Responding to KONY 2012

I had a completely different post all set to get up for this week, but then this video kept popping up on my newsfeed and I thought, “How great–a video campaign spread through social media to influence political action?” Then I watched the video and cried. A lot. I’ve written about the conflict in Uganda before and I’m familiar with Invisible Children, but the video and the personal accounts make it hard (impossible, even) not to be moved. And yet…

No, I’m not going to rant about IC or this campaign because it is generating a lot of awareness about the conflict and they are doing a lot of good work, but I might take the opportunity to make a note about perception–especially when representing someone else’s situation. Yes, on one hand the Invisible Children campaign is coming from the position that where we are shouldn’t matter–our shared humanity means that we are all affected by this violence and the continuation of these human rights abuses. But, on the other hand, this does affect some more than others, and its the absence of these voices in the video that has received the most criticism. (You can check out a more complete list of reactions to KONY 2012 here.)

To be fair, some of the criticisms about the depth in which the video explains the conflict somewhat miss the point–especially considering the audience and goals. The main point was to introduce the conflict to audiences that were otherwise unfamiliar or unconcerned, which it did. Still, regardless of the audience, the criticism that the video attempts to give voice to a situation, without actually giving voice to the situation sort of sticks with you. And even raises another question about the purpose of this campaign. Perhaps my favorite reaction to this is the assessment that, “We don’t need to give Africans a voice. We need to give everyone else ears.”

In a sense the campaign does attempt to “give everyone else ears,” by encouraging viewers to write and call their local politicians. But, as Musa Okwongo observed, while the video asked viewers to get involved politically, it “didn’t introduce them to the many Northern Ugandans already doing fantastic work both in their local communities and in the diaspora.” Instead, it oversimplified the problem and thus, ultimately, the solution.

Even more troubling for Okwonga though, was the fact that the video made no mention of Museveni’s regime or his responsibility to act in the interest of his citizens. Failure to acknowledge the government’s role in this not only abdicates Museveni of any responsibility, but it avoids addressing deeper questions about “wholly inadequate governance in this area of Africa.” Additionally, as Chris Blattman has explained before, this over-simplification makes it appear as though Invisible Children and the United States were “instrumental” in making the peace talk happens. This, he continues, “diminishes credibility more than anything,” and propagates a myth that foreign intervention is the only solution.

Further, Jack McDonald makes the point that such a mis-informed “crowdsourced intervention,” might be a disaster waiting to happen. According to McDonald, the danger in this opinion-driven approach to armed intervention is that–caught up in a media frenzy–“restraints to force will disappear into a blur of ‘Let’s go get the bad guy’ activism that is almost entirely ignorant of the second and third order effects of those decisions.”

Still, this isn’t to say that foreign intervention is inherently bad. In fact, the African Union has been quite open about both its willingness and its desire to work in partnership with other members of the international community. But there’s a reason their slogan was “African Solutions for African Problems,” not “Foreign Solutions for Problems as Identified by Foreigners.”

With all of that said though, KONY 2012 was on a mission to bring awareness to a situation and they did that. And, even if you disagree with their approach, or think they’ve misrepresented the situation, the video has provided the opportunity for discussion. What will come out of these discussions, I’m not sure, but it will be interesting to see how this evolves.

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