Posted by: beckydale | March 17, 2012

Kony 2012 is not real.

This is not an analysis of KONY 2012, nor is it a response to every criticism. A few are glaringly absent – not for lack of response, but for lack of time to do them justice. These are my thoughts and feelings in response to some of the media attention, criticism, and inspirational stories that accompany each. I do not try to conceal the fact that I am a part of the campaign and unconditionally support it. I do stress that my opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Resolve, Invisible Children, the Enough Project, or my colleagues. 

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KONY 2012 is not real.

The critics had it right all along. Of all the angry, indignant “facts” flying around, this one is by far my favorite. Yes, the publicly available 30-minute video was actually dreamed up and realized by a few southern Californians with the sole, malicious intention of filling their pockets with the millions they would undoubtedly receive in proceeds. I like it even better when “southern Californians” is replaced with “Pentagon officials” and “filling their pockets” is replaced with “expanding their budget.” KONY 2012 is a video vendetta against the American populace. Period.

And while I may be hard-pressed to mask my sarcasm, the title of this piece remains true. There is something about this entire campaign that is a bit difficult to wrap my brain around. But the accusations of falsehood, of neocolonialism, of shady financials, what have you…all of that is manageable and – quite frankly – irrelevant.

The stories of LRA violence are the stuff of legends – children forced to kill and eat their own parents, families displaced for years from their homes and receiving nothing in the way of food support, entire communities afraid to till their fields and therefore starving, retaliation attacks that slaughter hundreds and abduct hundreds more, escaped child soldiers shunned by the very people they used to call friend, mother, father. I do not want to take the time now to expound on these stories. Many have been documented, many more continue to surface from years past, and many continue to be reported every day. The gruesome nature of these incidents and their innocent victims is what engaged me in the issue seven years ago. To do these stories justice would take more time than I am allowing myself in this post alone.

from LRACrisisTracker.com

Uganda is no longer the central focus of this story, but neither should it be ignored and forgotten when discussing the LRA. The atrocities of the Lord’s Resistance Army have not changed over the past 26 years, they have simply relocated. The three currently-affected countries where the Lord’s Resistance Army makes its bases and carries out its raids, killings, abductions, lootings, rituals, etc. tell some very different stories than the people of northern Uganda.

It is this violence, orchestrated by a man who has recently been equated with evil itself, that has inspired a nation to action. The LRA operates unmolested in central Africa not because nobody knows, not because nobody cares, but because not enough people know or care to do anything. Does watching a 30-minute video bring this decades-old conflict to an abrupt end? Absolutely not. Does it tell the nuanced history and politics of the region in a thorough and comprehensive manner? How could it, when not a single academic, researcher, or local can today claim to be a foolproof expert on these three countries and on the LRA in particular? Does this video explain the series of steps necessary to capture Kony and rehabilitate his hundreds of soldiers and concubines? Though I do believe it could have been more direct, the bottom line is that there is no formula. Ask any military commander who has experienced several conflicts. They can describe one conflict as “just like” another, but the truth of the matter is that each conflict is situationally unique – each conflict has a specific set of factors that sets it apart from any that came before it and any that will come after. The set of factors surrounding the conflict with the Lord’s Resistance Army is no different.

Returning to the inspiration to action, therefore, I want to focus on the calculable results of KONY 2012. Oft-debated among idealists and cynics, KONY 2012 has had an undeniable impact on the average household in America. The campaign has two taglines: 1-“Make Him Famous” and 2-“Stop At Nothing.” The first, without argument, has certainly been accomplished.

In under 27 hours, the KONY 2012 film had been viewed 1 million times, according to the Invisible Children interns who frantically messaged me with the news. After just a few days the online hits had exceeded 70 million. Today, over 120 million views and counting has made this film the fastest-growing viral video to date, not to mention I would imagine it’s also the longest and most depressing. As the Twittersphere exploded with hashtags heralding the news that Kony must be stopped, that the world must watch this video, the number of people watching the video grew exponentially. Every view above 2 million is incomprehensible to me. The numbers can be total spam, the tweets and facebook comments all a farce, and at this point my brain might actually believe it. I question if that would that even matter, however, since the “damage” has been done. My life has turned a full 180.

I hear Kony’s name mentioned on the metro, in coffee shops, on the news as I wander my apartment with the tv on, in parks with dog owners concernedly discussing world affairs, on the phone with friends and family back in Missouri. Before KONY 2012 I could not speak of Joseph Kony without gauging the political and humanitarian interests of the other party, or without slipping into my 5-minute/1-minute/single-sentence spiel about the LRA and the cause. Invisible Children has been lambasted for oversimplification, but in a world of people with short attention spans and snazzy headlines that are unrealistically assumed and expected to contain the entire message of the subsequent article, I credit them with retaining interest for 30 minutes, albeit in such a way that may oversimplify the conflict’s and region’s complexity to a rather childish level.

