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.