Celebrated for Giving Hope but Criticised for Simplifying the Scope

Those who celebrate Invisible Children’s work argue the Kony2012 campaign has done an excellent job of showcasing awareness and educating masses about the violence in Uganda. However there is an overwhelming amount of critics who assert the films oversimplification of the Ugandan context is not purely in the interest of public accessibility.

The gripping cinematography of the Kony2012 short film has allowed many youth who have never studied or been previously interested in East African history and politics, to now retain an introductory understanding of the LRA insurgence and associated human rights abuses. Cavanagh argues that Invisible Children Inc. have mastered a skill-set that eludes many academics, educators, and advocacy professionals through the effective production of a humanitarian narrative that most young children could easily decipher.

The simple narrative of the film has no doubt caught the attention of millions around the globe. However, Schomerus states in his article “Kony2012: How not to change the world,” that the film has:  “manipulated facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders and emphasizing the LRA’s use of innocent children as soldiers … [while] rarely referring to the Ugandan atrocities or those of Sudan People’s Liberation Army, such as attacks against civilians … or the complicated regional politics fuelling the conflict.”

Cavanagh comments on arguments criticising the films oversimplification, stressing that in order to create an advocacy initiative and successfully raise awareness of a cause, particularly when attempting to mobilize people with little or no previous exposure to East/Central African history and politics, a degree of simplification is arguably necessary. Invisible Children activist Sarah Cooper states: “In my experience, the people who tend to latch onto viral campaigns are often younger people that maybe don’t have the education behind them to understand the political context or to realise that they are being used for marketing purposes.”

Fitzsimmons suggests that care needs to be taken when oversimplification is applied to external environments such as Uganda, not just in this instance, but also when attempting to simplify context for other areas of study, like genocide, for example.

During an interview by BBC Panorama, Ugandan born co-founder of social networking initiative Project Diaspora commented on the Kony2012 film stating: “I think the oversimplification of the complexity of the situation was one of the reasons that I was critical. Not just me but a majority of Ugandans within the diaspora as well as in Uganda, were very critical of how Uganda itself was positioned and how the situation was positioned […] It says to me in order for something to actually really matter we have to dumb it down for you and make it slick enough for you to even care to press a button on Facebook… It was a little embarrassing that it took that for the world to actually care. So what will it really take in the internet generation for us to actually care about something when it’s genuine without it being manipulated?”

It is impossible to ignore the video’s misrepresentation and manipulation of the Ugandan context. The video may resonate more with Western viewers, but if/when action ensues, the wrong factors may be targeted. Cooper states: “[Kony2012 supporters] don’t understand that creating further conflict and invading countries destroys there sovereignty [and] undermines the abilities of people who are from those countries… the greater awareness should be about what causes conflicts like this in the first place. Investing in policing, reducing corruption and helping to create sustainable and effective governments, only when things like healthcare and education improve, will the kind of society develop where things like child soldiers doesn’t occur.”

Coopers words mirror many individuals thoughts on the Kony2012 campaign. Although one doesn’t want to be too critical of those trying to promote social justice causes, it is imperitive we understand that stopping Kony will not bring Uganda into the light, yet battling government corruption, ethnic conflict, and economic disparity might.

Resisting Oversimplification: Thoughts on Kony2012 – http://www.fbesp.org/synapse/?p=383

Cavanagh, J 2012, “Kony 2012 and the Political Economy of Conflict Representation,” Nordic Africa Institute Department of International Environment and Development Studies Norwegian University of Life Sciences, March 9, accessed 26.3.2012, http://www.nai.uu.se/press/articles/2012/03/09/145947/Kony-2012_LongVersion_ConnorCavanagh.pdf

Fitzsimmons, B “MDST 2,” Google Scholar, accessed 23.5.2012, http://scholar.googleusercontent.com/scholar?q=cache:8UV2061ArksJ:scholar.google.com/+%22Social+Media%22+AND+%22Activism%22+AND+%22Kony+2012%22&hl=en&as_sdt=0,5

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

Saunders, D 2012, “The Horror and the Hashtag” The Globe and Mail, 10 March 2012,


Schomerus, M, 2012, “Kony 2012: How not to change the world”. CNN International. 10 March 2012.



Who is Joseph Kony?

