Notorious Images Shape the Discourse of the KONY2012 Campaign

Founders of Invisible Children posing with guns alongside members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), who have fought against the LRA. Photograph: Glenna Gordon –

The above photograph was captured by Glenna Gordon – an American photographer and journalist – at the Sudan-Congo border during the 2008 peace talks while she was on assignment for the Associated Press. It shows the founders of Invisible Children — Bobby Bailey, Laren Poole, and Jason Russell — posing with guns alongside members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), who have fought against the LRA.

This particular image has been a point of controversy discussed on many blogs and forums. Vice magazine posted the photograph with the headline “Should I Donate Money to Kony 2012 or Not?” Interrogating the plausibility of the campaign as a whole. The image has been cited as illustrating Invisible Children’s emphasis on direct military intervention in Uganda as the primary solution to the nations unique political situation. Another blog accurately suggested the photo helped paint a “picture of neo-colonialism.”

Gordon states she felt a lot of discomfort when the SPLA had handed there weapons to the Invisible Children members: “because if we were attacked by the LRA then, the SPLA should have had guns in their hands.” Gordon agrees with Chris Blattman’s suggestion that the image: “hints uncomfortably of the White Man’s Burden… the saviour attitude,” and states Invisible Children’s work is: “emotionally manipulative, and all things I try as a journalist not to be.”

Overall, this image is indicative of one of the main points of criticism of Invisible Children’s campaign – the idea of US military intervention as a solution to the Ugandan situation. More this issue can be found here.

A group of Ugandans watch a screening of Kony 2012, made by the charity Invisible Children. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

The above photograph was taken by AFP/Getty Images and shows a group of Ugandans viewing a screening of the KONY2012 film.

This image illustrates how Ugandan citizens are passive consumers of a phenomenon centred around their own nation. The image depicts how they have no choice but to sit back and watch ‘others’ tell their story. The New York Times states: “an official close to the prime minister’s office said that many in Uganda’s leadership privately found the video “neocolonial.”’

The photograph brings attention to those who have been voiceless throughout the entire campaign. Director of Ugandan Charity, The African Youth Initiative Network (Ayinet), Victor Ochen, arranged the screening to provide an opportunity for victims to see them film – mindful that less than 2% of Ugandans have internet access. Orchen states: “People were very angry about the film… They were all saying, ‘This is not about us, it does not reflect our lives’.”

Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Photograph: Stuart Price/EPA

This is an image of Joseph Rao Kony in southern Sudan taken by Stuart Price/ETA during November of 2006. The image is featured throughout the Kony2012 film and plays a central role in merging the idea of villainy and Joseph Kony.

The image was also featured across a number of newspapers and online platforms that reported on Invisible Children’s Kony2012 campaign. The photograph has since  became a core visual symbol of the Kony2012 campaign.

More on Joseph Kony here.

Still image from Kony2012 when the director shows his five-year-old son a picture of Kony and the survivor Jacob and explains the situation in its most simple form.

The above is a still image from the Kony2012 film by Invisible Children Inc.which depicts what is arguably the central,most  symbolic moment in the video.

This is the moment where the director shows his five-year-old son a picture of Kony and the survivor Jacob and explains the complex Ugandan situation is it’s most simple form. Some argue that forcing the audience to view the evil ‘black man’ through the eyes of a winsome, white-skinned, blonde haired child is playing on entrenched racial stereotypes while depriving Ugandans of a voice.

More on this issue here.

Interrogating the Idea of US Military Intervention

On October 14, 2011 BBC reported US President, Barack Obama sent approximately 100 US soldiers to Uganda to help regional forces battle the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army. Although troops will be combat-equipped, the troops would be providing information and advice “to partner nation forces,” Mr Obama wrote in a letter to US congress.

“I have authorised a small number of combat-equipped US forces to deploy to central Africa to provide assistance to regional forces that are working toward the removal of (LRA leader) Joseph Kony from the battlefield,” Mr Obama wrote on Friday.

