Taking ‘Kony2012’ Down a Notch – Responding to Criticism

LRA combatants

LRA combatants (Photo: AP/File)

Over the past few days, many readers have commented on the blog, Twitter, Facebook and I want to thank you all for that. Thanks to everyone who took the time to read our perspective. We have contributed to an incredibly important debate and have begun the process of refuting the idea that awareness must come at the expense of understanding.

It is in contributing to understanding the issues, and not site hits or blog stats, that I feel that both Patrick’s and my post have been a success. I was also very happy that Invisible Children themselves have responded to the critiques that were levied, although I will leave it to readers to judge whether their responses are adequate.

My position remains the same. I remain opposed to the Kony2012 video and campaign and not because I don’t believe that increasing awareness is wrong. Many have commented to the effect that “you have a point, but knowing about this is success in its own right.” But awareness for awareness’ sake is not only futile but potentially dangerous (see here, here and here). The diagnosis of the ‘LRA question’ that the Kony2012 clip makes is so far from any truth or reality that the prescription it offers – or instills in the minds of those who watch the film with an uncritical eye – may end up doing a disservice to victims and survivors.

Others have suggested that the conclusion I reach is that unless the campaign “has it perfect”, we should do nothing. In other words, I’m unfairly raining on the Kony2012 parade. This could not be further from the truth. I accept that viral campaigns can be useful and that they inevitably must simplify issues as complex as the conflicts in northern Uganda and LRA-affected areas. The question is: at what point does simplifying an issue pass a threshold where it no longer even approximates reality and becomes detrimental to a cause? I continue to believe the film, Kony2012 (again, not Invisible Children as a whole) has passed this threshold – by miles.

(Photo: hdptcar)

I have also been told that I focus too much on the story. I agree. As far as I am concerned, the narrative and ‘story’ of the conflict is vitally important. The narrative you buy into will determine which solutions you imagine as possible and appropriate. In the context of Kony2012, the story plays directly into the hands of the Government of Uganda by asserting that the major – even only – problem is Joseph Kony and, therefore, that the solution is to “stop” him. The story of the ‘LRA question’ is part of the solution – just not this version of it.

I will freely admit that I do feel some guilt for engaging and spending this much time on Kony2012. The campaign has deflected attention from other crises, not least the ongoing deterioration of the situation in Syria. The challenges facing LRA affected areas need attention, but I still do not understand the decision to unleash a viral campaign at a time when public attention was focused on a crisis that may have killed some 10,000 civilians in the last year alone. Kony2012 may have been one of the worst things to happen to Syrians fighting against the Assad regime – and all that for a campaign utterly divorced from reality.

A common thread in the comments is that I provide no solution – only a critique – to the ‘LRA question’. Of course, the post was intended to be a critique, but I am more than happy to offer my view on what the best way forward is: support a peaceful resolution to the conflict by reigniting negotiations and support those organizations and individuals who are trying to achieve these aims.

There are many organizations in northern Uganda, such as the Acholi Religious Leaders’ Peace Initiative, as well as abroad, who want to see peace talks resume. There is much to be learned from the previous talks between the Government of Uganda and the LRA in Juba, from 2006-08. Not least that all parties involved in the conflict – the LRA, the Government of Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Sudan – must be involved and committed to the peace process. In taking the lessons of past experience, energy can be harnessed to get back to the negotiating table.

In this context, it is important to remember the actual empirical record of military operations to fight the LRA. In the past decade or so, massive military operations (notably Operation Iron First and Lightning Thunder) have failed to “stop” Kony or eradicate the LRA. On the contrary – they have consistently resulted in an LRA backlash against civilians, in more abductions and in more killings of innocent human beings. In stark contrast, what happened during peace negotiations was that the violence subsided. There has been no LRA attack in northern Uganda since.

