world, I will be the first to admit that it was the whole “let’s save Africa” mentality that brought me in to STAND. And I’m still here and passionate as ever. This will raise awareness and action in ways that our chapter will probably never be able to. It will be an enlightening experience for pretty much everyone who sees it. And there will be countless people whose lives will really be changed forever and they will commit the rest of their lives to human rights.

    The reason that I resonate so much with this post though is, when it comes down to it, if everyone who is posting #KONY can get past the sexy, then we can really join together and stop Joseph Kony…Omar al-Bashir, Bashar al-Assad and other human rights violators.

    Knowledge is power.

  2. Powerful and thoughtful piece, Dan. Thanks so much for taking the time to crank out such a thorough analysis amidst the furies of tweets. This is a subject that you know far better than I do, and I agree with too much of your nuanced position to respond to it all directly, but I’d like to throw a few thoughts into the ring.

    A general and personal response to kick it off: it has been fascinating and meaningful to watch Facebook and Twitter erupt tonight. We’ve all seen Invisible Children’s campaign take shape in real-time, immediately setting their goal in motion with absurd speed. That means something for the amorphous thing we call “the global community,” as so many Web 2.0 inspired developments have lately.

    You couldn’t be more right that “anti-Kony advocates need to be prepared to move past the public narrative, past the sexy, and past the action kit.” And the November ’11 ICG report details much of the post action-kit action that we should be striving for, in all its evidence-based complexity. But I disagree that failing to read it tomorrow means that those who were inspired by the video are somehow skimping out on their jobs.

    That’s a predictably theatric response to what I’m sure wasn’t a point you meant to apply literally to every random YouTuber that watched or every little cousin sharing it on Facebook (mine’s 14 and lives just across the Golden Gate bridge). But it does get at the point that aside from creating thousands of new “anti-Kony advocates” to speak to (superficial ones included), KONY 2012 has created thousands of new, DIFFERENT “anti-Kony” advocates. A lot of that diversity wasn’t there yesterday, and many of the newcomers cannot be expected to read even the Executive Summary of a foreign policy briefing like ICG’s.

    I’m not trying to insult the intelligence of the masses with that comment. I’m just saying that Invisible Children’s limited scope fulfills a distinct purpose — generating popular awareness and support — through the simple advocacy it inspires, and that it’s a meaningful one. Their message is not so different from the italicized headers that divide the recommendations in that very Executive Summary (http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/africa/central-africa/182-the-lords-resistance-army-end-game.aspx): “For mustering and maintaining political will; For launching an urgent military push prioritising civilian protection; For intensifying complementary civilian efforts; [and] For planning ahead.”

    Posters, stickers, and video clips — damn well designed ones, my Photoshop-ing self might add — and calls to Congressmen and Congresswomen may well lay an important foundation for transformative action guided by the nuance you’re calling for. Engagement and support cannot be carefully planned if the will to initiate and sustain it doesn’t exist in the first place. Simplifying the message somewhat, even if that means making real concessions when it comes to illustrating pragmatic application, is essential to making that happen on any real national level (when I talk to people about TB, I don’t skip straight to explaining the molecular drawbacks of GenXpert MTB/RIF for re-treatment cases; laboratory diagnostic technology needs to be improved).

    Of course, that optimistic argument would be derailed if the simplicity of the message is taken too far…in other words, if Carolina Chacon’s comment on your wall ends up being on point: “After years of advocacy work on human rights issues, I’ve discovered (and most foreign policy analysts tend to agree on) that trying to make things simple only defers and complicates finding a real, lasting solution.” It’s up to policy-makers (or perhaps smart bloggers?) to prevent that from happening by molding the political will generated by excited popular anti-Kony sentiments into political will for carefully calculated action. That’s extraordinarily difficult, but it’s a goal.

    On a very small scale, that cascade has already begun: everyone, myself included, that benefited from reading your post and the FP and ICG pieces for the first time has the KONY 2012 cyber-storm to thank for making them more aware of the “credible approaches to conflict resolution” you mentioned. I sincerely hope that kind of discourse continues at higher levels. It might if the campaign continues to snowball.

    The “morality question” is another issue entirely, and it’s tougher to address in a lot of ways. As someone who plans to spend a career helping to narrow global health inequity and has spent a great deal of time wondering/worrying about the subject, I couldn’t agree more that “we’re not doing enough to define the terms of empowerment, to balance our advocacy perspectives with an understanding of civil society mobilization in conflict-affected areas.” I’m not sure Invisible Children is striking that balance well enough either, for the reasons you discussed and other examples from their prior work, but I’m hoping that its Ugandan reps would say that it is.

    Above all, KONY 2012 has huge potential, if it’s able to replicate the success it has had in building a movement with making change on the ground. It’s obviously wrought with pros and cons, but it’s here, and we shouldn’t be too quick to judge it either way. At the end of the day, it’s a tremendously beautiful thing when people stand together for the principle that “where you live shouldn’t determine whether you live.” All other issues aside, we shouldn’t lose sight of that.

  3. Love the international crisis groups report. The leflet in the report was designed, produced and distributed by Invisible Children. If there’s one problem IC has it’s that they aren’t able to communicate the depth of their efforts not only in stopping Kony from abducted, killing, raping, etc. but also their recovery and protection efforts in Uganda, DR Congo and CAR.

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  11. BINGO! I think it’s important to get this kind of perspective out there in the public right now, before another overly simplistic and potentially dangerous “Save Darfur”-esque campaign begins.