I want to draw attention to not the sensationalism of the response, nor even to the sensationalism of the video itself, but to the second tagline that seems to be lost amidst the fiery criticisms and supportive articles alike.

Stop At Nothing is a weighty phrase. Despite or perhaps because of this weight, it has been the modus operandi of organizations like Invisible Children, Resolve, and the Enough Project for years now. The Lord’s Resistance Army is not a “fad issue,” there is no “bandwagon” to join, and the sudden attention to Kony and the LRA is neither “misguided,” “imbalanced,” or “neocolonial.” My pockets are not filling with the royalties skimmed off the millions Invisible Children reportedly makes off its flashy animation and camera angles. Au contraire, my pockets fill instead with lint, notes-to-self, ink stains from pens that take a beating and unleash their innards, and quarters for coin laundry. My days start early and end late. My inbox fills, my inbox empties. I run, I cook, I sleep, I work, I read, I write. My life can be considered normal, but for the fact that I receive phone calls from central Africa without blinking an eye and I incessantly research an area of the world that is rarely if ever in the public eye. At least until quite recently.

Reporters who have documented the atrocities of the Lord’s Resistance Army in the past and assert their knowledge of the issue with abandon have entered league with those who are learning of Invisible Children and the LRA for the first time. Both groups wag an accusatory finger at Invisible Children (the most visible face of the recent phenomenon) for not having a long-term strategy to capture Joseph Kony, Okot Odhiambo, and Dominic Ongwen. With little to no research, these same reporters seem not to notice that IC has for years emphasized sustainability in its approach. Programs such as the Legacy Scholarship Program, Village Savings and Loan Initiative, and MEND have long since replaced the very temporary and unsustainable bracelet production. All of those programs were conceived and formulated by the locals who would benefit from them and who understand many of the implications that may be lost on westerners like myself. I may not agree with everything Invisible Children does, says, and stands behind, but their programs in central Africa I admire. Having lived through the crazy roadie life, visited the IC programs in northern Uganda, and watched the development of the organization for many years, I can admit that they are not perfect, but they sure try to be. I can’t fault them for trying.

Another often-forgotten fact: Invisible Children is not the only organization working on KONY 2012 this spring. The campaign is co-branded by my current organization Resolve (repeat disclaimer, all thoughts expressed are my own). The criticism that KONY 2012 has no long-term plan to address the issue of Joseph Kony is blatantly untrue and is planned out step by step in a report that my colleague Paul Ronan published a month ago called Peace Can Be: President Obama’s chance to help end LRA atrocities in 2012. To anyone criticizing the campaign’s temporary nature who has not read this report, I respectfully refer you to its 37 pages of thoughtful analysis and ask that you not speak again until you have read, absorbed, and fully appreciated its contents.

This particular document, formulated over years of careful attention to the issue, building off a previous report released in 2010, and solidified during Paul’s 3-month trip to the LRA affected region last summer, was the basis of the entire campaign and indeed the foundation of not only Resolve’s current advocacy campaign but also a resolution that was recently introduced into the House to reaffirm the White House strategy released in 2010. The Senate version of the resolution will be introduced shortly. My job these past few weeks has been to channel the mass interest and awareness being raised by the KONY 2012 video toward local lobby meetings being held all over the country to garner Congressional support for these two resolutions. And what I have found has been heartwarming at worst.

I am much more politically aware and informed now than I was three years ago working so hard to generate nationwide support for The Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, now Public Law 111-172. My feelings over the past two weeks since the video was released have largely been reminiscent of these naïve years gone by. The thrill of adding cosponsors to an ever-growing list; the high I got from explaining to high school students how to contact their representatives and the pride they radiated when that first call was completed; the conference calls to discuss local lobby meeting logistics; the teary welcome and surge of emotion at the news of 250,000 signatures on a petition to the White House finally being reached. These were battles both grand and small that young activists like me had tackled day in and day out. Each successful result boosted momentum and morale. That process has just begun for KONY 2012. The critics are quick to jump on the controversy of the campaign, but I believe wholeheartedly that within a month they will discover that the impassioned youth of America will have once again achieved some unprecedented milestones in this journey to end LRA violence and restore peace to the affected communities.

To return at long last to the issue at hand, I re-reference the title of this post: KONY 2012 is not real. It is the one phrase that has circulated time and time again with conviction (stated in a tone of utter disbelief) among the many people working on this campaign. The 100+million views of the video? Not real. The 800 lobby meeting signups from people hoping to get more involved? Not real. The fact that Kony is not just being discussed by a handful of 20-somethings in San Diego and Washington DC anymore, but is now a household name? Definitely not real. We are all in a state of shock.

