Invisible Children Responds To The Kony 2012 Viral Video Controversy

After a huge success comes the inevitable backlash. You probably watched the Joseph Kony movie yesterday. Now some critics are saying it’s not as good as it appears to be, but Invisible Children is fighting back.

Nonprofit organization Invisible Children has had the viral media hit of 2012 with their #kony2012 video—a slick half-hour video documentary designed to shine a light on little-known (until yesterday) African war criminal Joseph Kony. Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army has operated in Uganda and nearby countries for years, with a steadily established modus operandi of kidnapping children for use as soldiers, raping village women, and destroying small towns. The video advocates using force to bring Kony to justice and try him before the International Criminal Court for war crimes.

Thanks to an incredibly effective viral marketing campaign that recruited an army of impromptu Twitter volunteers to spam celebrities with links to the video, the video has received millions of views over the past two days. But with success comes an inevitable backlash, and yesterday stories began to appear accusing Invisible Children of secret agendas, misuse of funds, and a less-than-stellar operating record. For the nonprofit, who is dealing with a rapid backlash that’s happening almost as quickly as its meteoric explosion onto the public consciousness, it’s a strange experience.

The issue is that rather than advocating a specific mission plan for helping Lord’s Resistance Army victims or raising funds for military action or local reconstruction, the video instead claims to just seek "awareness" of the previously obscure conflict.

Foreign Policy's Michael Wilkerson noted that the Invisible Children documentary, which tells the story of a child named Jacob, massively simplifies the conflict—leading to misleading notions for viewers who might believe the Lord’s Resistance Army is expanding into nearby countries when they are, in fact, retreating there after being pushed back by African armies. Jack McDonald, writing at the academic military blog Kings of War, summed up the video by accusing it of being, well, dangerous:

The idea that popular opinion can be leveraged with viral marketing to induce foreign military intervention is really, really dangerous. It is immoral to try and sell a sanitized vision of foreign intervention that neglects the fact that people will die as a result.

The biggest critic of Invisible Children is a Tumblr blog called Visible Children. The Tumblr accuses Invisible Children of spending too little on on-the-ground aid, of spending too much on advocacy and expenses, and of ties to the Ugandan army and Sudan People’s Liberation Army, neither of which are particularly commendable armed forces. Visible Children specifically calls out the nonprofit for spending the bulk of donated funds on "awareness" and filmmaking.

Reached by email, Grant Oyston, the author of Visible Children, told Co.Exist:

"While I support much of Invisible Children’s work, and agree that the organization has been highly successful in increasing public awareness, I’m very concerned with the rhetoric Invisible Children is employing regarding "stopping at nothing" to dispose of Kony. But after the awareness aspect, the actual means they propose to employ becomes a bit cloudy. They don’t believe that peace talks are likely to work any more, but do not condone violence, although they recognize that the Ugandan military is best-equipped to respond to Kony and his militia. My goal in writing the page was to get people talking about the organization, its goals, and how it’s setting out to achieve them."

To their credit, Invisible Children has put detailed information about their financials online and responded to critiques. Details about the nonprofit, some of them negative, are also available via Charity Navigator.

Getting comment from Invisible Children was a task in and of itself. During multiple phone calls placed on March 7, 2012, the organization’s phone was either ringing off the hook, not ringing at all, or leading callers to an infinite voice mail loop. Co.Exist was able to reach Invisible Children’s Monica Vigo via email. Here’s what she said:

Invisible Children’s mission is to stop LRA violence and support the war-affected communities in Central Africa. These are the three ways we achieve this mission; each is essential:

1: Make the world aware of the LRA. This includes making documentary films and touring these films around the world so that they are seen for free by millions of people.

2: Channel energy from viewers of Invisible Children films into large-scale advocacy campaigns to stop the LRA and protect civilians.

3: Operate programs on the ground in LRA-affected areas, which provide protection, rehabilitation, and development assistance.

