Like it or hate it, the social media phenomenon known as Kony 2012 is having its desired impact, at least in Washington. As Foreign Policy's Josh Rogin reported on Wednesday, 37 senators have co-sponsored a resolution encouraging the Obama administration to keep up its efforts to hunt Lord Resistance Army (LRA) warlord Joseph Kony and help civilians in the affected areas. The legislation is nearly identical to a House resolution introduced last week with 29 co-sponsors. In an even more dramatic development, the African Union has announced that it is deploying a 5,000 strong peacekeeping force to hunt the notorious rebel leader down.
Just over 2 weeks after Kony 2012's launch, the 30-minute video sensation has had over 100 million views on Youtube and Vimeo. While enjoying massive widespread publicity, and selling out of Kony 2012 "action kits" almost immediately, the video and its creator, the San Diego-based advocacy group Invisible Children (IC) have come in for heavy criticism for presenting an oversimplified, misleading, and patronizing narrative about the conflict. Just as the debate seemed like it was starting to move away from the video and toward policy, co-founder and director Jason Russell suffered a headline-grabbing breakdown last week.
Nevertheless, as fickle internet attention moves elsewhere, the reaction in Washington gives a clue about what impact the video, regardless of its flaws, may have on policy and actions going forward.
Some critics (including me) wondered how awareness, especially based on a very simplistic and emotively manipulative video, would translate into action other than fundraising for Invisible Children. The recent congressional activity in Washington is exactly the kind of results the video and larger campaign were hoping for. But could it be more than they bargained for?
One criticism I leveled at the Kony 2012 video was that its key call to action was to impose political pressure to make sure the Obama administration would not "cancel" its support for the hunt to bring Kony to justice. The narration in Kony 2012 states "if the government doesn't believe the people care about Kony, the mission will be canceled."
I wrote that I was not aware of any potential threat of this happening, and the State Department and U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) were quick to add that there was no timeline or end date for the U.S. troops supporting the Ugandan military (UPDF).
Rather than staving off imminent withdrawal of advisers, Invisible Children said in a email response to my questions that the goal was to "ensure that [U.S. advisers] would not be withdrawn prematurely at any point." The motivation for this was concern that partisan battles in an election year could undermine support for keeping U.S. troops in East and Central Africa. When President Obama announced the deployment of the advisers in October, the mission was described as "time-limited" and a progress review was scheduled for this spring -- both apparently to appease a wary Congress and public about indefinitely committing the U.S. to yet another conflict zone.
"The point of the video was not to change the advisor deployment itself, it was to build bipartisan political support for it," Michael Poffenberger, executive director of Resolve, an LRA-focused NGO that has been one of IC's main partners in the campaign, told me.
One direct effect of Kony 2012, according to Poffenberger, is that the anti-LRA deployment is no longer a potential political liability for Obama. "The political landscape on the issue has pretty much overnight been radically transformed," he said. "There are now very few [legislators] willing to stick their neck out and criticize the administration on this issue."