Lastly, I will reiterate a point that seems to have been lost in the fray: I am not against Invisible Children as an organization nor am I against raising awareness. But I reject the idea that awareness of a problem must come at the expense of understanding it. Measured against raising awareness, Kony2012 is undoubtedly a success – just take a look at the number of people who have viewed the video as well as the funds they have raised. Measured against an adequate understanding of the realities facing LRA-affected communities and the attitudes of northern Ugandans, however, Kony2012 remains a failure.

About Mark Kersten

Mark Kersten is a consultant at the Wayamo Foundation, a Senior Researcher at the Munk School of Global Affairs, and a law student at McGill University Law School. He is also author of the book, 'Justice in Conflict - The Effects of the International Criminal Court's Interventions on Ending Wars and Building Peace' (Oxford University Press, 2016).
This entry was posted in Advocacy, Justice, Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), Peace Negotiations, Peace Processes, Uganda. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Taking ‘Kony2012’ Down a Notch – Responding to Criticism

  1. Rex Brynen says:


    A very thoughtful take on the Kony2012 phenomenon and its shortcomings! Let me add another level of nuance to your nuance, however.

    While the IC campaign raises the profile of the LRA issue without informing the audience about its complexities, it may not actually matter much in policy terms. When policymakers decide on appropriate initiatives, the public pressure to “do something” inevitably interacts with expert opinion, intel assessments, diplomatic reports, and regional consultations. It is the latter inputs, and not the vague views of those mobilized by Kony2012, which have the largest determining effect on policy outputs. To the extent that the viral internet campaigning makes a difference, it is reappropriated by policymakers to provide political impetus behind initiatives they adopt for different reasons, and on the basis of a rather more sophisticated analysis.

    Now, one might feel that Western or regional policymakers have their approaches wrong–that’s another debate. But those decisions are not uninformed one: I would be willing to bet that the input being provided by State or CIA on the topic is pretty thoughtful and analytically rich.

    In other words, I think you’re right in lamenting the simplifications and even distortions of the Kony2012 campaign–but I think you’re wrong in your implied assessment of what effects that this will actually have in policy terms.

  2. Mark Kersten says:

    Many thanks for this very insightful comment, Rex. I completely agree with you and was trying to highlight the potential dangers rather than necessarily arguing that this will necessarily lead to specific policies. That being said, I think you also raise the important question of whether the response to the overwhelming awareness of KONY2012 will lead to policies which do little but look like they are doing something – ie. address the fervour but little more. My feeling is that the 100 US troops that are in Uganda in an advisory capacity was precisely the result wanting to be “seen to be doing something” – both on the part of the Obama administration and the Government of Uganda. Thanks again!

    • Rex Brynen says:

      I suspect (on the basis of no empirical evidence!) that the US deployment was also partly based on the value of developing closer military-military relations with four African countries, using action against the LRA as the catalyst. After all, that’s part of the main purpose of AFRICOM.

      I’m also less opposed than you to using military tools in this (and I don’t think 100 personnel is overkill). One could argue that part of the current weakness of the LRA is a function of a less hospitable political-military environment, even if particular (MONUC, UPDF) actions have been failures. Moreover, I think that stepped up military pressure can coexist with, and even compliment, a strategy of promoting negotiations, supporting defections/reintegration, and various local solutions. For this to happen, however, AFRICOM needs to engage with non-like-minded folks (NGOs, analysts) in order to avoid a blinkered military approach. It isn’t my area, so I’m not sure how much contact and cross-fertilization there has been, or whether it is all very siloed.

      • Christianne says:

        I really appreciate Rex’s comment and Mark, your response. I also want to say that I found your original Kony 2012 post last night, Mark, by linking through from Andrew Sullivan’s blog, and, in reading through much of the comment section, have found you to be a very kind, open, and measured voice in the midst of conversations that can be fraught with faction and a lack of charity. Thank you for providing this space. I’ve subscribed in my feed so as to continue learning from you and your colleagues about subjects I need and want to learn more about, written from a perspective of peace and thoughtfulness.

        Now, to my response to the Kony 2012 conversation.

