Until this week, Joseph Kony and his gang of child-kidnapping killers were so unknown in North America that the U.S. talk-show host Rush Limbaugh was able to tell his audience that Mr. Kony was an unfairly persecuted Christian.
In reality, Mr. Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army is one of Africa’s most murderous militia groups and its atrocities have continued for 25 years with the world paying little attention. But this week, millions of people noticed the LRA for the first time – thanks to a viral video and a shrewd social-media campaign by a controversial U.S. group.
Of course, as is often the case with viral social media, as soon as a feel-good story makes waves, so too does the backlash.
The group, Invisible Children, posted the video on the Internet on Monday. Within a day, it began to be tweeted by celebrities from the U.S. music and film worlds, including the pop singers Janet Jackson, Taylor Swift, Diddy and Rihanna, and the actresses Zooey Deschanel, Olivia Wilde and Juliette Lewis.
The 29-minute video was watched by an astounding 2.7 million people on Tuesday alone.
And on Wednesday, the numbers continued to explode, with more than 14 million people having watched the video. Many people said they wept when they saw it.
The issue has dominated the conversation on Facebook and Twitter this week. With the hashtags #stopkony and #kony2012, the anti-LRA campaign has suddenly become one of the hottest topics on Twitter worldwide, including the United States and Canada.
The maker of the video, Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell, has grand ambitions for the campaign. He insists that the power of celebrity endorsements and youth awareness – including the distribution of thousands of posters, stickers, bracelets and “action kits” to young Americans – can lead to the arrest of the LRA leader by the end of this year.
“If we succeed, we change the course of human history,” he proclaims in the video. “We are going to make Joseph Kony a household name. We are making Kony world news.”
He succeeded in that.
But the wild success of the campaign has provoked an angry backlash on social media sites and from many Africans, and from scholars who study Africa. They say the campaign is simplistic and manipulative, with deceptive claims, murky finances and a questionable strategy.
The U.S. activists are “selling a pack of lies to unaware youth to raise money for themselves,” said Ugandan blogger TMS Ruge in one of a series of critical tweets.
Not a single African is a member of the executive staff or the board of directors of Invisible Children, he noted. Instead, he said, Africans have been relegated to a “sideshow” without a voice in their own story. “Stop treating us like children,” he said. “I refuse to let my voice stay silent as one more NGO continues to perpetuate an expired single story of us.”
Another Ugandan writer, Rosebell Kagumire, said the video campaign “sensationalizes” the issue and makes it all about “America saving us.”
Soon, even the backlash against the video was going viral.
Grant Oyston, a 19-year-old sociology student at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, posted his first-ever blog Tuesday night, a single page critique of the video, peppered with links that scrutinize Invisible Children.
In eighteen hours, his blog had attracted more than one million hits and hundreds of e-mail responses.
“It’s a bit of a shock,” he acknowledged. “I actually never intended to go viral, but I'm not complaining,” he said.
One of the criticisms of the campaign is that it focuses on Uganda – even though the LRA was pushed out of Uganda several years ago. The video acknowledges briefly that Uganda is now “relatively safe” but its emphasis is on Ugandan victims and Ugandan charity projects.
Another criticism is that the group promotes U.S. support for the Ugandan military, even though the Ugandan army has been implicated in many human-rights abuses. The group claims credit for helping persuade U.S. President Barack Obama to deploy 100 troops to support the Ugandan army in pursuing the LRA in the jungles of Congo and Central African Republic, but opponents say this means an expanded U.S. military role in Africa.
Jillian York, a director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, argues social media campaigns engineered by activist groups have agendas that aren’t always apparent to those that are quick to click.
“A lot of this kind of activism reminds me of some of the tactics used by the Syrian opposition activists where there is sometimes a manipulation of facts and an exaggeration of scale, and questionable numbers.” Ms. York says. “The intention are good, but ... when you don’t have a lot of objective or investigative reporting, these really slick campaigns become the reporting. “ she said.
Syria and Congo are both difficult places for journalists to access, she points out.
People who donate to Invisible Children “probably don’t realize they’re supporting the Ugandan military who are themselves raping and looting,” says Mr. Oyston, the Acadia student.
The group’s finances have also been questioned. Of its nearly $14-million in annual revenue, millions are spent on film production and less than half is spent on programs on the ground in Africa, critics say. One respected watchdog, Charity Navigator, gives the group a rating of two stars (out of four) for accountability and transparency, although it gives the group an overall rating of three stars.
But the most common criticism is simply that the group over-simplifies the reality of the LRA and perpetuates the image of the “white saviour” for Africa. In the video, Mr. Russell tells the LRA story in almost childlike terms, explaining to his 3-year-old son that Mr. Kony is the “bad guy.”
The problems created by the LRA are complex and “aren’t of the nature that can be solved by postering, film-making and changing your Facebook profile picture,” Mr. Oyston says.
John Rudolph Beaton, who has worked on a “crisis tracking” project for Invisible Children, says the criticism of the group is unfair. The group does not provide money to the Ugandan military or government, and its programs are “based on the advice of those who live in the communities,” he said in a Facebook post, emphasizing that he is speaking in his personal capacity.
“Nobody is more aware of the dangers of the ‘White Man’s Burden’ messiah complex than Invisible Children,” he added.