Kony2012 and the dangers of Youtube fauxtivism

By now you’ll probably have heard of #Kony2012, a social media campaign that exploded on Facebook, Twitter and Youtube yesterday. The campaign centres on a video documenting the crimes of Joseph Kony, a Ugandan warlord who heads the Lords Resistance Army and is said to have overseen the abduction and press-ganging of over 60,000 children into his militia.

The campaign has been remarkably successful – the Youtube video now has over twenty-five million views after two days, an astonishing feat for any 30-minute long video, let along one about a central African civil war. However, as is so often the case with this sort of pop activism, not all is as it seems.

This blogpost has been circulated around the internet, highlighting some of the biggest problems with the the group behind the video, Invisible Children. Invisible Children has come under fire again and again for its finances. Redditor mariod505 has already pointed out some serious problems with Invisible Children's accounts. Of its 2010/2011 total expenditure of $8.9m, only $2.8m (or 31%) actually went to their charity programme. Other expenditures include a whopping $1.1m in travel expenses and $1.7m on US employee salaries. The three co-founders of Invisible Children were paid a total of $262,287 in 2010/2011 (or around 3% of IC’s entire budget).

More concerning still are Invisible Children’s overall message and goals. Their website says that they want to “use the systems, influence, and resources of the United States to expedite an end to the conflict”. What does this mean, exactly? In a blogpost that Invisible Children deleted yesterday after it was pointed out, they say:

“However, when speaking of pure pacifism, we disagree. Invisible Children believes in the usefulness of strategic intervention in humanitarian crises. To ignore this is to allow another Rwanda. “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.””

Invisible Children spends over half a million dollars on DC lobbying, including calls for military intervention in the region. It overtly supports the Ugandan army, which the UN accuses of committing serious war crimes in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Uganda itself is an effective dictatorship under the corrupt Yoweri Museveni. Kony is undoubtedly an evil man, but he is not the lynchpin of Central Africa’s troubles. If he died tomorrow, very little would change – making him the focus oversimplifies to the point of confusion.

The photo at the top of this post is of IC’s three CEOs in 2008, posing with members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (source). At the time, the SPLA itself used child soldiers and it is known for its practice of using rape as a weapon to subdue local populations.

As is so often the case when Westerners try to fix places they know little about, it looks very much like Invisible Children’s CEOs have attached themselves to one group of brutal thugs so that they can feel good about opposing another group of brutal thugs.

That Invisible Children is a shady group seems, to me, indisputable. Some argue that this isn’t relevant, that “raising awareness” of Kony is a good enough end in itself. If it means people "liking" a Facebook status and moving on, fine, although it won't do anything. But if it means more money for Invisible Children’s lobbying, and results in a hubristic military intervention in Uganda (and, indeed, there is already a government e-petition calling for interventions in four African countries), this campaign will have done a lot more harm than good.