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How The Most Viral Video In The History Of Social Change Gave Uganda A Voice

Agree or disagree with Invisible Children’s message and methods, we’re now engaged in a vast, social-media-fueled discussion about an incredibly complex socio-political issue. That’s progress.

A few nights ago, a video from advocacy group Invisible Children hit the web. Called Kony 2012, it is an attempt to tell the world the story of war criminal Joseph Kony, so that the viewer might feel the burn of injustice and work to put his reign of terror to an end.

In the video, we learned that for almost three decades, the Lord’s Resistance Army, led by the megalomaniacal Joseph Kony, has destabilized northern Uganda. While the LRA has always claimed to represent northern Ugandans who have been neglected by the southern-led government, for years their major action consisted of abducting children from the very people they claimed to serve in order to bolster their forces.

Throughout the ebbs and flows of the conflict, the one thing that has been consistent is that the voices of the people most affected by the war have been drowned out by the chorus of people who would speak on their behalf.

In 2006, I spent the summer in northern Uganda doing prep work for a new study abroad program to help American undergrads learn how to be more effective agents of social change. Just before I arrived, the International Criminal Court indicted Kony and his top commanders. Like the ICC, I expected that northern Ugandans would be thrilled that the world was taking notice. Instead, I found incredible frustration.

In conversation after conversation, local citizens and community organizations asserted their belief that it was only through forgiveness that peace could come. They told me about the "Mato Oput" ceremony, an Acholi tribal ritual which had been reinterpreted to integrate soldiers who came in from the bush. They told me of the amnesty program that Acholi religious leaders had initiated a few years back that had successfully brought thousands of soldiers back to their families—until the Ugandan government shut it down.

What I came gradually to understand was that their frustration was rooted in the fact that, while it was their communities that were most impacted, and their strategy of offering amnesty that had made the most material difference, once again, the international community had failed to hear their voices. To be handed down a new policy of indictments from outside was like a slap in the face.

Almost immediately after the viral explosion of the Kony video, the inevitable critiques started coming in. Is the situation really still the way it was portrayed in the video? Is Invisible Children the right organization to invest in?

Invisible Children has for some time had a complicated place in the aid community. On the one hand, their on the ground work has been judged by some to be ineffective or naive. Yet on the other, the power of their media to engage people is undeniable. The vast majority of young Americans who know about the conflict in northern Uganda know about it because of Invisible Children.

As the video and the critiques circulated, an amazing thing started to happen. People started to share the video but add their own commentary. Those same Facebook walls that were previously filled with unthinking boosterism were suddenly populated by people who lauded the message, but also cautioned that good intentions need to be matched with good deeds. Other people read the critiques but decided that spreading the message mattered more, and still others decided the critiques were too important to ignore.

In other words, instead of just distributing intensity of feeling and passion, social media was distributing those things plus smart, reasoned, thoughtful dialogue. People weren’t simply seeing a video, but beginning to engage on multiple levels with an issue that is immensely complicated. And this time, it wasn’t just American voices joining the fray.

Dozens and dozens of Ugandan commenters have become part of the conversations. Bloggers and writers from around the country have shared their perspectives, and unlike in 2006 when the ICC made its controversial indictments, people are actually listening.

One of the most shared responses to Kony 2012 was an op-ed in the Independent. The piece, entitled "Stop Kony, Yes. But Don’t Stop Asking Questions" was written by a Ugandan with family ties to the north, and finds a way to critique the parts of the campaign that seem questionable, while also being excited about the incredible depth and breadth of the world’s response to it. The piece has, at the time of writing, been shared nearly 15,000 times on Facebook and Twitter.

Five years ago, in the wake of the International Criminal Court indictments, anyone who visited the people of northern Uganda would have heard incredible frustration and anguish at the fact that the international community did not listen to them. Today, we are able to share the thoughts of a person who has lived with the conflict directly through a post that was shared by thousands of people who were inspired by a video campaign, but also wanted to know more.

No matter what one feels about the Kony 2012 campaign, there is something profoundly inspiring about the conversation around it. The video and the conversation have gripped millions around the world. People are actively engaging in a debate and a discussion about war, poverty, and responsible media representation of conflict. It is almost certainly the largest scale at which that conversation has ever taken place.

But the most exciting thing is not that the video has grabbed the world’s attention, or even that it has inspired an incredible debate and dialogue. What’s meaningful is that the social architecture of the Internet has enabled a world in which nothing exists in a vacuum, and in which the voices of people experiencing the problems we seek to address—even worlds away—can actually become essential parts of the conversation as they never could before.