        I’m one who jumped on the “they’re not policy makers, they’re communicators to a young generation” bandwagon in response to IC’s video and the backlash it unleashed. However, I see now that they seek to be more than just communicators about an issue. They are posing a solution to stop Joseph Kony. To them, the solution is to keep the 100 troops on the ground and to collaborate with the Ugandan army in order to stop him. I see now that this is a militaristic solution and that they feel it is the best solution because peace talks have failed in the past.

        I am someone seeking to discover how peaceful solutions to violence can be offered and successful in the world, and for this reason I appreciate your perspective that although peace talks have failed in the past, it does not mean they will necessarily fail in the future in this situation. We can learn from what went wrong before and seek a more equitable approach this time.

        I think at this point, I would prefer Invisible Children be simply communicators of an issue without posing a solution. I’m with Rex, though, that the huge awareness boost to the issue and the global response to it does not necessarily mean that the solution IC proposes will be the one the international community of policymakers and responders will adopt. It is my hope they will take the response of the global community to this issue — the very clear message that we want this issue to receive attention — and seek out the best way forward.

      • Mark Kersten says:

        Thank you, Christianne, for your very generous and kind comment. It was touching and means a lot to me. And thank you, as well, for subscribing to the blog!

      • Mark Kersten says:

        Thanks again for the comment, Rex. Yes I think that the US deployment is linked to developments in AFRICOM. Check out the post by Adam Branch, who has spent years working on northern Uganda and is one of the most respected scholars on the subject (http://kambale.com/kony-2012-response-from-adam-branch.html). He argues that Invisible Children “is an excuse that the US government has gladly adopted in order to help justify the expansion of their military presence in central Africa. Invisible Children are “useful idiots,” being used by those in the US government who seek to militarize Africa, to send more and more weapons and military aid, and to build the power of military rulers who are US allies. The hunt for Joseph Kony is the perfect excuse for this strategy—how often does the US government find millions of young Americans pleading that they intervene militarily in a place rich in oil and other resources? The US government would be pursuing this militarization with or without Invisible Children—Kony 2012 just makes it a bit easier. Therefore, it is the militarization we need to worry about, not Invisible Children.” Thanks again!

      • Rex Brynen says:

        It is certainly true that the US has stepped up its military engagement in Africa, both through the establishment of Africa and through Foreign Military Financing and IMET programs. This is largely a function of post-9/11 terrorism concerns, and (contrary to Branch) has very little to do with oil and resource issues.

        It is important to maintain some sense of proportion, however—and in this sense, overblown rhetoric about militarizing Africa is as misleading as is the KONY2012 video. Total US FMF to sub-Saharan Africa in FY2010 was approximately $18.8 million (or less than half the price of a single modern fighter jet). Total (sub-Saharan) African defence expenditures in 2010 are estimated by SIPRI at $19.5 billion. In other words, US military assistance accounts for less than 0.1% of African defence outlays. Indeed, Uganda alone spends 14 times more on defence than the entire US military aid budget for sub-Saharan Africa.

  3. Jan Triska says:

    Mark, again a very thoughtful and measured take on a complicated situation.
    -I am one of the people who are very interested in all kinds of political and social issues around the world but also remain quite ignorant of the situation in northern Uganda, beyond the simple knowledge that there’s been this guerilla campaign that uses child soldiers. And I tend to not delve into the African issues that much, mainly beacuse I find them invariably depressing, extremely long in time scale and tough to tackle without sweeping social changes (Uganda was a real mess 40 years ago when I as born, it is still a deeply troubled society today. They have so many issues I don’t know where to start…the whole targetted persecution of gays is just one such thing.). So, I can at best say that everyone ought to inform themselves before they ‘buy into’ some campaign or other that is being directed from the outside. How do Ugandans living in Kampala feel about all of this?
    Anyhow, to the phenomenon of viral campaigns. We live in an age of easy communication, easily flawed PR and inadequate analysis. Look at Avaaz. One signs up for one online petition, like I did in the case of some issue with Jasper national park, and next thing I know the activists are flooding my e-mail box with messages related to just about every campaign they have going. I have asked them to take me off the list – they didn’d do it. A professional activist will often not take “no” for an answer. Not to sound like a grumpy old man, but who has time to read, absorb, analyze and be a relative subject matter expert at all this stuff? Almost no one.

