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."
In a way, this means Kony 2012 has already accomplished its primary goal. The resolutions in Congress reduce the threat that the U.S. adviser mission will be canceled, and also advocate for spending more money already allocated for LRA affected areas. The increased interest may have helped spur African countries to increased action as well. Following the announcement of the new AU force, the head of the U.N.'s office in Central Africa told the AP that the increased interest in Kony had been "been useful, very important" in building the support for increased measures to pursue him.
Other items on the future legislative agenda for Invisible Children and its partners -- Resolve and the Enough Project -- include expanding the Rewards for Justice bounty program which is currently focused on radical Islamic terrorism and narcotics, and increasing the U.S. government's FY13 budget allocations for LRA-affected areas.
Outside of Washington, Invisible Children itself also seems to be on the rebound. After being overwhelmed by both supporters and by critics, the organization has taken a number of steps to not only defend itself but to address shortcomings.
In a rebuttal to critics last week in Foreign Policy, Invisible Children policy director Adam Finck expressed surprise that so many viewers of Kony 2012 got the impression from the video that the LRA-related violence is mostly taking place in Uganda. (Kony and his followers were pushed out of Uganda in 2006.) "Perhaps it was due to the focus on a young Ugandan who was affected by the conflict, or perhaps it is driven by the unfortunate fact that only 20 percent of viewers actually watched the entire film," he wrote.
To its credit, Invisible Children has moved to reach out to its supporters to make sure they understand. A follow-up email was sent to each person who signs its online pledge to stop Kony (currently more than 3 million), which includes an explicit statement about where the LRA is today and links to more detailed information including the LRA Crisis Tracker. Invisible Children has also highlighted a four minute video it made six months ago called "Who is the LRA?" which provides a very quick but reasonably thorough overview of the history of the group, including its current most likely location. I would still argue that this was information that could have been included in the 30-minute Kony 2012, given that it was many viewers' first introduction to the issue, but at least they are now taking steps to better inform viewers.
The reminder that Uganda is no longer at war will be a relief to the country's prime minister, Amama Mbabazi, who released his own response video, and its tourism minister Ephraim Kamuntu, who said tour operators have been forced this month to reassure clients that Uganda, Lonely Planet's No. 1 destination for 2012, was still safe.
Invisible Children has also acknowledged it simply wasn't prepared for the level of attention and scrutiny the video drew. "We thought the awareness piece would take until at least April 20" CEO Ben Keesey told the New York Times. (April 20 is the planned date of the group's "Cover the Night" global rally.) "Now, with this huge viewership, we are trying to translate all this excitement into action."
A series of response videos featuring Keesey answering questions and criticisms have shown an earnest effort to convince skeptics of Invisible Children's goodwill -- and in particular, defend its finances. For the record, there is no evidence that Invisible Children is misusing donations, but it does spend about two-thirds of its budget on awareness and advocacy as opposed to projects in central Africa, a model it expects to continue, though it declined to commit to any particular spending breakdown going forward.
What does all this mean for all of the critics of Kony 2012? Were we gleeful naysayers looking for our own moment in the spotlight? Did our concerns amount to nothing more than, as the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof put it so lovingly (and without acknowledging a single legitimate critique), "the sneering scorn of do-nothing armchair cynics?" More importantly, what does it mean for results on the ground going forward?
I don't buy the argument put forward by some, like Time magazine's Alex Perry, that the net effect of criticism has been destructive. He writes that "worthwhile debate was drowned out by a wildly inaccurate, malicious online ‘takedown,' most of whose participants were utterly uninterested in truth but focused instead on a point-scoring, trashing and hurting."
First, of course, there were many who mindlessly piled on when the torrent of criticism of Kony 2012 exploded, or when Russell had his public breakdown. And yes, many misinterpreted the substance of critiques, bought into conspiracy theories about oil, and made crude jokes about Russell. That's what happens when you rocket to sudden prominence on the Internet.
Second, as Yale political scientist and development blogger Chris Blattman predicted early into the Kony 2012 madness, one of the best side effects of this phenomenon has been the volume and quality of substantive debate in the mainstream media about issues like the proper role of advocacy that usually don't make it out of development circles. The debate has also given a global platform to African voices who are all too often excluded from these debates.
Ugandan journalists like Angelo Izama and Rosebell Kagumire, as well as noted African writers like Teju Cole and Dinaw Mengitsu, have expressed their concerns with Kony 2012 and the way stories are told about Africa, bringing much needed detail and context to the debate.
For example, Izama, writing on the New York Times op-ed page Tuesday, noted one reason for discontent with oversimplifying Kony's evil: "The locals never forgot that Mr. Kony's nine lives were licensed by the politics of the posse that has been hunting for him." He argues that a regional political solution will be needed to end not just the LRA but the causes for it and other violent militias in the area.
I'm certainly biased as a friend of Izama's. But it's definitely a positive development that his political insights, as well as Cole's challenge to the "White Savior Industrial Complex" in the Atlantic, have reached people who might not have heard them before thanks to Invisible Children's viral success. However, these thoughts also wouldn't have been heard as widely if not for the willingness of many critics to step up and say good intentions do not make Kony 2012 immune to substantive concerns.
While the group has made some progress in the past few weeks, I remain baffled by Invisible Children's inability or unwillingness to admit any problems with its narrative or engage with critics in Uganda and elsewhere who find the Kony 2012 video insulting or worse. Their response so far has been to point out that 95 percent of IC's Uganda staff are Ugandan, that current victims in LRA affected areas should have more of a voice, and that the angry locals who stormed out of a viewing in Northern Uganda were not given the proper context. Moreover, IC argues that it has strong support from civil society groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as northern Uganda. "Leaders in post-conflict northern Uganda, in Acholi subregion in particular, have come out strong in support of Kony 2012 and the campaign's advocacy message. It is very unfortunate that this story is not being told," IC's spokespeople wrote to me by email.
All of this may be true, but the debate is not about whether Kony's crimes should be spotlighted, it is about how Western charities frame stories about Africa. Prominent politician Norbert Mao, who was cited by IC as one of their Acholi supporters, had a fantastic post in FP this week that commended Invisible Children for their compassion and argued that the Kony 2012 campaign would ultimately have a positive effect. But even he noted that portraying victims as passive and ignoring the Ugandan government's mixed record were problems. "They certainly wouldn't earn high marks in African studies" he wrote, adding that just as attention to Kony and the Ugandan military's record would be useful, "scrutiny of Invisible Children (its finances and activities) is also a good thing."
And this, I think, is the key point going forward. Uncomfortable as it may be, in the long run, Invisible Children, and similar organizations should perform better after having gone through this level of scrutiny, but only if they take their critics seriously. Even if Kony 2012 was intended for U.S. college students, the group should acknowledge the film's poor reception in Uganda and say, "We hear you and are sorry you feel this way. It was not our intent and we look forward to do a better job getting input from you moving forward." Why hasn't this happened?
I still think Kony 2012 as a video was enormously problematic, but as shown by the congressional activity and the deeper policy manifesto of Invisible Children and its partners, the campaign is more than just the video. It is already yielding results that go beyond awareness, but that themselves show the enormous challenges ahead.
Will bipartisan congressional support improve the performance of the U.S. military advisors? Is today's announcement that the African Union is deploying a 5,000-man force based in Southern Sudan to hunt Kony positive news, or likely to add to instability? Will these soldiers from the four affected countries work together effectively, or does the fact that this force has been stuck in the making for some time presage problems?
Even if we attribute its launch to Kony 2012, making sure results like these are ultimately positive will require (you guessed it) more debate, scrutiny and transparency.