Kony campaign insults viewers’ intelligence

Picture of a poster saying "Kony 2012" issued by Invisible Children, alongside a Mitt Romney campaign posterRecently a campaign launched by a charity called Invisible Children, which works in northern Uganda, has led to a video being promoted over Twitter, Facebook and no doubt other social media, calling for the arrest of Joseph Kony, the leader of the “Lord’s Resistance Army”, a rebel group which originally operated in northern Uganda and used abducted child soldiers and sex slaves in large numbers, who has the dubious honour of being the first person on the list of wanted war crimes suspects issued by the International Criminal Court. The video calls on social media users to join in a campaign to leaflet-bomb cities in the western world on 20th April this year, and to put pressure on politicians to support the Ugandan government to get Kony. There have been some very solid articles put out criticising the video and the politics behind it, such as this one by Joshua Keating at Foreign Policy and this one by Ugandan writer Amber Ha.

You can view the video over the fold.


This has been quite a successful social media campaign. I have two mostly separate groups of friends online: a Muslim group and a group of people with various disabilities, and people in both groups were sharing this video. The thing about social media is that some of its heaviest users are ill, some of them house-bound, or who have limited strength, who are easily distressed because of mental health problems, who are in pain. And judging by some of the conditions some of these people have, it is likely that some of the people who spread this video or discussed it caused themselves pain by doing so. And if you’re going to manipulate people into causing themselves pain to support your cause, it had better be a worthy one.

There are some thoroughly ridiculous suggestions in this video. Among them that nobody has ever heard of Kony, and that if people knew about him, something would be done, i.e. he’d be arrested and brought before the judges in the Hague. People knowing about someone’s crimes does not mean they will be arrested. Everyone in the UK knows about Lord Lucan, but he has never been arrested and is now believed to have lived out his days in Africa. People knew about Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, becuase they carried out their crimes in full view of the world’s media. They were indicted in 1995; Karadzic was not arrested until 2008 and Mladic not until May 2011. That is 13 and 16 years, respectively. Kony has been at large (since indictment) for just seven years. The reason it took so long to catch them, and why it’s taking so long to get Kony, is because these things are not simple or easy, any more than stopping Hitler in 1941 was; catching a criminal or stopping a crime thousands of miles away in hostile territory or terrain is difficult and takes time, and sometimes careful planning, and it sometimes just can’t be done.

I also dispute the claim that nobody knew about Kony. I do not know what was reported about him in the American media, but the fact that his organisation existed and was waging war in northern Uganda, and the general issue of child soldiers not only in Uganda but in other parts of Africa, have been widely reported here in the UK. People who read and watch the news will have heard of them, along with such issues as “blood diamonds” and perhaps even coltan mining (the material ends up in mobile phones), and certainly about the wars which spread over the border from Rwanda around the time of the genocide into eastern Congo. Not everyone, of course, reads the news, and particularly the international news (when it’s not about a war we are involved in) that thoroughly, but people are not that ignorant and they know that terrible things have gone on in central and eastern Africa. If they do not know how uniquely evil Kony supposedly is, perhaps it’s because he really isn’t — no more so than the dozens of other war criminals at large in that part of Africa, including at least two current heads of state. Nobody is campaigning for the arrest of Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Uganda’s own president, Yoweri Museveni, despite the crimes both countries’ armies perpetrated in the Congo and the latter’s use of child soldiers when he came to power. The video insults the intelligence of the viewers, along with that of those depicted as audience members to their presentations (one of whom was shown crying — as if that automatically meant she had never heard of this going on, when in fact she might just not have known particular aspects, or seen it on video; the fact that she went to the presentation showed that she had some interest in the subject).

There is also a huge degree of naivety about the power of social media. There is, at one point, a claim that it turns the pyramid upside down and puts the masses at the top. This is not true. The recent Spartacus Report campaign (by disabled people against the British government’s welfare reforms) used social media extensively, but failed in its central goal of persuading politicians to drop their reforms to disability benefits. Even before Twitter existed and Facebook became anything like as popular as it is today, people were able to organise political campaigns: the massive demonstrations in London against the Iraq war in 2003 were partly organised over the Internet — yet they were airily brushed off by the Blair government. During the war in Bosnia, there was great evidence of public support for military action to stop the repeated war crimes by the Serbs — letters to newspapers and calls to radio programmes, for example — and yet nothing happened for four years, by which time the Serbs’ job was more or less done. The fact is that peaceful mass mobilisations, whether organised over social media or any other way, rarely result in major changes to policy.

The use of the film-maker’s son is also highly manipulative and gives a plainly ludicrous message. The fact that he can persuade his young son that some guy he shows him a picture of and tells is a bad guy who makes people kill others isn’t any way of persuading adults with learning and discrimination that this is even true, or that it requires foreign intervention. Of course he believes it; it is his dad saying it, he looks about four years old and in his world, what Daddy says is true — there is no reason for it not to be. For the rest of us, he’s not Dad and we don’t have to take his claims at face value. Some of us probably wouldn’t do that for our own fathers, after all. The point is that the whole issue is childishly simple — Kony is a bad guy, we ought to get him and if people only knew, we could, and would because he’s just such a bad guy. I think that filling kids’ heads with this kind of information is unethical: the kid might well form the impression that someone a lot like Joseph Kony is in their neighbourhood, or one not very far (particularly if he often hears stories about violent crime in the media and there is often a black face attached to them). We don’t talk about these kinds of things with the young children in our family. There are reasons for this which I won’t go into, but his age is too young to be introduced to child soldiers and this particular type of “bad guy”.

And what do they say is the solution to the Kony problem? Well, they want the USA to equip and train the Ugandan army to pursue him. The fact that he is no longer in the country and is believed to be in the Central African Republic, a country which does not share a border with Uganda, poses some obvious logistical difficulties for them in this regard, not least the fact that the countries in between, namely the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan, might not want Ugandan troops on their soil. In fact, they might even regard the remains of the LRA as preferable, given that the Ugandan army have been accused of war crimes relating to the last time they involved themselves in the DR Congo from 1993 to 2003. As the video’s critics have said, the LRA is a spent force which is no longer able to operate on its home territory, and while the apprehension of Kony would be a good thing in itself, the price to the people of the Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic of pursuing him might well be too high, however famous people make him by 20th April.

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