  4. Pingback: The Darker Side of Invisible Children and Stop Kony | Politi-Sane

  5. Pingback: Sensible Responses to “Invisible Children” « Political Minefields

  6. B.I. Dula says:

    As it is often the case, the discussion is bi-polar; one camp is for Invisible Children and their quest for bringing Joseph Kony to justice “right now”. The other camp tells us that we need to see the bigger picture, be concerned about the citizens, including children, of Kongo, Uganda, and other countries, that the money that will go to search for and catch Kony could be used to cure children, including the “invisible children”.

    Well, my short summary is as simplistic as is the discussion. It is not who is right or what is the right action. Both camps are right but their arguments and proposals cannot be reconciled. They cannot be because they are based on two–if not conflicting, then contrasting—perspectives on the world and humanity; different Weltanschauungen.

    For Invisible Children the underlying and unquestionable principle is that justice must be done. Those who committed atrocities must pay. And even if they exaggerate with the images and comparisons, they do it because of their faith in the value and universality of this principle.
    Justice in Conflict bloggers and others who caution against universality and/or applicability of this principle in this particular situation are concerned with more peace than with justice. It is more important, they say, to support efforts to bring peace and with it hope to the victims of the war than catching the main perpetrator.

    These types of conundrums we as people and societies encounter very often. During our history the typical and still predominant approach has been to follow the principle, perhaps idealistic, but necessary for societies to survive. That is we, as societies, decided to catch the perpetrator and pour into it resources that could be used elsewhere, including hospitals for children. We, collectively, want to catch a killer of one, two or twenty people irrespectively (almost) of the costs. The underlying reasons are obvious; even if the costs are very high and could save or cure people today, it is the future safety of the band or society that is at stake. We punish cheaters, thieves, and killers because they can corrupt; this behavior, as research shows, is hardwired in our brains.

    Should we, the counterargument goes, forget about the good that we can do even if we forget punishing those who wronged us? There have been many instances when we decided to forgive and push asides all the wrongs that were done, some of the former communist countries and (to a lesser extent) South Africa are examples. What action should we choose: catching a very bad person or putting in prison hundreds who committed various crimes at very high costs (monetary and social) rather than moving forward and helping those who suffered and those who need attention now?

    Justice in Conflict bloggers make intellectual arguments; they are persuasive and well founded but they do not reflect what many people feel and what their guts tell them. We should not be in position to decide between one and another, but we are. There are situations when we have to decide between justice and peace. As hard as this is, I would expect more understanding from those who make intellectually-grounded arguments. I would like to see them to understand the “principle-driven perspective” and look deeper for ways to accommodate it.

    The repertoire of old principles and values that we aspire to seems to be decreasing with no replacement …

  7. Scott says:

    Mark, I also wanted to say that I appreciate the “spirit” in which you make your arguments. Thanks for adding your insight into this conversation.

  8. I appreciate your original critique and follow up. While I was very moved by the well produced video about Kony, I was asking the same questions you addressed. I wanted to know how they expect to ‘stop’ Kony, and then what they expect to happen after that. It just raises so many questions, and seems obvious to me that if you ‘stop’ Kony, there will just be another person or several persons who will step up and take his place. It has to be a systemic problem that allows the LRA to be in existence for so long, not just some crazy and evil individual that causes all of this on his own. Any time there is a conflict involving so many civilians, regions, countries, etc. it is never as simple as just ‘stopping’ one person and then peace and harmony reign throughout the land. In all honesty, while I had heard of the LRA years back and had a vague awareness of child soldiers from a few movies, I had never heard of Kony before the campaign video. BUT, as you asked, to what end? It seemed much too simplified in it’s presentation for something that has been going on for so long. In all fairness, though, I do believe there was a brief mention in the video that the LRA is no longer active in Uganda, but that for some reason it is still the best place for the US to send more advisers.

