A couple of days back, I was driving out of my colony when I noticed an A-4 sheet pasted on the colony vegetable store wall, right next to the safal rate chart. The sheet had a picture of Joseph Kony. The poster had obviously been printed from the much-publicised ‘action kit’ advertised on the Invisible Children’s video, Kony 2012. Here was a Ché Guevera-esque poster exhorting my colony in grisly Gurgaon which has its own set of problems, to rise up against the vices of a man named Kony in Uganda. The incongruity of it all, made me laugh.
The recent flurry of social media activity around Joseph Kony on Twitter and Facebook, is far from laughable though.
Almost a week back, Facebook and Twitter were set ablaze with a viral video by a till-then unknown group called Invisible Children. Uganda, Invisible Children and #stopkony were among the top ten trending terms on Twitter amongst both the worldwide and US audience last Wednesday night, ranking higher than even the new iPad.
Buoyed onwards by the social media frenzy, I clicked on the video as did some 100 million others. And the video is where my problem began. The 29-minute video called KONY 2012, focuses on the excesses of Joseph Kony, a bush fighter wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, who is leading an army which includes abducted children known as the Lord’s Resistance Army. There’s no doubt that Kony’s existence and activities need to be publicised, because few know about him even though many articles have been written on him in the last couple of decades.
The video begins with the slogan, “Nothing Is More Powerful Than An Idea” and highlights the power of social media, through sites like Facebook to help spur immediate action. The campaign urges supporters of the movement to “blanket every street, every city” on April 20th. The relevance of the date escaped me, but that’s the least of the issues I have with the video. The video’s premise is that people in the land of milk and honey, and elsewhere, have the power to stop Kony, just by spreading the word through the power of social media. Called ‘Kony 2012′, the goal is to see Kony captured by the end of this year. I, in all my ignorance, felt that a video on Joseph Kony and the atrocities committed by him, especially on children, would focus on just that by educating people with facts and move forward to describing how viewers could help build international pressure to capture Kony, and what measures would be taken to rehabilitate the children he has abducted. But boy was I mistaken.
The video features Jason Russell, the co-founder of Invisible Children and the film’s director, and his toddler son, Gavin. And it does mention Kony, every now and then. The key subjects are Jason Russell, his son Gavin, Invisible Children’s soul-stirring work and Kony. In that order. There are no interviews with escapees of the LRA, or victims, except one. That would after all take away from the bluster of the film. The video also seems to position the incarceration of Kony as the white man’s burden; and how this group of American boys will lead the less fortunate from their wretched fate; and also pats them on the back for a job well done till date.
The undue focus of the film on Invisible Children, confused me enough to feel that I might have clicked on the wrong film link as the first ten minutes were almost solely dedicated to Invisible Children’s work. This is the kind of self-serving propaganda film that many companies indulge in. After all, who better to blow your trumpet than yourself. The film looks and sounds like more of a PR campaign for Invisible Children instead of an awareness initiative for Kony, with the video seeming to be more about the great white hope in the form of the director and Invisible Children’s work, than about the victims or even Kony himself.
Also, the over-simplistic explanation of what is happening in Uganda and the inaccuracy of facts make the film even more difficult to digest. While it has definitely built awareness of Kony, it has done so while feeding viewers with incorrect facts. Kony is believed to have fled Uganda long ago and his army is today considered to be reduced to a few hundred followers. The LRA conflict in Uganda has now ended. Today, it is north-eastern Congo which bears the brunt of LRA activity (alongside Central African Republic and South Sudan). The film not once mentions that the war in northern Uganda is over or that efforts should be made towards rehabilitating people. After all, this would take away from the sound and fury of the film.
Also, even if you set aside the incomplete depiction of facts, or simply lay it down as creative license, what irked me is that Invisible Children and Russell became the focus of the story rather than Kony and his under-age foot soldiers in the Lord’s Resistance Army. If you watched the film, you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking that Invisible Children is the only organisation working towards saving Uganda and its godforsaken souls from Kony. An objective film focused on building awareness on Kony and ground realities, should have ideally mentioned that along with Invisible Children there are others like Healing Hands, the Eastern Congo Initiative or the African Youth Initiative Network (Ayinet) – to name just a few – who rescue the abducted children who are forced to join the LRA, and provide them with education, medical assistance, job training and counselling.