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  21. Great post, thank you for highlighting the difficult and contentious issues raised by the KONY campaign. I would, however, argue that by focusing on the personal story of Jacob and including his perspective throughout, the video does give a sense of agency and humanity to the Ugandan people themselves, particularly the young people that have been so affected by the actions of Kony and the LRA. Unlike a lot of charity films I have seen where people are often portrayed as homogenous victims without their own voice, this film focuses on Jacob and how we can collaborate with him and the Ugandan people in bringing justice to the country. While we must be mindful of over-hyped media campaigns that gloss over difficult issues and perspectives, I do see a great deal that is positive and useful in this one. It has been heartening to see how social media has the potential for raising awareness that *may* lead to concrete, much needed action.

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  31. I’ve done my job properly – having just finished ICG’s November 2011 Report!! There is clearly a need for a multi-facetted approach to resolving the Uganda crisis – and in that regard the anti-kony movement, has been able to raise awareness exponentially – something that (dry & verbose) ICG reports will never to do. However, the 2 combined will hopefully keep this on political agendas with the result that abduction, rape, murder, slavery, displacement etc etc may come to an end. I admire Russell’s work, it seems to have mobilised people to think about this issue, and hopefully read a bit further, rather than just being a piece of work for a PhD, as other contributors to the debate seem to be coming from…………….

  32. Your attack on this film is like an attack on an introductory chapter to a textbook; both are meant to provide basic information on a topic. It is up to the reader (or in this case, the viewer) to read further into the topic. Your qualm should not lie with IC, it should lie with the far more pervasive problem of people willingly believing what they hear without doing independent research.

    I am an advocate for IC, and I’ve also done my research, and not just on their website. I don’t agree with everything they do, and I don think they could have more transparency, but no one else has affected as much change as they have. I don’t see anyone else doing anything better. The best I can hope to do is help them be stronger, more credible, and more successful. I think you do, too, but articles like this make us lose sight of the bigger picture–stopping this atrocity. I’m sure you as well don’t think kids should be abducted and forced into becoming a soldier. Show me that. Show me what you’re doing better than IC. Show me what others are doing better than the IC. Work with the IC to make it better. That’s productivity. This, though well-worded, is just a rant. No offense. It’s just, you seem like an intelligent person who has passion about this subject, and I think it’s so sad to see you waste energy on criticism when you could be focusing your energy on betterment.

    • Hi Karen. Thanks for your comment. If you read my “About” page, you’ll know that I, too, am passionate about mass atrocities prevention advocacy, and have devoted significant time and energy over the past several years towards engaging, improving, and broadening my advocacy. STAND chapters around the country work closely with Invisible Children, and we coordinate with the national organization on policy asks, targets, and approaches. So, rather than wasting energy, I hope you’ll see my comments as based in respect, rather than anger. Far from a rant, my post is an attempt to engage human rights advocates–student advocates, especially–in a critical conversation on strengthening narratives, building constituencies, and promoting smart policies.

      That said, I believe I offered appropriate qualms with both IC, as a national organization, and the culture of non-inquisitiveness that frequently characterizes mass advocacy engagement. As I mentioned in my post, it’s the responsibility of national advocacy organizations to provide a framework for engagement, as well as a public narrative, that reflects the nuance of their policy approach, an abiding respect for their advocates’ intellectual strength, and a mechanism for empathy, rather than disempowering sympathy. Similarly, the individual advocate has the responsibility to engage that narrative, to critique it, and to move past it in a productive, sustained manner. There’s a balance, and speaking from the perspective of someone engaged in national advocacy leadership, that balance is always difficult to strike. But if we want to make better activists, we need to recognize when we can move past the entry-point, invest in individual leadership, and provide organizational frameworks for excellence.

      • Thank you for taking time to respond. I did not mean to imply that you were not an advocate. I just get frustrated when I see so much dissent and so little suggestion. Does that make sense? I myself do not agree with every aspect of the IC, but I do appreciate their transparency and, at least seemingly, desire to open communication on disagreements. I don’t know if you’ve seen this, but it might provide some deeper insight for you. I’d be interested to hear a response to their response from you, as you, of all the dissenting blog posts I’ve read, have the most informed advocacy voice. http://www.invisiblechildren.com.s3-website-us-east-1.amazonaws.com/critiques.html

        Though I have had little experience with needing to strike the balance you mentioned, I have always found in my endeavors that that fine line is always difficult to attain. Thank you for your efforts to make our world better.

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  49. This is one of the most powerful and important videos that I have seen. It is partly because of the issue that it covers but mostly because of the masterful way this issue is being conveyed to all of us. Many other issues can be handled in this way or at least supported using similar tactics. Please watch.

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  58. I have avoided becoming entangled in the dangerous web that is KONY 2012.
    I have not commented or liked or shared.
    Mainly due to the fact that I cannot be as eloquent or succint as you.
    I want to offer my humble and sincere thanks.
    Your eloquence expresses the jumbled rubbish floating around in my mind.
    Thank you.

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  77. The advocacy and increasing interest toward child soldiers is definitely one of the positives to take away from this. The campaign has caught the attention of all types of people and the conversation is growing! However, advocacy can only take this new interest so far. As various academics, such as Michael Wilkerson and Yale professor Chris Blattman, as well as the Acholi people have identified, the misrepresentation of information and actual call to action through military means is troubling. There is a need for people to connect with these greater issues—but through people who are actually making a difference and are well informed. Here is a list of organizations that I have found who are actually doing great work on the ground, are inclusive of the people who are, and have been most affected. Last, and most importantly, these organizations come from well-informed positions:

    Also, check out what Chris Blattman, Michael Wilkerson and the Acholi Times has to say on the issue:



    The ICC verdict on Thomas Lubanga is step in the right direction. Lets continue to make this issue loud and make a difference.

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  79. I know this if off topic but I’m looking into starting my own blog and was curious what all is required to get set up? I’m assuming having a blog like yours would cost a pretty penny? I’m not very internet savvy so I’m not 100% sure. Any suggestions or advice would be greatly appreciated. Thank you

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