But he stressed that: “although the US forces are combat-equipped… they will not themselves engage LRA forces unless necessary for self-defence.”

The Kony2012 campaign supports the sending of US troops by Obama to Uganda. Indeed the continuation of military support to the Ugandan armed forces is the main goal of the whole campaign. Scalea states: “President Obama’s choice is portrayed as the result of grassroots pressure exerted by Invisible Children Inc. during the past years, and as a military mission decided upon “simply because it is the right thing to do”. This interpretation is simplistic just like the superficial and Manichean description of Ugandan situation.”

Many feel that US intervention is not an appropriate solution for the unique Ugandan situation. History and Politics academic Susan Engle states that the Kony2012 campaign “lacked some depth and insight and some of its purposes where also quite questionable, the idea of US military intervention as a solution to any problem that is as much about poverty and development as it is about conflict is a really problematic one.”In fact, an article entitled, “KONY 2012, The “Good Intentions vs The Real Intentions,”  quotes Mark Kersten from Justice in Conflict who says Uganda’s recently discovered oil reserves, which: “may produce between 2.5billiob to 6 billion barrels of oil. This oil is suddenly directly linked to the country’s security.”

In an interview with TRNN (video shown above), Firoze Manji, editor-in-chief of Pambazuka News states: “I think we ought to also recognize that, you know, Uganda has just recently announced the striking of some very substantial oil resources in the northern part of Uganda, and to me it’s difficult not to think that the sending of these US special forces has not got something to do with that.” Engle concurs stating: “… given the US geopolitics over the last 2 decades its hard not to make that assumption.”

Kony Who?

Surely by now, the night should have well and truly been covered.

With the Kony2012 film labeled “the fasts spreading viral campaign in Internet History,” it is a wonder why its sequel, “Kony Part II: Beyond Famous” – a overtly optimistic tag line – generated as little as 1% of the view ship of its forerunner.

The first Kony2012 video hit its view ship peak on March 7, 2012. Invisible Children’s success with the Kony2012 video saturated their view ship and made Kony “famous” at an amazing speed. The excessive popularity brought excessive criticism. With worldwide masses growing more sceptical, critical and actively ignorant towards Kony2012, Harvard states: “another rather visible nail in the Invisible Children coffin reared its head on March 17th.” NBC reports Jason Russell, co-founder of Invisible Children and director of Kony2012 was “allegedly found masturbating in public, vandalizing cars and possibly under the influence of something.”

Invisible Children CEO Ben Keesey sought to reignite the Kony2012 campaign with a sequel film release entitled, “Kony2012: Part II” released April 4, 2012. This film aimed to provide more details and context to the Joesph Kony campaign. Narrated by Keesey, the film was released, as explained in its caption: “to explain the creation of the campaign, the progress that’s already been made and what we can all do now to support the ongoing efforts to stop the violence of the LRA.”

Despite Keetings attempt at damage control Carbone states: “Sorry Invisible Children, but you’ve found out the hard way: the Internet has the attention span of a 2-year-old child watching paint dry in a library.” Unfortunately, Kony Part II generated just 1% of the views of its predecessor.

Beyond Famous was watched 1.6 million times in its first week. The totals pales in comparison to the original Kony2012, which earned 112 million views in its first week. That’s less than 2% of the traffic that Kony2012 got in its first five days alone.

Although 1.6 million views is nothing to scoff at, director of marketing at Visible Measures Matt Fiorentino states: “compared to a regular campaign, it’s pretty good.” But there was probably nothing Invisible Children could have done to garner a video with comparable views, except maybe wait longer before it released the sequel. Fiorentino states: “they needed to give the audience time to breathe.”

Why “Cover The Night” Failed


Kony2012 is the most viral video of all time, yet the campaign failed to maintain its momentum until the day of action coined “Cover The Night” on April 20, 2012.

