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.