Kony 2012: “The rules have changed”

David Meekby David Meek, University of Georgia

On 5 March 2012, the controversial NGO Invisible Children released the latest in their series of mini-documentaries about the plight of child soldiers in Uganda. While their other videos have been quite popular, this one went viral with 65 million unique views in under four days (as of 10 March – just under 79 million on YouTube as of 15 March). The overarching theme of this newest video – Kony 2012 – is that “Nothing is more powerful than an idea…whose time has come…whose time is now” (Kony 2012). The kernel of that idea is that international military intervention is necessary to capture Joseph Kony, infamous leader of the murderous Lord’s Resistance Army. Given Invisible Children’s call for a popular grassroots movement to organize around supporting military intervention, it is no surprise that critiques have spread almost as fast as the video itself (Western bloggers include Cronin-Furman and Taub; Flock; Ugandan perspectives include Opi-aiya Izama; Kagumire; Pflanz; for Invisible Children’s response to these critiques see here). In this post, I first analyze the narrative of interconnected social action that underlies Kony 2012, drawing upon geographical perspectives on place, cyberplace, and online activism. Then, I summarize the basic contours of the critiques leveled to date against Invisible Children and its Kony 2012 campaign. While these critiques are valuable, I seek ultimately to add to the analytical lenses being trained on Invisible Children by posing a series of critical geographical questions concerning its push for military intervention.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, Invisible Children seeks to generate awareness and political change by creating emotive connections between international activists (largely in the United States) and the displaced children in Uganda. Through its online videos and on-the-ground ‘events’ it mobilizes individuals to politically participate along a spatial continuum from physical space to cyberplace (Jordan; 1999; Wellman 2001; Pickerill 2004; Mamadouh, 2004). The Kony 2012 video is comprised of similar themes as previous Invisible Children videos. From a message about the interconnectedness of the world via social networks, the video illustrates the convergence of social networking and political change, showing clips of the Arab Spring. Like other Invisible Children videos, its narrative combines the personal story of the film-maker and the transformation he experienced upon witnessing displaced Ugandan children sleeping in public places to avoid abduction by the Lord’s Resistance Army. The film deviates from the traditional Invisible Children narrative however, when it relates a promise the three filmmakers made in 2003 to a displaced Ugandan child named Jacob that “We will do everything we can to stop them [the LRA]”. As Invisible Children then tells us in the video, “the rules have changed”, and military intervention is now necessary to capture Joseph Kony.

The course of military action that Invisible Children is encouraging has already begun (undoubtedly aided to some extent by their previous campaigns – see Meek 2011). On 14 October 2011 President Obama decreed that he was advocating sending a small number of US military advisers to Uganda, to “provide assistance to regional forces that are working toward the removal of Joseph Kony from the battlefield” (Kony 2012). Advice and assistance. Not combat. The Invisible Children video stresses that these 100 Americans are advisers, not soldiers, and their job is to assist the Ugandan army in capturing (not killing) Jospeph Kony. However, while the video stresses that this is currently the role of the US forces, its tone abruptly changes, noting that Kony has changed his tactics, and by implication that the Invisible Children movement needs to as well, as international support could be removed at any time. As Jim Inhofe, Senator (R-OK), tells us in the video, “If we take the pressure off, if we’re not successful, he is going to be growing his numbers. People forget, and you’ve got to remind them, and it takes numbers to remind them, and if interest wanes, then it’ll just go away and I’ll end up standing there alone, trying to do something to support completing the mission. It’s got to be 2012”. The strategy that this video lays out is that members of the Invisible Children movement should target 20 culture makers and 12 policy makers to ensure that political pressure is galvanized to capture Kony. By ‘target’ the group means influencing through YouTube videos, tweets, Facebook posts, etc.

In going viral, the Kony 2012 video and campaign have already received extensive critiques from scholars with backgrounds in Northern Uganda, as well as bloggers everywhere. One common criticism is that, not surprisingly, the video is an exercise in simplification: Invisible Children’s message is that the problem is one man, not the history of colonial rule, corruption, and tangled geopolitics that connects Joseph Kony and his militia through international criminal networks. Another critique is that the video is fraught with factual inaccuracy, including the absence of LRA attacks in Uganda since 2006 and the fact that Northern Uganda is currently experiencing rapid economic growth. Yet, still others are critical of Invisible Children’s underlying colonial narrative. As Chris Blattman, a political science professor at Yale, argues, it screams of the “white man’s burden” and colonial visions of saving Africa. The questions I would like to pose arise from a final set of critical geographical critiques, which focus on the call for military intervention. As scholar Harry Verhoeven states in a recent blog post, what Invisible Children is “really doing is setting an agenda and framing the conflict in particular narratives, at the expense of others, and campaigning for war, not for peace.” Focusing on these particular narratives, Blattman goes on in a subsequent post to write that “successful advocacy often tells a simple story; simple stories usually lead to simple solutions; and simple solutions can do more harm than help. If you want to help, your first duty is to make sure you don’t make things worse”. Some of the geographical questions that this film and its campaign open up for me are:

  • Does Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign call upon the creation of a transnational exceptional space in order to legitimate the pursuit of Joseph Kony (see Reid-Henry 2007; Ramadan 2009)? If not, how do we understand the constructed spaces within which U.S. advisers will act?
  • If Kony 2012 is guilty of painting a dangerously simplistic narrative, how can activists better galvanize members with narratives that are both spatially and contextually accurate?
  • How can a largely disconnected social movement grounded in cyberplace take heed of the place-based critiques of Ugandan nationals?

This is our second post turning a critical geographer’s eye on ‘Kony 2012’. The first is available here.


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