Invisible Children’s film took to the web on March 5th of 2012 with phenomenal success in mobilizing the online community.  The Guardian states: “More than 100m people have watched the film, 3.5m have pledged support and the US senate and House of Representatives have both signed resolutions to continue US involvement in the efforts to capture Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lords Resistance Army.”

However, the negative aftermath following the spread of the Kony2012 film clearly dampened the campaigns reputation and impacted the turnout of the ‘Cover The Night’ event.

The film was immediately criticized for misrepresenting the Ugandan situationdepriving Ugandans of a voice and misleading newly recruited activists on what is required to generate genuine reform. In addition to disapproval of the video content, Invisible Children faced intense criticism regarding their finances and lack of transparency on where raised funds are being expended.

The Kony2012 film was welcomed by a younger audience, Harvard states, “The younger generations can be transfixed and captivated by an idea, but their inner critique meant that if just one teeny tiny criticism or negative opinion about Kony2012 was actually true, then they were out. This was the chain of disinterested youth and unconvinced intellectuals that followed March 7th, which meant by April 20th ‘Cover The Night’ and Kony2012 were not even a dot on their radars”

Another major pitfall inhibiting the credibility of the campaign was the detainment of director and co-founder of Invisible Children, Jason Russell, on the evening of March 16, 2012  just 11 days after the films release. The Daily Telegraph states: “Kony2012 suffered a huge setback on March 19, when filmmaker Jason Russell stripped to his birthday suit and ran through the streets in San diego ranting about he devil.”

Russell is a 33-year-old father of two who took to fame as soon as the Kony2012 film was released. NBC San Diego reports Russell was allegedly found “masturbating in public, vandalizing cars and possibly under the influence of something.” He was detained by police and then sent to a medical facility.

Invisible Children CEO Ben Keesey released a statement stating: “

 “Jason Russell was unfortunately hospitalized yesterday suffering from exhaustion, dehydration, and malnutrition. He is now receiving medical care and is focused on getting better. The past two weeks have taken a severe emotional toll on all of us, Jason especially, and that toll manifested itself in an unfortunate incident yesterday. Jason’s passion and his work have done so much to help so many, and we are devastated to see him dealing with this personal health issue. We will always love and support Jason, and we ask that you give his entire family privacy during this difficult time.”

Invisible Children activist and politics and sociology graduate Sarah Cooper comments on the connection between Russell’s detainment and the failure of the ‘Cover The Night’ campaign stating: “I don’t know know that Jason Russell’s arrest was to do with the ‘Cover The Night’ campaign being a flop…  he worked so hard for something he genuinely believed in, but for what outcome? He had a lot of negative press attention but working in that kind of organisation where he is the main face of it it has to be a huge amount of pressure for anyone…  just because you have a positive intention doesn’t mean it will have a good outcome.. sometimes awareness doesn’t necessarily change things… if your not going to back it up with an action that is historically, socially and culturally appropriate then your just going to create more damage.”

Social Intelligence engine Topsy Labs graphed twitter chatter around Kony2012 and related hashtags. The chart below shows the decline of Kony-related topics since the films release.

Topsy has recorded more than 12.5 million Twitter mentions about Joseph Kony and the Invisible Children film. The two biggest days for tweets were March 5, when the film was released and March 16, when director Jason Russell was detained.

Harvard states: “The way viral video works is that an online video starts small, grows in popularity until it saturates its audience and then once it has done so it then drops off the face of the World Wide Web.” The 12.5 million mentions on Kony-related topics in march, compared to less than half a million mentions during the first 18 days of April provokes the question of whether “Cover The Night” would have been more successful had it come closer to the video’s release?

The campaign aimed to plaster “every city, on every block” around the world with posters, stickers and murals of Kony to pressure governments into hunting down the guerrilla leader. The Guardian states: “paltry turnouts on Friday at locations across north America, Eurpoe and Australia left cities largely unplasters and the movement’s credibility damaged.” The Daily Telegraph also states: “Brisbanes official Cover The Night event sadly failed to disprove the widespread cynicism: the campaign was a flop.”

