Wednesday, 7 March 2012

PHONY 2012: 9 Reasons Not To Support This Manipulative Meme-Du-Jour

On April 20 you might just wake up to find Joseph Kony all over Toronto.

By the time you read this post you with no doubt have already seen the latest viral video phenomenon, KONY 2012. In case you've missed it, the video is part of a human rights campaign gone that has ratcheted up millions of YouTube hits, trended like wildfire over Twitter and has drawn thousands to to its Facebook page

The subject of Jason Russell's now-viral film is Joseph Kony, the notorious Ugandan warlord and leader of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) who has been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court. Established in 1986, the LRA has carried out a violent bush war in the northern part of the country with the stated aim of overthrowing the government and establishing a theocratic state centred on the Ten Commandments.

That Kony is a reprehensible figure is not in any doubt. Since the start of this armed conflict, the LRA is accused of abducting some 66,000 children to serve as child soldiers (or sexual slaves) and has displaced over 2,000,000 people in northern Uganda as well as in neighbouring South Sudan and the Central African Republic. Since 2005, Kony has been indicted with no less than 12 counts of crimes against humanity, including murder, enslavement, sexual enslavement, and rape, with a further 21 charges of war crimes include murder, cruel treatment of civilians, intentionally directing an attack against a civilian population, pillaging, inducing rape, and forced enlisting of children into the rebel ranks.

Yes, there's no doubt that Kony is a bad man. Nevertheless, this viral campaign, which pledged to bring this wanted war criminal to justice by the end of this year, is a deeply problematic affair. Admittedly, I was taken in for about the first ten minutes, although I found the transparent manipulativeness of it to be grating from the start. But by the end, I was deeply suspicious of this campaign and did some further digging. The following riposte on the always irreverent blog Jezebel offers a less than flattering perspective on the tactics of the campaign's mother organization, Invisible Children. Here, however, I will focus on the cause in question.

My sister, Valerie, is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Northwestern University in Illinois who specialized in post-conflict resolution and reconciliation in Africa - in places ranging from Uganda to Sierra Leone to South Africa. As something of an expert on the LRA conflict, she kindly filled me in on the conflict, which, admittedly, I knew very little about 24 hours ago.

I'm not going to get into how transparently manipulative the filmmaker's promise to his young son that he would capture Kony by the end of the year is, or, for that matter, the fact that Rush Limbaugh went on record defending the LRA last year when Obama committed 100 special forces troops to the region to help the Ugandan army pursue Kony and his thugs. But here here are a nine facts to consider before you leap onto this online bandwagon:

1) There's nothing 'new' or 'invisible' about this conflict. Joseph Kony has been at or near the top of the International Criminal Court's most wanted list for the better part of a decade, and anyone with any knowledge of African political affairs of the last two decades is already well aware of him.

2) The footage of Kony and the LRA used in this video is extremely dated, mostly at least a decade old.

3) The internally displaced people (IDP) situation in northern Uganda has been essentially over since the Ugandan military pushed the LRA out of the country and into the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo and CAR. Kony himself is believed to be in the CAR currently, not in Uganda.

4) As Valerie eloquently put it, awareness is not the problem. The problem is FINDING him. And to suggest that an arbitrary date such as the end of 2012 is feasible for tracking down and capturing this fugitive is absolutely ludicrous. It took the US military nearly a decade to find Osama bin Laden following the US overthrow of the Taliban. It took even longer for the Serbian special police to capture Ratko Mladić, the former Bosnian Serb commander and the infamous 'Butcher of Srebenica', in a country far smaller than either of the places where Joseph Kony is likely hiding.

On that note, it is worth noting that Uganda's military, a far more professional and well equipped outfit than it was in the 1980s, has been searching for Kony for years, and that Uganda's northern neighbours (South Sudan, the DRC and the CAR) are among the world's most dysfunctional and lawless countries, making finding Kony at least as daunting a task as finding Osama in the anarchic mountainous region spanning the Afghan-Pakistan border was.

5) Contrary to what this video suggests, Kony and the LRA pose no existential threat to the people of Uganda at present. The LRA has been expelled from the country and Uganda is today one of the more stable and economically prosperous countries in the region. Granted, Uganda does have lingering human rights issues, not the least of which being President Museveni's constitutional tinkerings and repression against political opponents, but as we've seen in Russia lately, this is hardly a strictly African problem. The picture painted of Uganda as a lawless basket case of a country was accurate 30 years ago when the country was still recovering from the murderous regime of Idi Amin, but it's in no way reflective of the current state of affairs there.

6) The video is completely black and white and makes no mention of the Ugandan army's own atrocities, both within its own borders and in its neighbouring countries. A Human Rights Watch report from 2005 noted that "The Ugandan armed forces have failed to prosecute or otherwise meaningfully discipline soldiers and their officers responsible for abuses in the north." This, if anything, is the untold story of the LRA conflict - not Kony's atrocities.