As you will see, we spend roughly one-third of our money on each of these three goals. This three-prong approach is what makes Invisible Children unique. Some organizations focus exclusively on documenting human rights abuses, some focus exclusively on international advocacy or awareness, and some focus exclusively on on-the-ground development. We do all three, at the same time. This comprehensive model is intentional and has shown to be very effective.

Our commitment is, and has always been, to be 100% financially transparent and to communicate in plain language the mission of the organization so that everyone can make an informed decision about whether they want to support our strategy.

Ultimately, the impression this reporter received was that Invisible Children themselves did not expect their campaign to become as successful as it did—as quickly as it did. Human nature being what it is, people tend to be jealous of any overnight success, especially when it’s in the nonprofit sector. Invisible Children’s brand of activism and charitable work is certainly nebulous in terms of on-the-ground results, instead embracing a policy of awareness for the sake of awareness, something that has traditionally been the cause of lobbyists, politicians, and journalists, rather than charities who we expect to spend their money actually making a tangible difference. Plus the fact that any solution you propose to an issue as fraught and long-running as the LRA is bound to have critics with viable points—if there was an easy solution, we would have found it already.

Invisible Children isn’t the first organization to see blowback from a viral video’s massive popularity, and they won’t be the last. The issue is whether a complex, international conflict can be made to fit into a 30-minute documentary, and that people know what questions to ask afterwards.

With that said, Invisible Children did produce a hell of a video.


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  • Ken

    This whole thing has been a scam from the very beginning.   Who is Kony?  Who heard of him before this "viral campaign?"  How many of the bleating fools DEMANDING that we Do Something about this newest villain of the West even know where Uganda is?

    Kony hasn't been seen for more than 5 years, and his influence is basically nil.  This whole Kony project is just another psy-op by the Western intelligence services, and their corporate sponsors, to gin up a justification for their intervention in the oil rich areas of Africa.  

    Once again the sanctimonious, pseudo-intellectual left is playing the part of "useful idiots" to internationalists forces.

    Laser Guided Loogie

  • Jameson Bryan

    There are 7 billion people on the planet today, and the western lifestyle most of us engaged in this conversation are used to, is congested and often suffocating. Its easy to turn off occasional efforts to self inform on everything happening today. To be put in a 30 minute video, clearly, doesn't cover the entirety of the situation. It, as always, is a multilevel phenomena. But in the fast pace world we live in, sadly, not every person will afford themselves the time to self educate. This video does a good job of informing a person on the general situation, and also presents a purely democratic stream of awareness to a particular problem. Find me a method that can efficiently deliver the entirety of a political conflict and I will commend you. I say to them, for now, well done. 

  • risraelkloss

     Decently written and objective article. I would just like to add a quote by Teddy Roosevelt related to this issue: 

    "It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by the dust and sweat and blood;" --  Teddy Roosevelt

  • Patrick Saweya

    I hope this
    video will bring the change we want. The killings must stop. I do not know much
    about Invisible Children finances, but the fact that my brothers and sisters
    are being killed day by day hurts. The fact that our children are being
    kidnapped breaks my heart.


    What if it
    was your child or brother who was kidnapped to be used to kill? After 10/11 the
    west intensified war on Alqeada. Is Africa not so valuable? Talking about
    financial transparency does not stop the killings.


    Come to
    Africa and meet the victims of the war, and you will have a change of heart.

  • Tom Fowler

    I do not pretend to be an expert on African affairs.  However, I did not view the Kony 2012 project as an attempt by IC to be expert, either.  In fact, I don't see anywhere in their materials a statement outlining what, precisely, they believe is the best way to solve the Kony problem or what the strategy ought to be to manage what is correctly described by many on this forum as a very complex problem.  All I see is a laudable objective; raise global awareness of the issue and move it to a high point on the agenda of the world community.  What's so wrong with that?  If they take some artistic liberties, over-simplify or gloss over certain facts BUT spark a movement that results in Washington and other capitals saying -- "you know, we've been aware of this Kony guy for a long time.  And we really haven't done much substantively to help address the issue.  But now our constituents are saying 'this is important,' We need to get some increased focus on the issue.  What are we doing about it?" -- is that somehow to be deplored?  Seems to me that Kony 2012 does not pretend to have all the answers; they seem content to leave that to the experts who have both the power and the knowledge to know how to deal with it.  Their expertise, as this forum notes, is in PR and marketing and for that they are to be applauded with an honorable, correctly motivated objective.  If the experts who have studied the issue for so long are a bit uncomfortable with the way in which the conflict is presented or object to the facts, too bad.  Might be a better approach to partner with the experts in marketing and PR rather than trying to disparage them as adversaries to the truth.