This brings to question, did Invisible Childrens campaign peak too soon? Did the films criticism and detainment of Jason Russell decredit the campaign to the point of failure? Or is Gen Y simply saturated with ‘slactivists’? The most likely conclusion is that all of those Kony2012 supporters who pledged to support the movement had simply moved on.

KONY2012 Empowering or Misleading a Facebook Generation?

A shot from Kony2012 documentary projected on a New York building. Photograph: Keith Bedford/REUTERS

It is hotly debated whether Invisible Children Inc. have crafted a film communicating an experience of empowerment, or produced a fundraising video that has relied too heavily on digital platforms and not enough on civil resistance, promoting a simplistic perspective of activism for newly recruited campaigners.

The Kony2012 video seeks to inspire outrage, hope, and a sense of personal empowerment on the part of the viewer. The direct emotional appeals endow newly recruited activists and encourage them to believe that they can actively influence humanitarian affairs. O’Brian states that, in trying to harness the web for activism, the campaign succeeded: “because it is highly emotional, while asking people to take fairly light-touch actions: re-tweet or repost this video; email your congressional representative; maybe donate a little money” (2012)

The film gives audiences a sense that by watching the video, they have already done something important, and by sharing the video the sense of accomplishment and empowerment is intensified. Wanenchak states: “The video presents the ignorance of the developed West as its primary sin and the primary obstacle in the way of Joseph Kony being brought to justice; it therefore implicitly offers the simple fact of “awareness” as a form of blanket solution to this problem, with the supposition that action will necessarily follow.” Therefore, at the click of a “share” button, and donation of $30, young individuals all over the world were quickly convinced they were co-producers of an exciting campaign, rather than a passive consumer of the ivory tower discourse that academics regularly generate.

During an Interview by BBC Panorama, Teddy Ruge, a Ugandan born co-founder of social networking initiative Project Diaspora stated: “My initial response to this video was the fact that this was – it came across blatantly as a fundraising video. You know, just calling for 13-year-olds to click and send their $20 and get a bracelet and get a t-shirt, as if that was something that would solve the situation in our country, or should have solved the situation in our country 20 years ago when it really mattered. But ‘click activism’ rarely translates into real world solutions on the ground.”

Invisible Children activist and sociology and politics graduate Sarah Cooper states: “Click activism for a small majority of people does actually translate into people who want to get involved personally with Invisible Children… but for a lot of people its just like, ‘oh yeah this looks like a good thing, I care about people, I’ll click a button, I’ll like it and support it,’ but as far as backing it up with anything, you know there is always going to be something else that is just around the corner and people sadly have the tendency to forget.”

It is believed the ‘empowerment’ these newly recruited activists feel via the Kony2012 movement is destructively misleading a generation, by distorting their perception of what is required to generate genuine reform. Researchers’ advocate that the most significant threat to digital activism is when cyber protests completely replace protesting in the public sphere and instead place all their energy into producing online activism efforts. Ratmin points out, “as more and more activists go online to release their energy and frustration, others may become blind to their efforts, and large-scale movements may be harder to organize as a result” (2010).

An episode of The Stream interviewed journalist Rosebell Kagumire who asserted that the Kony campaign presents younger generations with a naïve perspective on what activism is and can achieve, and that it promotes complacency among these newly recruited activists.

Many agree the Kony 2012 movement has relied too heavily on digital platforms and not enough on civil resistance, promoting a simplistic perspective of activism for newly recruited campaigners. Miller declares, “Liking a video on Facebook is one thing. Getting off the couch is quite another,” this notion illustrates many critics thoughts on the Kony2012 effort.

