"Kony 2012": Why It Worked

"Kony 2012" and why people can only help if they know what is going on

By now you have all most likely seen the "Kony 2012" video and I'm guessing you have also been exposed to the media firestorm that has ensued.

For the most part, viewers seem to be divided into two groups. On one side there are those who have known about this situation for years and were upset at some of the oversimplifications and the way some of the facts were presented. The other side seems to be mainly made up of people who had little or no knowledge of the LRA prior to seeing the video and were angry at people coming across as overly critical about people trying to do something positive.

It is difficult to be impartial about any situation that involves children being brutalized, raped, kidnapped, forced to fight and brainwashed at the hands of an insane murderer wanted for crimes against humanity.  But, what seems to be absent from the discourse is an objective point of view.

This blog is an attempt to address that.

Answering some of the criticisms of the video

Lets start with the detractors. Many of the charges leveled against Invisible Children -- the charity behind the video -- were unfair, and some were out and out ridiculous.  Some bloggers were making comments such as, "This was all paid for by big oil, who only care about Africa because of its vast oil reserves."  This kind of accusation could only come from someone unaware of the Invisible Children organization.

First of all, "Kony 2012" was not Invisible Children's first video -- in fact, far from it. They have actually been producing videos for years of different styles and with varying degrees of success. What was different about this one was that the messaging was far better than previous attempts, and it resonated with people far more than any of their earlier videos.

One of Invisible Children's previous videos had the founders of the charity singing and dancing around like they were auditioning to be in a boy band, singing about how they were trying to change the world. That video alone disproves the conspiracy theory that sinister oil interests or big business was behind the organization. It also shows just how far they have come as communicators and filmmakers.

Now let's talk about the people who recently got involved as a result of watching the video. Criticizing these newer supporters for jumping on the bandwagon is unfair to say the least. You can't blame anyone for not knowing who the LRA and Kony were two months ago. Within the scope of Africa, Uganda is not a big country and the Central African Republic (where Kony actually is) is rarely in the news. I personally only became aware of the situation due to my work with Drop in the Bucket, an Africa water charity I helped start. Over the last six years, Drop in the Bucket has constructed over 100 water wells and a number of sanitation systems in the Acholi and Lango sub-regions of northern Uganda. These are the exact areas where Kony and the LRA were most active during their time in Uganda.

Why accuracy always needs to trump cool messaging

Overall, I have to say, that even though some of the facts presented in the video were inaccurate or misleading, it is an extremely compelling piece of work. One of the main criticisms leveled at the film was that it leads viewers to believe that Kony now commands an army of 30,000 brainwashed child soldiers. This is absolutely not true and nobody is now disputing that fact. In reality, Kony probably has somewhere around, or possibly even less than, 100 followers and at this point, most are probably adults. Of course, to the people still at risk of being attacked in the Congo or the CAR, 100 LRA soldiers is still an extremely dangerous and serious situation.

Now as content providers, the big broadcast corporations have been very cognizant of presenting accurate information when reporting a story, and whichever you want to look at it, the difference between 100 and 30,000 is huge. These figures are indisputable and the fact that Invisible Children was responsible for setting up an early warning system to track the LRA makes it impossible to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they didn't know the real numbers. Clearly they did and clearly the reason they claimed the higher numbers was to present a stronger case. The fact is, it worked, and it definitely got people more motivated and engaged, but it also became one of the main reasons people started doubting their credibility and integrity.


There are other points that we could go into, but in IC's defense, they had 30 minutes to make their case and tell their story. The story they told is easier to understand than a more complex and nuanced narrative that would be more factually accurate but more difficult to follow.

One thing that was disconcerting about some of the more vocal recent IC converts was the way they were prepared to verbally attack anyone that didn't agree with their newly found views. It was unsettling to read some of the blogs where native Ugandans were being verbally attacked with accusations like, "They are doing something, what have you done about it?"