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  • daychristo

    On the issue of stimulating massive critical dialogue -- fair enough.  The main issue for me is the notion that Africa (an abstract concept on its own) is always better off when acted upon by outsiders.  In this case, it would be outsiders with outdated, incomplete, and sensationalized information delivered in a highly sanctimonious, as if Invisible Children are the stewards of Northern Uganda (where the LRA has not operated in 5 years).  They project images of themselves to themselves, with very two-dimensional thread of the helpless African needing the West running through it.  Now -- in some ways the organization has grown and matured since its early days of making bracelets in Gulu's IDP camps.  Its activities in DRC are interesting and maybe even useful.  That they've mobilized awareness is not trivial.  US political and military support may well have grown out of grassroots advocacy by groups like Invisible Children.  But much of what they are advocating is happening or has already been happening, and the reality of these efforts on the ground have absolutely nothing to do with the organization.  The politics and societies of Uganda, Sudan, Congo, and CAR are driving this much more than a self-congratulatory (and way too long) viral video.

  • Teresa Bigelow

    While this is by far one of the more objective and well-written articles I've come across since the Kony 2012 phenomenon hit the web (well done!), I have to say I'm in agreement with aelynch and Julian Liu below me. I, personally, feel that a mass change of consciousness (which, on a small scale, is what this video has managed to achieve) has incredible power--but there positive and negative results to that transformation. IC's promotional tools may instigate awareness and an almost addicting level of discussion (trust me, I know--this is like the fourth article I've commented on! And I never comment on articles!), but as someone mentioned before me, the number of people who are just clicking around the Internet and posting "die Kony, save the children!" without any real conceptualized idea of what the hell they're talking about, FAR outnumbers those who are critical of IC's exploitative, inaccurate and stereo-typical messages. As such, the mass discussion and change of consciousness, if you will, only stand to drive the naive perspective the Western world continues to uphold on these very complex and HUMAN conflicts. Now, if 90% of the people who have posted the video also picked up a book that explained Ugandan politics and the history of Sub-Saharan African conflicts for the last three decades, then we might be making progress. But the fact that our technology has advanced such that millions of people can now share a video and then comment on that video in a matter of seconds? That's very cool. But it's not progress.

  • Teresa Bigelow

    Thanks, tendai! :) And you're right, media and pop culture continuously portray Africa as one big video game--good vs. evil; good guy vs. bad guy. We'll never get anywhere with that level of thinking. c'est domage!

  • Tendai Marengereke

    well said Teresa. These are Complex and Human conflicts. Most of the people think its a video game, just go in shoot and grab. voila, c'est fini. One of the most objective and well written comments i have seen on most of the articles written about this issue.

  • UtileFutile

    Created a discussion? Well, so did the celebrity-powered charity concerts trend 20 years ago. Now that was a buzz in its time and it last until today!

    Result : Famine has never been a bigger plague. And it happened not because people did not buy enough "We are the world" CDs (Save the world from the comfort of your home! Yay!), but because the way corporations control governments, the supply chain has become a sustainability nightmare. I wish IC would crack down on their government's nonsense of campaign funding and stop creating DRC situations out of scratch, like Irak, Afghanistan or Lybia to please the oil and security industries... See the food in your hands right now as you're purchasing that $30 Feel-good kit online? Well, I wish Americans would put pressure on their multinationals about their production methods so the likes of Monsanto file for bankruptcy. Then maybe poor populations would be able to feed themselves by buying food the way it used to be : speculation-free.

    One last question : Did "We are the world" made the current generations care more about the world they live in? Well, seeing how millions of people apparently had no idea that horrors such as the likes of Kony happened in Africa, as they did in Japan, Cambodia, China or Latin America, well, I think it did not.

  • mike

    i am thankful 4 the kony 2012 video because it showed me that there is these poor people that dont have the resources/education/ability/willingness to help themselves, BUT that there are so many young people in america who dont know about these people and people in other stronger/better countries who are more educated and care more and are passionate to help these pathetic/poor people by giving money so the government will be able 2 go 2 nigeria 2 kill this guy who has done so much hurt  that shows me the power i have as a american.

  • HadToComment

    Uganda is in the East, Nigeria's in the West... not exactly close by. Also I didn't claim you said any of those things so you're defending yourself against your own accusation there. GDP figures clearly prove that a country is "better off" like I said, it just seems to me from your original comment that you were focusing on how great and educated people in developed countries are and not on the actual issue. Also if that was what you meant, about it raising awareness, then you should have said so in the first place as opposed to talking about the power you have as an American. I certainly hope I did not come across holier than though by stating my opinion, you should really feel free and able to do the same without the use of capitals.