7) The video states that Kony and his forces have no ideology other than his own desire to consolidate power. In fact, the conflict has deep roots in ethnic strife. Kony's own Acholi people briefly enjoyed a privileged position in Uganda under the rule of President Tito Okello, and the conflict began following his ouster by current president Yoweri Museveni. As such, the LRA enjoyed early support from Kony's fellow Acholi, a long marginalized ethnic minority in Uganda.

8) Perhaps most troublingly, the video seems to call for US military intervention in Uganda to locate and capture Joseph Kony. Given how successful such intervention has been in Afghanistan and Iraq, do we really think this is a good course of action in what has been a chronically unstable part of the world for decades? Moreover, so many of the problems that have bedevilled this region have resulted from foreign armed incursions across borders, not the least of which being the enduring tragedy of the eastern DRC, where soldiers from neighbouring countries have taken rape as a weapon of war to previously unheard of levels.

In fact, President Obama did commit US troops to the region to assist the Ugandan army in tracking down Kony in this ever-restive region. But as we saw in Afghanistan, no number of troops in a region like this guarantees quick results in hunting down wanted fugitives - especially when they have friends and influence among cross-border co-ethnics.

9) There are other conflicts in the world that strike me as more immediate than this one. Joseph Kony is an exiled and marginalized figure with little remaining influence. Why is Mr. Russell not, instead, campaigning for the capture and indictment of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad? Why is he not focusing his attention on tyrants such as Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, Equatorial Guinea's Teodoro Obiang or even Museveni himself, whose most recent 'election' was marred by charges of voter intimidation and violence? I'm only asking.

In sum, this viral campaign strikes me of having all the hallmarks of 'slacktivism' - wherein an international cause celebre is embraced in a brief frenzy of online activity, which is all-too-quickly abandoned. Pursuing war criminals is a wholly admirable goal, but one that takes incredible longstanding resolve. The late Simon Wiesenthal devoted a lifetime to hunting down Holocaust perpetrators, and the organization he founded is still in hot pursuit of the remaining Nazi war criminals believed to still be alive. Bringing Joseph Kony to justice is no less of an undertaking.

In the meantime, if you want to help people who have suffered human rights abuses, get involved with Amnesty International. Or volunteer at your local refugee centre. The Mennonite Centre for Newcomers here in Edmonton is always looking for volunteers. And helping out refugees here in Canada does indeed pay off. The latest issue of Alberta Views featured a very uplifting story about former refugees from South Sudan who came to Alberta - only to eventually return to their native country following its declaration of independence in May 2011, bringing with them the skills and expertise that this painfully poor and vulnerable young country will need in order to survive and grow its economy.

There are so many better ways of helping further the cause of human rights than to support temporary online crazes. Far be it for me to pooh-pooh people's wholly laudable disgust vis-a-vis despicable figures like Joseph Kony and their desire to do good. I just wish people would be a little more questioning of what they see online - and do their homework.


  1. Alright, here we go.

    1) First of all how can you say that awareness is not an issue and then admit you had no idea this was going on. The conflict has been invisible, at least in the sense that the first world masses knew nothing of it.

    2) So what if it's dated? I don't see how that affects anything at all.

    3) Did you actually watch the video? They discuss how they've largely moved out of Uganda and to neighbouring countries, not like they try to hide this. The campaign is called Kony 2012 not Uganda 2012.

    4) The whole 'deadline' thing was showmanship and (yes) a bit of emotional manipulation on the part of the video. I don't deny that they do it. It could be seen as a fault in the video certainly, but honestly I see it as just a little bit of 'end justifies the means'. As far a literally believing that 2012 is the last chance to catch him? Come on? You seriously got that from the video? All they were suggesting is that the best opportunity to act is now while international attention has already been somewhat heightened (the statements of US conress, Obama's letter, and yes the deployment of US support troops).

    5. Again, you are are putting up straw man arguments that no one made. Kony is a horrible man who continue to do horrible things to people, is that not good enough for you?

    6. I'm willing to give you this one. I don't enough details about the situation, but I'm perfectly ready to accept facts about things not being 'one sided' as you say. But yet again, how does any of that make it less of a good thing to put pressure on Kony?

    7. Again, great. I don't know whether you're right but I have no reason to think otherwise. Although ethnic strife is not an ideology so technically you're again stretching your argument, and you even use a qualifier such as "in the beginning" And AGAIN how is this a reason not to support this cause?

    Because this isn't someone who just made a video for publicity out of nowhere. They didn't come to this cause yesterday. This I did do my research on and Invisible Children has already done a LOT of good in the region over an extended period of time. They've been working hard at this, and it's time for us to help them. As far as the whole "why this cause and not another one?" thing? Well, because they had the visionary idea to harness social media (and hopefully eventually as a consequence main stream media) in pursuit of something actually useful (it's not like this kind of thing hasn't been done they say in their intro, one of people's strongest drives is to feel a sense of belonging).