  9. cybergrace says:

    Thank you so much for providing an alternative to the U.S. War Propaganda machine. An article with additional information you might like is:
    http://www.mathaba.net/news/?x=630005 (entitled “Kony 2012: The Real Truth”)

  10. Rus says:

    Really?? These guys go and do something really cool and you have to take them down a notch? We should instead be focused on Syria? Please do tell how these filmmakers were supposed to know in 2003 (while they were in their 20’s) that they should start laying the ground work for a film on the violence now taking place in Syria. Our should they have taken nine years of their life’s work and said “Oh wait let’s switch to make a film on Syria.” I am willing to bet if they had made a film on Syria, writers such as yourself would have been railing against them for not covering the 25 year old conflict in Central Africa. Maybe beyond looking at a 30 minute film you should have research them more. At least watch their original film where they try to go into South Sudan to film and cannot because of the violence. Instead they hit the hard reality of what was taking place in Northern Uganda. They befriended some kids and made them a promise that they would do everything they could to help. Ever since that time they have gone on an awareness campaign to make the LRA known to American citizens and our government. And the more they went to Northern Uganda the more this mission became personal because they have befriended people that have been affected by the conflict. And you have to take them down a notch for creating a campaign that has brought the LRA to the forefront of their intended audience’s consciousness. And then claim that their intended audience cannot understand the issue because they are not advocating for peace talks. (sounds pretty elitist to me) Because in your world only peace talks are going to be successful?And anyone that thinks otherwise does not understand the situation. And how many times has Kony used peace talks as a stalling tactic to regain strength? And just because the last two major campaigns were unsuccessful the major players involved should just quit and wait it out for peace talks. Did you ever think that the LRA’s retaliations after these campaign was a strategic use of force to scare away future missions? Did you ever think for a half of a second that many times a heightened military presence leads to peace negotiations? Really ask yourself that question for a half of a second. If IC does not exist maybe there is little political will for the US to have military personnel on the ground. The LRA have no reason to come to peace talks because the only significant military is the Uganda military. Let’s just hypothetically project that they may not be too scared of them raiding them without the support of the Americans. Now what happens if instead of chastising the IC and Kony 2012 people like yourself put full support behind them. And in turn the topic of the LRA and their crimes are put on the front burner of the American political debate. What if the US government decide to give support to this mission with a strong backing from the American public. And deliver a strong message that the advisors will stay until the LRA is brought to justice. Do you think that just may have a greater effect on Kony and the LRA to come to peace talks? Knowing the world’s most powerful military is now targeting them? And I didn’t even get into how absurd it is to that your used as the crux of your argument the current relative peace in Northern Uganda. If you spend one minute on the IC website you would have come upon the LRA crisis tracker. They are not trying to claim that Northern Uganda is being attacked by the LRA http://lracrisistracker.theresolve.org/. Instead they have helped to fund tracking towers to help protect the citizens (with an early warning system) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan, who are still affected by the criminal acts of the LRA. Please do read a recent report on the LRA and their recent activities by the United Nations.
    Ask yourself not what the people in Uganda think of the LRA but what the people now affected by them think. The people who are now being displaced, abducted, and killed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan.
    If you think that IC is so wrong to be advocating for the continued presence of military advisors in Northern Uganda. At the end of the day Kony is an international war criminal. I think what these kids are doing is awesome. I really cannot believe you tried to take them “down a notch.”