Participants in the campaigns ‘Cover the Night’ event were asked to commit to a few hours of volunteer work before spending the evening distributing promotional material throughout the community. Unfortunately, barely 5000 people pledged to get involved on Facebook, with the events page not specifying a location. Miller states that the event “was a big reality check for a phenomenon that barely a month ago had been all over the Internet.” Some ask whether the early success of the film set impossibly high expectations, while others feel this is typical of generation Y and there “slactivism.”  The Kony2012 movement exemplifies social media’s overrated ability to deliver a medium that acts as a vehicle for political activism.

There is no doubt that online platforms can potentially facilitate socio-political organization, as Ramtin suggests: “the future of political activism in repressive environments belong to those who mix and master both digital activism and civil resistance” (2010). However the failure of the ‘Cover The Night’ escapade really unearthed the deskbound nature of the campaigners involved in the Kony2012 movement.

OBrien, C. 2012, OBrien: Kony 2012 campaigns tests impact of online activism, Oakland, Calif., United States, Oakland, Calif.

Ratmin, A 2010, “The empire strikes back: social media uprisings and the future of cyber activism,” Kennedy School Review, Vol 10, p 64

Kony2012: “A white savior film with social media added in”

Critics of the Kony2012 campaign stress that the movement deprives Ugandan people of a voice while simultaneously playing on entrenched racial stereotypes. Many accuse Invisible Children Inc. of perpetuating a narrative of white do-gooders trying to save Africans from themselves. The campaign makes white activists feel good, but excludes (or sidelines) African people from the process and thus fails to make the world a better place.

Politics and sociology graduate Sarah Cooper states: “it destroys there sovereignty, it shows that that country themselves is not capable of taking care of their own business, it undermines the abilities of people who are from those countries, it makes them look useless, when really that’s not true. So much has been done by brilliant activists, scholars and researches people who are dedicated to reform and they are of various African decants.”

The Westernized representation of the Ugandan story has stirred controversy and upset many Ugandans, as they feel voiceless while others are telling their story. Sarah Wanenack identifies the central, symbolic moment in the video: “What is perhaps the film’s most revealing moment occurs quite early, when the director shows his five-year-old son a picture of Kony and the survivor Jacob and explains the situation – in a child’s terms. The child responds, ‘Stop him.’ Which is really the entire film in two words, on essentially the level of complexity at which it is delivered.”This moment is captured in the image below.

Still Image from KONY2012

Still Image from KONY2012

Jessie describes Kony2012 as: “a white savior film with social media added in.” The film forces the audience to view the malicious ‘black man’, Kony, through the eyes of a winsome, white-skinned, blonde-haired child. O’Neil says: “Kony2012 was rightly ridiculed for its borderline racist and certainly paternalistic undertones.” Kenyan-American cultural critic and historian Tavia Nyong’o says: “The film expects its audience to identify with the little blonde boy… Africans however, must identify with those flat images on the table. With Jacob Acaye the former child soldier, yes, but with Joseph Kony too. We know that these are two side of a single coin, and that when we are seen as the one, the face of the other is always lurking beneath.”

During an Interview by BBC Panorama, Teddy Ruge, a Ugandan born co-founder of social networking initiative Project Diaspora stated: “One of the main issues that I really had with this video was the very blatant and visible nature in which it said ‘we are here and we are the ones that can actually do something about this’. I mean it eroded the efforts [of people like] Betty Bigombe in Uganda who had been working on this issue for years.”

During the same interview Michael Poffenberger, co-founder and executive director of a Washington-based grassroots advocacy group called Resolve defended the racist accusations: “We know the area where Kony is operating, we’ve known this for a very long time, but the governments in the region don’t actually have the capacity to do this themselves, and to move our leaders… To move our leaders we can’t just target communities in Africa, we have to target people in America, [and young people around the world], who actually have the capacity to move those leaders to act and respond to this.”

Nyong’o goes as far as to coin the film: “propaganda for western viewers.” He believes: “any African watching it feels very strongly like [they’re] not in the picture – there’s no African complexity and there’s certainly no African agency.”