    Which also brings me to your final argument about Syria...come on. Completely different situation. Most importantly there is a nation involved which always complicates things (sovereignty, self determination etc), but much more importantly the world IS involved already, there is talk of bombing, it's in the news every day, and err...there is oil involved. In other words this doesn't strike me as an issue that needs public intervention. Maybe in some time if the governments don't do the right thing (wouldn't be the first time) and mainstream media forget about Syria, it will be time to raise awareness but that time sure isn't now.

    I get as cynical as the next guy a lot of the time, but in the case I really feel like that's entirely misplaced.

    Simon Mizera

  2. I noticed I missed argument number 8, about the ineffectiveness of military intervention.

    Yes, you're right. This is questionable an the single biggest weakness of the entire campaign. The strategy seems flawed.

    But in my mind that still does not negate the benefit bringing attention and discussion to the subject, which may very well result in more effective strategies being formulated.

    Simon Mizera

  3. Dear Simon,

    I appreciate you taking the time to respond to my post. While we definitely have our disagreements, the intended purpose of this post was to generate discussion on this topic, and such I really appreciate it.

    Point 1 - When I said that I "didn't know much about the issue" I was referring to the historical background of the conflict. I was well aware of the existence of Joseph Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army - and of their atrocities in northern Uganda and elsewhere. I just didn't know the background of the conflict, i.e. its ethno-cultural roots and connections to the 1986 coup d'etat and whatnot. I still maintain that Joseph Kony, while perhaps not well known to the North American mainstream, is very well known indeed to the international community.

    Point 2 - It's fine to use dated footage, provided you make that apparent. But from what I could tell this footage was making it look as though it happened last week as opposed to over a decade ago. I personally think this does matter. And on this point, I didn't know it was dated footage until my sister (who's an expert on this topic) informed me of the fact.

    Point 3 - This is true but the emphasis is still on the region in northern Uganda where the LRA emerged and wreaked havoc. And yes, there are many children like Jacob for whom justice has yet to be served, but their continued poverty has more to do with neglect on the part of the Ugandan government than any actions by Joseph Kony. But I concede you have a point there.

    1. (Have to truncate right now - Blogger is being stupid)

      Point 4 - Maybe it's just a difference of opinion, but I found the bravado in this film to be really annoying. And the whole fanfare about capturing him in 2012 "before it's too late" to me stunk of a PR stunt. As a PR professional myself, I'm deeply suspicious of this kind of messaging, as I think it can be very misleading and counterproductive in the case like this where the end goal is completely unpredictable. Maybe the US forces in the CAR will catch him tomorrow. That would be great. Or, what's more likely, it'll be another 5 years before they get him. Why not instead focus on the work being done by the Ugandan government and international forces and "increase awareness" that way?

      Point 5 - Yes, he's a bad man, but he's not a bad man who came out of a vacuum. The socio-political situation that produced the Lord's Resistance Army are complicated, rooted in colonial and pre-colonial history, and even if Kony were to be caught and dragged to The Hague tomorrow, these problems wouldn't be solved. I thought there was a lot of important perspective that was left out of this film in favour of a black-and-white characterization of the situation centred on a single man, as though he alone were responsible for the complex problems bedeviling Central Africa.

      In sum, my main objection to this film and this campaign is that I find it to be a trivialization of a very complicated geopolitical connundrum that is WAY bigger than one man. The Second Congo War, which lasted from 1998 to 2003 - at the height of the LRA's activity, involved eight different countries and some 25 armed groups and resulted in the most casualties of any war since the Second World War - more than the Vietnam War and the Korean War COMBINED. And the Ugandan army was deeply involved in this conflict - and committed terrible crimes in it. Yes, it would be nice to capture Joseph Kony and make him pay for his crimes, but how important is that really when you consider the magnitude of devastation that this part of the world has suffered, and how multifaceted it all is?

      Joseph Kony makes for a great villain. He looks the part and he's certainly got the rap sheet for it - hence why he's been on the ICC's most wanted list for nearly a decade. But Joseph Kony is an isolated and largely discredited figure, while at the same time fresh conflicts (such as the ongoing mass-rapes in eastern DRC. But it's easier to focus on one person, just as GW Bush did with Saddam Hussein. It's an easier sell but, in most cases, I think it does more harm than good.

      Since I wrote this post a lot of people have said to me "Well, if it increases people's awareness, isn't it a good thing?" Well, I'm all for awareness, but in many cases a little bit of information is a dangerous thing. I hope people do their homework and dig deeper into the history and background of the warfare in central Africa, but - and I guess I'm cynical - I have my doubts. In my experience, with viral campaigns like this people get excited briefly and then quit the campaign once it loses its sex appeal. Activism is a lot of things but it's not sexy, and I fear this video is an attempt to romanticize this cause.

      Again, that's just my opinion. I would love to be proven wrong on all of this, and I genuinely hope the campaign will leave people better informed and more interested in these types of issues than they were before.

      Thanks for reading - and for your feedback.

      Ben Freeland