  • mike


    your taking what i said out of context. stop being so holier than though i didnt say africans are worse than americans or other countries i said some countries may be "stronger/better" which is a FACTUAL statement. if u need prove just look at are GDP versus africa's if u need prove.

    also, i know this was in uganda thats OBVIOUS from the video, what i was saying is that joseph kony is in nigeria now which is close by (maybe if you watch the video you would know).  what i was trying to SAY is that the video is positive influence because it makes us aware of this guy and what hes done, also it makes us aware of africa and lets us know that we care enough about these poor people, so THATS WHY ITS IMPORTANT.

  • aelynch

    Nathaniel--I appreciate your points & you offer a much more informed perspective on the situation in Northern Uganda than Jason Russell's misleading, self-indulgent 30-minute video does, but I also have to agree with Julian Liu's comment below. The outrage and dialogue Kony2012 has inspired are undoubtedly valuable and important, but as Julian points out, the number of folks who swallowed that video whole--allowing it to further calcify the myths, born in ignorance, that shape most white, English-speaking westerners' understanding of the world--FAR outstrips the number who watched it critically and checked it against the facts and opinions of those far better informed than Invisible Children. And frankly, giving Kony2012 credit for sparking a conversation about the LRA is like
    giving Clarence Thomas credit for sparking a conversation on sexual
    harassment. White folks with messiah complexes like Jason Russell have been churning out this kind of nonsense about Africa for centuries, the only difference here is that the extreme frustration their efforts have perpetually generated among local people can now be disseminated more widely. So yes, if you must give credit to someone other than local people for elevating this conversation, give it to the social architecture of the internet, but please, for the love of god, don't give it to Kony2012!

  • lin deahl

    YES!  While Invisible Children has a specific goal arrest Kony and get his evil out of the picture. That will  not be the end of it. The children must be reintegrated,healed and educated, and only the local community knows how to do that best.

    What is beyond exciting, is the dialogue of world citizens! It took Invisible Children YEARS to reach this point, but the next "Big Thing"  will use the pattern and what took years will take months.  The social media capacities are welding us together into an organic whole. It provides us a platform for discussions on anything pertaining to the welfare of humanity- environmental stewardship, economic development, global education for all the worlds children,justice, the elimination of the gap between the wealthy and the poor, distribution of resources, the sharing of knowledge. The platform allows anyone who chooses to add their voice to the conversation. It is controlled chaos. We are creating a world wide platform which can advance the welfare of all humanity.

    "So Powerful is the light of unity, it can illumine the whole earth." Baha'ullah, The Bahai Faith.

  • Corie

    This is by far one of most well written and objective pieces written on this controversial topic.  Upon first seeing the video late Wednesday night, I like so many others was profoundly captivated by the video and felt a deep need to share it with everyone and anyone I could.  But I have also tried to remain objective as the criticism sprang up.  But even after reading all the debates and finger pointing articles, the act of world citizens coming TOGETHER to share, raise awareness, and prove that we are all connected regardless of physical distance, race, social status, ect. For me that is the the most important  outcome from this viral video. 

  • Clara_Garza

     I agree with you.  It's very easy to critique someone's hard work when they aren't doing anything themselves.  People need to remember that it was a 30min video meant to explain as simply as possible what is going on, if it had been any longer the video would have been watched by far fewer people. 

    What this video was meant to do was bring awareness and action...and the goal has been accomplished! 

  • Julian Liu

    I have to disagree with the logic of this article. You argue that overall, the net impact of the KONY2012 viral video is positive, because even though it gave an incredible simplistic (and some would say outright misleading) account of the conflict in Uganda, even those expressing differing views had their words highlighted by the internet. But how can 15,000 shares of a article expressing a more complicated and nuanced view of the subject compare with the *over 49 million* views of the KONY2012 video? This video did not give Uganda a voice, Ugandans (they cannot be said to speak with one voice!) have ALWAYS had a voice and have been discussing/debating and yes, as you describe, even taking action, to resolve the conflict, it is just 'we' (be it English-speaking, Western internet audiences) who were not listening. 

  • Tendai Marengereke

    well said. myself being an African, i have to agree that when u say video such as these have given voice to the Ugandan people it is a misconception. We as Africans have voices and when we speak you do not listen. This viral video whilst it heralds the power of social media and social advocacy, it gives false information which i am afraid might lead to hurried decisions by politicians which will in turn affect millions of lives.