  • Harmanoyermanobot4000

    Jealous of an overnight success?? How clued out are you? It's not about jealousy, it's about oversimplification and FACTS.

  • Jacksophia

    I think there are a million things we don't and won't know about this and what really is behind the whole thing.
    If you want to support the Stop Kony movement, go ahead and do it but do it moved by information, not only by emotions caused by this viral video. (Which is a pretty good one indeed).
    I think we all, or most of us, wanted to go outside and do everything Invisible Children mentions in the video. We all immediately thought, or at least a part of us, about buying the kit and going out and wrap our streets with KONY posters... these are our emotions talking, our human necessity.

    I'd say, stop for a minute and then take your time to read everything you can about the organization, about KONY, about the situation in Uganda... and then, if you're still up for it, GO DO IT.

    Let's just think, for a minute, how manipulable we are... 
    People might be "programming" us with, for example, these types of videos, and then expect the reaction. How far can we go moved by a video we saw on the internet? We also need to think by ourselves, not letting others think and decide what we are thinking and doing (which is what happens most of the times).

  • Robin Browne

    First, I want to thank everyone who has taken the time to
    contribute to this thoughtful debate – and Invisible Children for sparking it.


    Great comment Teresa. I agree that Kony2012 has issues but I
    don’t think the problem is (and I’m paraphrasing) “white American heroes
    marching in with their YouTube videos and Justin Beiber support to save the
    Africans”. The problem is WHY this story resonates with so many people. I would
    argue it’s largely because the villain is a completely monstrous, brown guy,
    doing horrible things a half a world away. He’s someone it’s safe to hate – and
    who does things from which we don’t benefit.


    The stories that resonate far less, if at all, are the ones
    with white villains in suits who directly or indirectly support people almost
    as bad as Kony in countries where horrible atrocities go unnoticed. They
    support them so their companies can operate in those countries producing things
    we all demand and benefit from – like the coltan in all our cell phones from
    the Democratic Republic of the Congo, example. 

  • franki

    Reality is that they sets precedents. See the interview with Betty Atuku Bigombe, Ugandan State Minister for Water Resources. sying clearly thwat UN came in late and that nobody wants to talk about LRA and Norther Uganda for years. http://www.innercitypress.com/... why charities and non propfit always have to be scrutinized for about how much they spend "on the ground.  Did anybody crtitize US Congress for their adminsitratuive costs or Apple or MCDonalds for how much they spend in marketing?The reality is jelaousy from socila media gurus and media and polticians that cannot achieved what a simple group of people achieved. Imapct, results.

    And why charities and non propfit always have to be scrutinized for about how much they spend "on the ground.  
    Did anybody crtitize US Congress for their adminsitratuive costs or Apple or MCDonalds for how much they spend in marketing?

    The reality is jelaousy from socila media gurus and media and polticians that cannot achieved what a simple group of people achieved. Imapct, results.

  • London

     What most people don't understand is the problems in Central Africa cannot be fixed overnight. But, I would say stopping Kony is a great place to start. I honestly believe that the people who are against the movement are just as naive as those that are for it. I'll be the first to admit that I am naive on the subject. There are so many underlying issues that were not covered in the Kony 2012 film. As Americans, we cannot fully comprehend what the Africans have been and are going through. But, I can honestly say that I believe the Invisible Children foundation knows not only more on the subject of Kony and other issues in Africa than we do, but they have pure intentions in mind. They explained here where all of their money goes. I would like to know how many of you had truly looked into the Invisible Children foundation before the Kony movement. I fully support the Invisible Children. I believe they have done more for the Africans than you and I could dream of. We are all people. What if that was you? Wouldn't you want help, or would you rather the snobby Americans leave you to handle it yourself? We are priveledged in America and we have a tendency to only think of ourselves. We have to stop thinking of ourselves as citizens of America, but rather citizens of the Earth. If Kony was doing that to American children, would you support the cause that wanted him captured? Think about it.