“I am a freedom fighter, who is fighting for freedom in Uganda, but I’m not a terrorist” (Kony, 2006) 

Joseph Kony in southern Sudan in November 2006 – AFP: Stuart Price, file photo

One of the most sadistic leaders of all time, Joseph Rao Kony, is the notorious leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and claims his rebels group’s 23 year campaign of terror is rooted in deep spiritual principles. History and politics lecturer, Susan Engel believes Kony to be terrorist and suggests his movement is “an extremist movement, based on extremist views.” The Africa Research Bulletin describes Kony as a: “self-styled ‘prophet” and “an elusive and terrifying figure.”

Kony was born between July and September of 1961 into northern Uganda’s Acholi tribe to two farmers.  His father was a lay catechist of the Catholic Church and his mother was Anglican. During his younger years Kony was an alter boy but stopped attending church around the age of 15. Throughout his teens Kony was apprenticed as the village witch doctor and took over the practice once his older brother passed away.

Kony gained power as the nephew of the Acholi tribe’s mystic who started a rebellion in Uganda called the Holy Spirit Movement. The movement called on the Acholi people to retake the capital, Kampala.

After the Ugandan government defeated the movement’s violent campaign in 1987, Kony filled a power vacuum and formed the LRA. Although his Army initially enjoyed strong public support, they allegedly turned on their own supporters, after a brutal and incoherent campaign to bring peace and “purify” the Acholi.

Kony claimed he was a disciple sent by God to turn Uganda into theocracy ruled by the Ten Commandments. Invisible children activist, Sarah Cooper, states his religious claims are: “a perfect example of how deluded he is.. he is trying to back up his claims and give it a moral grounding… anybody who’s involved in [any kind of religion] and has a clear understanding of the texts and the doctrines would realise that any religion is actually founded and rooted in compassion and kindness and caring for your fellow man. It’s not about using brutal conflicts in order to win your way.”

In an interview aired on ABC TV’s Foreign Correspondent in 2006, Kony was asked how many spirits spoke to him: “Very many,” he told filmmaker Sam Farmar at a bush hideout in Uganda.

“I don’t know the number but they speak to me, they talk to me. You know we are guerrillas. We are rebels. We don’t have medicine. But with the help of spirits, they will tell us. You, Mr Joseph, go and take this thing and that thing.”

The Independent (UK) states that Kony proclaims himself the spokesperson of God and a spirit medium. He has nurtured a cult of personality and claims to have received visits from a multinational host of 13 spirits.

Although Kony’s religious claims seem nonsensical to a rational western perspective, Engel states: “you can’t just dismiss the religious claims underpinning there religious movements… ideas about religion and spirituality have played such profound roles in politics and culture in society in for decades. So I think in terms of confronting him it is necessary to understand that, and understand his appeal within his community and his context. Those views do create some form of following and have over a number of years… you do need to look at them and why they appeal in that context.”

The LRA launched a brutal fight against the government and terrorized civillians, killing, torturing, mutilating and kidnapping tens of thousands of people. VOA news claims: “The rebels are believed to have abducted more than 65,000 children over the years, forcing many to fight against the government or serve as sex slaves.”

Kony denies accusation that his army has engaged in murder, rape, torture and sexual enslavement, stating: “that is propaganda that Museveni made.”

LRA rebels now number as little as 700, a fraction of their strength at their peak. They have been pushed out of Uganda and now wages it private war in remote areas of the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. In 2008, those countries agreed to work jointly with Uganda to capture Kony and defeat the LRA. But a military effort failed to capture Kony and the LRA has continued to terrorize communities.

Kony was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2005, charged on 33 counts, including 12 of crimes against humanity. There have been a number of campaigns aiming to find Kony and bring him to justice. Kony2012 is just one example of this. On October of 2011, US president Barack Obama authorized the deployment of US special forces to join the campaign, but say they would operate in an advisory role, not an offensive combat one. However, despite all efforts, Kony remains at large.

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Understanding Social Media & Activism

There is enormous debate surrounding the ability of social media to promote participatory democracy and political activism. With the Kony2012 campaign at the center of the debate, arguments both for and against the movement are controversial. The New York Times states that as of June 2012, Facebook has over 955 million active users. Clearly indicating that social media is increasingly saturating society. Bennett suggests the Internet and social media effectively facilitate the loosely structured networks, weak identity ties, and the patterns of issue and demonstration organising, which define a new global protest politics (2003). Although the Kony2012 film was undoubtedly a social phenomenon, whether Invisible children achieved ‘success’ is a hotly debated matter.