A Ugandan journalist, Rosebell Kagumire illustrates how many Ugandan’s perceive the video as another instance where an outsider is trying to be a hero rescuing African children, as seen previously in cases in Ethiopia and Somalia. Nyong’o agrees that when an individual knows little about a situation, it is easy to project and understand a similar scenario, alas the idea of rescuing the helpless African goes back to the 19th century missionary complex, and it is this stereotype that has been employed by Invisible Children. Kagumire declares, “If you are showing me as voiceless, as hopeless, you have no space telling my story, you shouldn’t be telling my story.”

The argued deprivation of a Ugandan voice and incorporation of entrenched racial stereotypes are both factors that demote the credibility of the Kony2012 movement.

Below is a video by Rosebell Kagumire depicting her view on a conflict that she has covered as a journalist and a people she has worked among for many years. Kagumire describes the “danger of portraying people with one single story and using old footage to cause hysteria when it could have been possible to get to DRC and other affected countries get a fresh perspective and also include other actors.”

Kony vs Phony

The Kony2012 film has received a vast amount of criticism in regards to misrepresenting the Ugandan context. Foreign Affairs magazine has gone as far to say Invisible Children have: “manipulated facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders.”

The most noteworthy point of criticism is the films misleading impression of the location of Kony and the quantity of remaining LRA forces. Joseph Kony has not been in Uganda since 2006 and the LRA now has no more than a few hundred followers. Kony now resonates in the Central African Republic, however this fact receives only a passing mention in the video.

Keating’s blog lays down the reality. The LRA was forced out of Uganda by the Ugandan military in 2006 and since then has been operating in extremely remote areas of the DRC, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic. The LRA does not have 30, 000 child soldiers as implied in the Kony2012 film. Instead, this figure refers to the total number of children abducted by the LRA over a period of 30 years. In fact, Northern Uganda has experienced remarkable salvage in the last 6 years of peace since the LRA left. Rosebell Kagumire, a Ugandan journalist specialising in peace and conflict reporting stresses: “[The Kony2012 film] paints a picture of Uganda six or seven years ago, that is totally not how it is today. It’s highly irresponsible.”

History and Politics lecturer Susan Engel agrees with Keating’s criticisms stating: “the campaign itself lacked some depth and insight.” However Engel adds: “you can’t describe the whole complexity of the situation in a documentary, and this is a promotion of activism and not meant to be a documentary… so understandably there is some degree of simplification going on.”

The controvercy has raised questions about the plausibility of Ugandan army intervention, which the video advocates. Engle agrees stating: “I think some of [the films suggestions] about there solutions was leaning a bit too far towards oversimplification”. Fred Opolot, a spokesman for the Ugandan government told the Telegraph: “it is totally misleading to suggest that the war is still in Uganda.”

Prime Minister of Uganda, Amama Mbabazi, responded to Invisible Children’s film by posting a video on YouTube (below) where he aimed to correct the false impression that Uganda is still at war. Mbabazi acknowledged the positive intentions of the film: “It is particularly welcome to see so many young people uniting across barriers of nation, race, religion and culture to take a stand for justice. I salute you and I thank you” he said in the film, inviting everyone to the country, assuring that people would find it “a very different place to that portrayed by Invisible Children.”

Engel concludes by shedding positive light on Invisible Children’s campaign stating: “if it does encourage people to go and do more research themselves and find out further information, which strangely in a way the controversial nature of the campaign did prompt people to look at the issue critically, to do more research, then that’s not a bad thing either.”

 Keating, Joshua, 2012, “Guest post: Joseph Kony is not in Uganda (and other complicated things)”Foreign Policy. March 7, accessed 25.0.2012

 Schomerus, Mareike, Allen, and Vlassenroot, 2011, “Obama Takes on the LRA: Why Washington Sent Troops to Central Africa”Foreign Affairs, November 15, Accessed 25.9.2012

Pflanz, Mike, March 8, 2012,. “Joseph Kony 2012: growing outrage in Uganda over film”The Telegraph, March 8, accessed 25.9.2012