The answer, of course is, the people of Uganda lived through it. The horror people here saw on that video was actually inflicted on people I personally know and regard as friends, as well as many, many more people.  In Lira and Gulu almost everybody has a story about the LRA and how it affected their lives.

Having worked in these areas for several years now, the change is noticeable. Five or six years ago, LRA activity was a daily concern. There are schools where we have built wells where the LRA came and killed the neighboring villagers with machetes while the children watched. I personally know many people that were abducted by Kony's forces, and I've seen too many scars, severed limbs and mutilations to not want Kony brought to justice as swiftly as possible.

The situation now

Nowadays, the people of Uganda have for the most part moved on -- you rarely hear people talking about Kony or the LRA anymore. Gulu is not the bleak place it used to be six years ago, and the people here have other problems to deal with. There are food shortages, illiteracy rates are high as many children were forced to miss years of schooling due to the war. There is a massive need for more schools and water wells, and even now, the majority of people outside of cities do not have access something as basic as a toilet.

We have been working in Uganda since 2006, and have built over 120 wells throughout the country. We are building toilets at schools because a lack of sanitation is one of the main reasons teenage girls drop out of school, and we have been written up in Uganda's biggest newspaper, the New Vision, for our work.

Far from there being any bad blood between us an Invisible Children, we actually installed our toilets at one of the main schools they support, Gulu High School.  In their latest rebuttal to the criticism, IC claimed they are going to start focusing on water and sanitation projects, which is very welcome news since they now have enormous funding, and clean water is a huge issue facing the people in these regions.

The fact that many people around the world have now heard of Uganda is huge for an organization like ours, and for that we have to thank Invisible Children. But, as someone who has had many close friends brutalized by the LRA, I would like to ask you on their behalf, not to take part in the day of action and put up posters of the man that did them so much harm.  There are many Ugandans living in the US and I doubt any of them want to be exposed to the face of the person that murdered and attacked their family members and forced them to flee their homes.

The next steps start today

The campaign worked, Kony is now far more famous than someone like Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan who is also wanted for crimes against humanity and has committed many of the same atrocities as Kony. Bashir also utilized children as soldiers and used rape as a weapon against the people of South Sudan and Darfur, only he did it on a far larger scale. But, unlike Kony, Bashir is also wanted for genocide and is also widely believed to be the main person funding and arming Kony throughout the war.

The question is, would plastering Kony's face all over the U.S. make him more famous than he already is, or would it just make everyone feel like they took action and actually did something? I do believe that people care and it makes me very happy that now everybody knows about a country where we have been working for years, but perhaps a better way to show you care is to learn more about the situation. Get involved -- even if it's just a small amount. Assess what you would have spent on that coffee, or what you would have spent on something you could do without. There are many organizations doing amazing work in northern Uganda, and not just Drop in the Bucket. There is also Child Voice, Warchild, CARE, ACF amongst others.

These organizations are dealing with the situation in Uganda now, and the problems there that are bigger than one man, or even 100 men.  As we speak, the U.S. military has 100 experts tracking Kony. They were there before the "Kony 2012" video was made and there have been no indications that they will be coming home until their work is finished.

Also, and this is quite possibly due to the video, the African Union has sent 5000 soldiers to hunt Kony down. These are trained soldiers, people far better equipped to track the LRA down than any charity group.

How you can help

As people working on the ground, we are happy that you now know about the people of Uganda.  So on April 20, please do not go out posting images of a murderer across your town; instead do something that will really change things and get involved with one of the charities working to affect real change.

Thank you for caring, thank you for wanting to help, and thank you Invisible Children, all of the celebrities that tweeted, all of the people who spoke out in favor of or against the video and got real conversations going, and to everyone who emailed, tweeted and shared the video. You all deserve to be applauded for helping to get the world talking about a horrible situation affecting the people of East and Central Africa. The raising awareness part of this campaign was a huge success, now let's build on it and do something that will make a real difference.