So exactly what is social media?

What does it have to do with political activism?

And why is it important?

Barack Obama has compared the concept of social media to universal liberties such as freedom of speech. Lewin states that the US president has: “made innovative use of social media, embracing not just podcasting, but Twitter, Flickr, MySpace, Facebook, YouTube & more” for his past presidential campaigns. Interestingly, Chris Hughes – one of the three co-founders of Facebook – now runs Obamas official website  my.barackobama.com.

Barack Obama in the first presidential Twitter Town hall meeting with service creator and moderator Jack Dorsey looking on. Image by Pete Souza (whitehouse.gov)

Social Media is understood as the web-based and mobile technologies used to turn communication into an interactive dialogue. Kaplan and Haenlein define social media as: “a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of user-generated content” (2010, p 59). Empirical research by Bradock and colleagues suggests that social networking sites (SNS) are the most common entrance to online activism, despite the fact that SNS were not created with activism in mind (2009). Rolfe suggests that the ease of access to, and familiarity with technology, has become important resources contributing to the success of a political movement (2005). The new participatory landscape allows for more opportunities to engage in effective communication, and improves the ability of individuals to undertake collective action.

Radwan argues the Internet has created a ‘world village’ sense of proximity by linking its inhabitants through cyber-space and creating a: “’knowledge-based society’ [that’s becoming] the world’s culture and primary tool of communications”  (2011, p 1). The Kony2012 film utilises the video-sharing website YouTube and Vimeo with other viewing emanating from a central Kony2012 website operated by Invisible Children Inc. The video was extensively shared on a number of social media platforms such as FacebookTwitterGoogle Plus and other blogging applications (Cavanagh, 2012). Some impact monitoring organisations, such as the Film Visible Measures, now claim that this volume of activity makes the Kony2012 short film the fastest spreading viral campaign in Internet history.

Film Visible Measure table comparing most online viewed videos of all time.

Conversely, opposition to this cyber-optimistic view casts skepticism on the universal accessibility to Web-based technologies. Hague brings to question: “Whose utopia is cyberspace?” In addition, attention has been geared towards acknowledging the democratic divide – the widening gap in online political participation. Despite this skepticism, many admit there is no denying the Internets potential for facilitating social movements. Invisible Children activist, Sarah Cooper states:  “[social media] definitely has the ability to create huge changes and to have a lot of people involved in things, Kony2012 is an example of that. But they have to be grounded in appropriate research and context and not misinform people because thats when things can get dangerous.”

Harlow defines, ‘activism’ as: “the actions of a group of like-minded individuals coming together to change the status quo, advocating for a cause, whether local or global, and whether progressive or not” (2011, p 228). Activism can involve social movements – the prolonged contestation of authority with interactions between challengers and power holders – and/or movements of collective action. Tilly understands this as the: “joint action in pursuit of common ends” (1978, p 84). The success of the action largely depends on the degree of a group’s common interests and shared identity, its available resources, its political power, its opportunities and threats, and the level of governmental repression.

Juris advocates that the Internet potentially facilitates traditional offline activism, enhancing a movement’s existing repertoire, adding that it can create a new avenue for novel forms of activism and resistance. Ramtin coins the term ‘digital activism’ or ‘e-activism’ which describes how citizens utilize digital tools to effect social or political change (2012, p64). It is this idea of ‘e-activism’ that is becoming ever so prevalent amongst contemporary activists.  Along with the Kony2012 movement, the recent Arab Spring is an example where social media has played a central role in coordinating political activities. History and Politics lecturer, Susan Engel states: “there are examples where [social media] has been used to help facilitate and organise successful campaigns. In and of itself, it won’t change governments, it won’t change policies… Its a useful mechanism and it reflects the communications revolution. It should be changing the way we do activism.”

Activists are now making full use of blogs and social media sites to promote there message and gain support.

McCafferty contends: “while no one disputes that online initiatives like these draw greater attention to a cause, opinion varies with respect to whether they make a significant lasting impact” (2011, p 18).

This blog will further examine McCafferty’s claim and dive into deeper analysis of the effects of social media on political activism.