Criticism aside, I have found the response to be a beautiful thing. As humans we seem hardwired to focus on the bad in the short-term and, paradoxically, to cut it from our memories once the emotional wave has passed. I hope now is one of those times. My dear friends on the other side of the country are facing some rough challenges at the moment. Their financials – which I have always seen to be honest and transparent – have come under some close and misguided scrutiny of late. Critiques of their video have bled into critiques of the organization as a whole, which is a dangerous and hypocritical stance for a reporter to take: accusing the organization of the same flippant generalizations and un-researched efforts that they themselves are actively practicing. A dear friend, mentor, and inspiring soul has experienced a tragic misfortune at the hands of this very criticism. This is not my outlet to defend Invisible Children nor to distance myself from them in self-defense. I simply believe that they can speak for themselves much better than I can of them. I have supported them in the past, I support them now, and I will likely support them in the future. They have received an unfair amount of backlash for what is, in my humble opinion, a very well structured and strategic campaign. Of course the video does not follow the storyboard I would have set out; certainly I am not one of the organization’s cute, grinning, bracelet-wearing, meme-dropping teen activists-in-training with an unhealthy amount of idealism and “passion”…but I once was. To have walked in those shoes for several years, and to find myself here today, I challenge the critics that believe awareness alone has no power.

From my place in the city where idealism is ousted like a cockroach and passion is almost tangible with many organizations advocating without ceasing for years for the same issues over and over and over, I have trouble wrapping my head around the numbers and the support and criticism alike. But I don’t experience that in the same way Invisible Children does. I get to speak with the young activists, many of whom have never been or are not even now interested in politics, and discuss what options are available to them to “get Kony,” or, a favorite, “to stop that Kony guy.” They are well intentioned without a vehicle to guide their footsteps forward. My job is to provide that very vehicle and to walk them through what for many is their first time engaging with the political system. I coach them through making calls, writing letters, setting up lobby meetings, and I serve as a guide until the meeting is long over.

Recent critics point fingers at the massive drop-off in twitter attention as a good gauge for the lack of interest. I hold a different opinion: the KONY 2012 film achieved its mission of making him famous and igniting the spark of interest in enough dedicated people that want to bring an end to this conflict once and for all. They all believe that twenty-six years is too long. I have an inbox filled with requests to join lobby meetings, not just from every single state in the country, but from dozens of countries around the world: Serbia, Czech Republic, Algeria, Thailand, Indonesia, Mexico, and Colombia, to name a few.

The emails that sometimes accompany these sign-ups are endearing, though some do seem to border on outlandish. Razi* (*not real name) from UAE wants to lobby with her sheikh. Robert* from China has a body of students who want to Cover the Night on April 20th. Mara* from Morocco expressed her contempt for Joseph Kony in no less than 4 paragraphs. Over 30 people from Australia want to know how they can help. Santo* from Argentina is looking for a Spanish version of the movie and posters to share with his friends and family. And we’ve even received word that a student group in Libya is hoping to raise the profile of Joseph Kony among their friends and family. Unreal.

And that bipartisan resolution introduced to the House of Representatives on Monday of this week already has 10 cosponsors. That’s excluding the two honorable Congressmen who introduced it. Watching each name join the list of its colleagues is so thrilling. It’s a competition that fills the people working on the advocacy side of the campaign with hope and pride in the youth that have brought about that change. Not unlike watching the bill cosponsors roll in back in 2009, I look forward to proving to the critics that KONY 2012 is not just hot air and is much more than a viral video. There is a real impact that is being translated from video to advocacy to action. I never thought I would get to see this level of interest in the niche issue that has been so near and dear to me for the past 7 years, but without reservation I am proud to be a part of it. I look forward to the rest of 2012.

Update: On March 21, 2012 the Senate Resolution 402 was introduced by Senators Coons (D-DE) and Inhofe (R-OK) along with 31 original cosponsors. The House Resolution 583 at the time of S.Res. 402’s introduction had 29 total cosponsors.

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[Again] This is not an analysis of KONY 2012, nor is it a response to every criticism. A few are glaringly absent – not for lack of response, but for lack of time to do them justice. These are my thoughts and feelings in response to some of the media attention, criticism, and inspirational stories that accompany each. I do not try to conceal the fact that I am a part of the campaign and unconditionally support it. I do stress that my opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Resolve, Invisible Children, the Enough Project, or my colleagues. 

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Responses

  1. you’re the smartest person i know…

  2. Very informative. I hope that we together can confront this issue head on. Thank you.


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