    • Ber Stace says:

      Kony 2012 is the 11th documentary released by the allegedly not-for-profit organization called Invisible Children. The 20-something “kid” movie makers have accepted years of salaries created documentaries editing out the voices of the most affected/murdered Ugandans (Acoli tribe) and putting forward THEIR voices and promoting solutions that paid their salaries and seriously enriched their bloody sponsors (U.S./UK/World Bank, IMF, Ugandan govt/New Forests Company/HSBC/etc.). How much money and for how long? These “kids” might want to release their tax forms now, if they are as altruistic as they claim. To be clear, they were minor poverty pimp beneficiaries, often duped by much wealthier beneficiaries of Uganda genocide.

      All eleven documentaries produced by Invisible Children have been about the same subject – Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army. They all studiously edited out western puppet Ugandan dictator Museveni and his 26-year rule benefiting his family, major western corporations, at the expense of the Acholi tribe and their abundant, fertile and mineral-rich land. Since 1986, Museveni’s army with the U.S. & U.K. troops, drove 90 percent of the Acholi people into refugee camps, where many died of starvation or disease or committed suicide, that is over 6 millions deaths!!

      Museveni and the U.S./U.K. justified the genocide and refugee camps by claiming that they were protecting the Acholi people from the Lord’s Resistance Army and Kony. Museveni has not only murdered more people than Kony, but Museveni’s wealth (from stealing resources of his murdered citizens) is much more, 11 billion dollars!! Museveni uses Kony/LRA to maintain his sick dictatorship financed by our tax dollars and claims he is “protecting Acoli tribe victims” by forcing them into concentration/refuge camps. Now, oil has been found on Acoli land, and, surprise! U.S. troops are back in Uganda, not pursuing Kony/LRA, but the oil of the Acoli people (http://sfbayview.com/2012/uganda-acholi-people-face-second-genocide-with-u-s-troops-in-country/).

      The World Bank, U.K. carbon credit nonprofits have also profited handsomely from this genocide of the Acoli people: Read more: http://www.newsrescue.com/2012/03/world-bank-invests-in-kicking-ugandans-off-land-for-carbon-credits/#ixzz1us4bLEWP and http://www.newsrescue.com/2012/03/kony-2012-exposed/#ixzz1us78kNKf

      Nobody is arguing Kony is the least of two evils, but to overwhelmingly publicize Kony and edit out references to Museveni/World Bank/U.S./U.K./IMF/HSBC, is to seriously distort the words and reality of the millions of murdered Ugandans and their surviving family members.

      Well over nine years ago it was obvious to Ugandans that Dictator Musevini is as much a problem as Kony 2012, and indelibly intertwined. These “kids” told one side of the story because their handlers and financiers told them to: not because it benefited an orphan, but because they were more committed to telling their version of the story (and getting attention and $) than uplifting the voices of the still unheard voices of the Acoli victims of Museveni. How much money did Kony 2012 get, and from where/who, to make their campaign?

      We need to stop justifying the bloody salaries of our friends who benefit from their poverty pimp jobs, and start lifting up the voices and stories of the Acoli people and all victims of U.S./U.K. imperialism in Uganda and central Africa. Read more about how Kony 2012 hides the truth of imperialism in North Africa at http://panafricannews.blogspot.com/search?q=kony+2012. Subscribe to http://panafricannews.blogspot.com and listen to the voices of African people in Africa and the U.S. (good eye opener for Americans). Or read http://allafrica.com (excellent compilation of African newspapers) or http://al-jazeera.com.

  11. Big Steve says:

    Russ …. i couldn’t agree with you more….

    Check out this video from TED talks… A child soldier’s perspective… some may argue, this is one voice, but if you listen closely, you hear the voices of many, dead and alive…

    lets do more than just watch… maybe we can ‘copy and paste…’

  12. Pingback: KONY 2012: Why The U.S. Needs To Stay Out of Uganda « mariarandersen

  13. Pingback: Taking “Kony 2012″ Down a Notch

  14. bullshark says:

    Kony director just got busted for public masturbation and vandalization:


  15. tech reviews says:

    These stories get me excited about what is possible. thanks =)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s