  • Teresa Bigelow

    I'm almost in disbelief of the positive dialogue toward Kony 2012 that I have seen by reporters. You guys are supposed to be the researchers/fact-finders here!

     Here's what's interesting to me: the "critics" of IC are people who have studied this conflict for YEARS. Inside and out, up and down. People make them out to be so heartless, when in fact they're the ones who have devoted their lives to studying these conflicts and what to do about them. Invisible Children are not experts on Africa. They are experts on PR and marketing. Supporters of IC are people with great intentions, but who don't fully understand the complexity of this decade-long war. The issue here is not about the overhead of Invisible Children (that's not important) or building awareness--it's about whether or not awareness in the form of sexy videos, t-shirts and wristbands for celebrities and naive Americans (yes, it's true when it comes to rebel conflict in Africa, we are naive) is actually beneficial. The experts say: no, it isn't. In fact, it conveys an incredibly simplified and stereo-typical message that the "white folk gotta save the Africans." Sorry, I don't care how "aware" you are--that's just not cool. No body will deny Joseph Kony is an evil man, but a team of American heroes marching in with their YouTube videos and Justin Beiber support is almost offensive. Furthermore, time after time military intervention in Africa (especially by the U.S.) has shown to only make problems worse. If you want to become more "aware" of the atrocities that have plagued this region for decades, I would recommend picking up a book. Not Invisible Children merchandise. 

  • Kent Hendrickson

    Teresa,  First off I agree I do not know the difficuties that have engulfed Central Africa, that is a valid point.  But anyone who is responsible for the mutilation, murder and other atrocities against 30,000 children does not need to be "discussed". 

  • Teresa Bigelow

    Yes, Kent. A book. There's a good three decades of history on this conflict to read in there. By doing so, one becomes educated on a subject enough to form fact-driven opinions and perspectives on an issue, such as this one. And then they can form a focus group (great idea, by the way) with a comprehensive understanding of what's at hand. I love that there's discussion and concern on this topic. It's the mass amounts of inaccurate information filtering around, and the people who think they've learned everything the need to know by watching a 30-minute video and then "liking" it, that worries me.

  • My5wmd

     We Americans get blasted coming and going. Either we are lazy, self-interested fat cats who are in self-imposed ignorance of the rest of the world and their problems unless it impacts our intake of Big Macs and Nikes; or else we are stereotypically "white folk gotta save the Africans" and offensively "marching in with (our) YouTube videos and Justin Bieber support."  You don't get it both ways. Do you want us interested in and involved with international social conflict or not? I, for one, and thrilled to see the American public picking up on (and donating to) a social cause that needs attention.

  • Kent Hendrickson

    Read a book?  Are you kidding me?  Why don't you advocate forming focus groups so we can investigate the situation.

    The truth is there are "bad" people in the world.  I didn't hear a lot of grumbling when Seal Team 6 took out bin Ladin.  An international group has designated Kony as the No. 1 bad guy in the world.  I think we should take him out, then move on to #2, then #3, 4, 5, and on. 
    If we believe we are on the moral high ground, why not?  We have seen what Hitler, Stalin, PolPot and others have done.  The question is not how much money a group that has a number of well meaning people spend on overhead but do they make a great point?  Are they showing the world what is going on in parts that are generally ignored by the mainstream media.   They should be applauded for their work.  Thank You.
    Kent Hendrickson

  • Carlos Santos Campos

    These kind of backlashes represent predictable fear at the new models of civil participation that will transform the world, in which actions and changes will happen fast as oposite of the actual elite cold politics where economic interests rule over the hearts and conscience of the people.