But if they mentioned these groups, Invisible Children might also have to spell out a concrete action plan to follow up their initiative to build awareness of Kony, and his imminent capture. The action plan which has currently been elucidated in their film is to sell a Stop Kony ‘action kit’ which includes bracelets and T-shirts. The merchandise reminds me of the Livestrong bands which every teenager sports nowadays. The $30 kit box is already sold out though. So, mission accomplished. Selling t-shirts with Kony’s face on it, seems a little akin to the US government selling t-shirts and baseball caps and keychains while they were searching for Osama. But ours is not to question why.
On Wednesday, The Guardian reported that there were calls in Uganda to ban the campaign’s ‘Stop Kony’ T-shirts from entering the country. One caller to a radio phone-in said: “The government must protect us victims not only from Kony but also from things that hurt us like these T-shirts. And as people of northern Uganda we will not accept anyone to cross Karuma (a bridge across the Nile that connects north to central Uganda) with that T-shirt.” But who cares what the victims think or feel, when you can sell something gimmicky which the teenagers who keep re-tweeting your film link can buy online.
But for almost a week, the Invisible Children film-makers while trying to fob off the brickbats that were coming their way, did manage to spread the good word. They even managed to get together a bunch of slightly suspect although very popular celebrity endorsers for the campaign, from Rihanna to Justin Bieber and Oprah to tweet about the campaign. As Rihanna succinctly tweeted, “Even if its 10 minutes … Trust me, you NEED to know about this!” The Beeb, not to be left behind tweeted, “This is not a joke. This is serious. TOGETHER we can #MakeAChange and #STOPKRONY – help another kid in need!” Poor chap got Kony’s name wrong, but that’s just splitting hairs.
Invisible Children did manage to get people as far away as in India, to spend their office hours and online time last week in retweeting the link with zero understanding of the issue. After all, we finally had a cause – which very few of us understand or comprehend. It’s been a slow month, what with no new causes to fight for. Sure there are a number of women who’ve been raped in moving vehicles in Kolkata and Gurgaon, but we all know that’s par for the course. No fun tweeting about that. Here’s a savage militant in the jungles of Africa who we now know of and want caught – at the click of a button. Or as soon as we buy the cool looking action kit. And what could be easier than letting your entire list of followers on Twitter and friends on Facebook know that you care, by simply clicking on the share or RT option. But now that the moment has passed, twitter and Facebook have gone silent and viewers of the film (data collected by YouTube shows the video is most popular with boys and girls ages 13 to 17, as well as young men ages 18 to 24) have shown the same attention span as the easily distracted star of the Kony 2012 film – the director’s son, Gavin.
A follow-up film was released by Invisible Children to answer the criticism which it’s faced ever since the first film went viral. A film which was even worse than the first if possible, because it said nothing. In the 8-minute video, Ben Keesey, the CEO of Invisible Children mainly talks about the questions regarding financial irregularities. But what about what action they would take after the awareness was built, how they would even infiltrate the battalion of child soldiers who surround Kony and have been ordered to shoot to kill if he’s attacked, or the inaccuracy of facts? None of these questions are addressed or answered.
What cannot be discounted is that because of this viral film millions of people who were absolutely oblivious to his existence, are now aware of Joseph Kony and his crimes over the last two decades. There is no question that Kony shouldn’t be allowed to disappear into oblivion, as he has shown every sign of doing in the last decade, and that he needs to be caught and the children abducted by the LRA need to be rescued. But the issue cannot be simplified to this extent. There are horror stories regarding the difficulty of rehabilitating the children into ‘normalcy’, and that it would be impossible to arrest Kony without killing at least some of the children who guard and form a human shield around him. Also, going by the state of unrest in Congo, Kony might just be a hydra-headed monster who once removed will give rise to other similar militants, if a more comprehensive approach is not adopted. An approach that is not forthcoming from Invisible Children.
While Invisible Children’s intentions are good and their heart might be in the right place, by treating the Kony problem as a slickly put-together ad campaign, they have managed to hold the attention of the online world for barely a week. The over-simplification of the North African situation and the theory that you can solve the problem by simply sharing a video on Facebook on Twitter or by buying a sticker or a wristband, is where the problem lies. Instead of creating a global movement, they and the Kony 2012 film have simply ended up as yet another footnote in the world of ‘slacktivism’ on the social web.
And now that the Kony brouhaha has died down on the net, Delhi and Gurgaon can start looking for a new cool cause to support while my vegetable seller keeps wondering who this Kony is, and why his picture is plastered outside his vegetable shop.
(Slacktivism: the idea that sharing, liking or retweeting will solve a problem)