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Braddock, K, Joyce M & Zaeck, T 2009, “Digital activism survey report 2009,” DigiActiv, www.digiactive.org/wpcontent/uploads/Research4_SureveyReport2009.pdf

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Harlow, S 2011, “Social media and social movements: Facebook and an online Guatemala justice movement that moved offline,” New Media Society, Vol 14, Issue No. 2, pp 225-243, http://nms.sagepub.com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/content/14/2/225.full.pdf+html, accessed 26.3.2012

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Kaplan, A.M & Haenlein, M, 2010, “Users of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of Social Media”Business Horizons, Issue 53, Volume 1, pp 59–68.

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Radwan, A 2011, ‘Egypt’s Facebook Revolution’, American Diplomacy, pp. 1-3, Political Science Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 22 September 2011.

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

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Sengupta, Somini , 2012, “Facebook’s Prospects May Rest on Trove of Data”The New York Times. Retrieved May 15, 2012.

Shirkey, Clay. Here Comes Everybody. New York: Penguin Books, 2008. Print.

Steel, E, 2012, “Kony 2012 Sets Mark as Fastest-Spreading Viral Video,” Wall Street Journal, 09 March 2012, http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2012/03/09/kony-2012-sets-mark-as-fastest-spreading-viral- video/?mod=google_news_blog

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Politicial Activism, Social Media & KONY2012

 “KONY2012 is an example of the shallower, low-risk cousin of traditional activism, as seen in the Civil Rights Movement” (Gladwell)

Promotional poster for the video, featuring stylized forms of the donkey symbolizing the Democratic Party and the elephant symbolizing the Republican Party, overlapping to form a white dove of peace.

“The negative reaction to the unprecedented success of an advocacy video about the murderous African warlord Joseph Kony can be summed up in a word: envy” (Goodman, Intenational Herald Tribune, Paris, 17 March 2, 2012). The Kony2012 campaign is one of the most noteworthy socio-political crusades of our time.

On March 5, 2012, Invisible Children Inc. released a short film entitled Kony2012. The film immediately went viral, unearthing the potential of online platforms to facilitate political activism. As of September 19, 2012, Kony2012 had over 92 million views on YouTube and over 16.6 million views on Vimeo.

Joseph Kony is a Ugandan war criminal and International Criminal Court fugitive. The film aspires to make this villain ‘famous’, and promote the charities “Stop Kony” movement. The enormous success of the film, in terms of audience size, publicity and public and government support, exemplify the potential of social media to engage the masses and potentially create radical change.

However the film is not without its critics. Many feel the video has simplified a very complex issue.  Others feel this is a lazy way of engaging with activism suggesting the movement is an example ‘slactivism. ’ Davies claims ‘slactivism’ is: “a portmanteau combining the words “slacker” and “activism”. This term [describes] the act of passively supporting causes in order to tap into the satisfaction that accompanies philanthropy, without having to do any heavy-lifting (or heavy spending).” Miller declares, “Linking to a video on Facebook is one thing. Getting off the couch is quite another,” this notion mirrors many critics thoughts on the Kony2012 effort.

Politics and sociology graduate Sarah Cooper, has been involved with Invisible Children’s campaigns in the past and says despite her previous positive experiences she was shocked when she first viewed the Kony2012 film: “I could really see the deception in it, if anything I was really disappointed that they took this conflict in Uganda out of context, they completely dehumanised African people, and to also use a child in it seemed really abusive and just wrong.”

Kony2012 supporters were asked to participate in ‘Cover The Night’ on April 20, 2012. The event saw activists involve themselves in some sort of charity work during the day, then overnight plaster  Kony2012 merchandise all over there local area to spread the ‘Stop Kony’ message. The turnout for the event was smaller than expected with Hager stating a gathering in Vancouver had merely 17 people and one in Brisbane saw fewer than 50 participants. Cooper states: “It’s just proof that people might have good intentions, but good intentions can also be fleeting. It’s just the way of our world now, unless things are consistently backed up, or its something that people personally feel a deep motivation to help with, often there not going to back up there words… as far as the campaign being a failure I think it was poorly planned in the first place.”

This body of work will endeavor to examine the strengths and vulnerabilities associated with the communication practices employed by Invisible Children Inc. to promote the Kony2012 campaign.