It is relatively safe to say that a week ago, no one knew who Joseph Kony or the “Invisible Children” were. A lot has changed since then. Unless you’ve been away from Facebook, Twitter and any other form of social media, chances are that you will know exactly who he is, what it is about and at some point, spent 30 minutes watching a video that continues to make waves on the Internet.
On 5th March, a video (KONY 2012) produced by an American nonprofit activist group called the “Invisible Children” was released. Its sole purpose was to “elect” Joseph Kony into global consciousness, thus making him as famous and visible as any other superstar celebrity. The video is brilliantly made, endearing (with the use of the founder Jason Russell’s young son), and heart wrenching in its depiction of the plight of Ugandan children at the hands of the warlord Joseph Kony- leader of the now largely defunct Lords Resistance army (LRA) guerilla group. It has been said that the LRA abducted approximately 60,000 children, and was guilty for the tens of thousands of mutilations and killings over the past 26 years. The head of this “terrorist’ group” being none other than the now famous Joseph Kony.
If the more than 70 million viewers (thus far), 400,000 YouTube comments, hashtags (#Kony2012, #stopkony, #MakeKonyFamous) and “sharing” on Facebook these past few days are anything to go by, Invisible Children have succeeded in their publicity campaign. And that is a severe understatement. Unsurprisingly, it has also attracted fervent support and sharp criticisms from all sides, and raised questions concerning the power of the social media.
The strategy behind Kony 2012 is brilliant in its simplicity, and essentially takes full advantage of everything that social media has to offer today. Firstly, armed with a strong and emotionally appealing message, it offers a very simple call to action: talk about it and get others to talk about it too. By targeting the children and youth, arguably the most technologically savvy and virtually well connected; awareness of the campaign has quickly spread to all levels of society.
Secondly, it has managed to mobilize a rapid lobbying campaign by targeting twenty “culturemakers” (e.g. Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Ellen Degeneres) and twelve “policymakers” to make a statement supporting the campaign. There has already been some success on this front. Last year, 100 US troops were deployed to provide assistance and advise to the Ugandan army. Celebrities, and their millions of Twitter and Facebook followers, have also been quick to show their support for the cause. This impressive list includes Oprah, Ryan Seacrest, Rihanna, Bono, Warren Buffet, George Clooney, Lady Gaga, Rush Limbaugh, Justin Bieber… you get the idea.
Thirdly, Invisible Children has responded instantly and at length to criticisms concerning its finances, charity navigator rating and strategy. It has also rebuked accusations of apparent exaggerations of the impact of the LRA and its apparent portrayal of the “white man’s burden” . Despite the sudden deluge of interest in the Invisible Children, its website remains accessible, allowing people to continue to have direct access to information from them.
Right now, 20th April is the targeted date that all the Kony 2012 supporters have set their sights on. The night when supporters go out to cover cities throughout the world in posters of Kony 2012. The simple idea being that the issue of Kony will be prioritised in the political agendas of governments, and that military and financial support will continue to be provided until one of the most wanted men on the International Criminal Court list is finally captured, dead or alive.
If there is one thing that everyone agrees on, it is that Joseph Kony is a bad guy. Critics however, have ripped everything else apart. Some of these criticisms are contained below:
The video is accused of misrepresenting reality, and of creating the false impression that Kony is still in Uganda right now, abducting children, turning them into child soldiers and brainwashing them into killing their own parents. The question subsequently raised is this: Why now? Why wasn’t something done between 1999 and 2004, when Kony was still in Uganda and actively committing these crimes? Thousands of lives could have been saved, if awareness had been raised back then.
In response to the counterargument that it is ‘“better late than never”, recent arguments have surfaced concerning the 1.2 billion barrels of crude oil found in Uganda in 2006, with 2.5 billion barrels confirmed last October. Kony’s army has diminished considerably with approximately 250 members in total, scattered across the jungles of neighbouring countries, with Kony himself reported to be in Congo. He has not been in Uganda for the past 6 years. They are no longer a threat, so the calls for capturing Kony to stop these atrocities are misguided; especially given that the governments currently supporting this campaign are suspected of possessing an ulterior motive.
Last year, Invisible Children spent $8,676,614. Only 32 per cent went to direct services, with most going to staff salaries, travel and transport, and film production. Charity Navigator rates their accountability with two out of four stars. Jason Russell has been accused of misappropriating donated funds for himself.
In response to these criticisms, Russell has been quick to point out that it is an “unorthodox organization” which spends one third of its finances on film, one third on film-related advocacy and the rest on the mission to end the war and rehabilitate war-affected children. This justifies the prima facie disproportionate spending on video production, with its costly special effects.
Furthermore,its two star rating is because Invisible Children does not have five independent voting members on their board of directors – they have four, and are in the process of interviewing potential board members in order to regain their four-star rating in 2013. Since the fiscal Year of 2006, they have also been independently audited by “Considine and Considine”, which resulted in unqualified opinions on the audit reports.
Many are opposed to Invisible Children advocating sending US troops to Uganda to support the Ugandan government’s army in capturing Kony. There is a 2008 photo of three Invisible Children members holding guns alongside troops from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, itself accused of rampant human rights abuses. Yet in spite of that, the organization is not calling for any diplomatic pressure to be put on President Museveni’s administration.
Kony is just one small part of a much larger problem. Even with the capture of Kony, the Ugandan people are still at the mercy of many of the equally brutal military leaders. For instance, Invisible Children makes the crucial omission of failing to mention that President Museveni himself, who came into power in the civil war, also used child soldiers. Sam Childers, the real life “Machine Gun Preacher”, has further stated that President Omar Al-Bashir of Northern Sudan is the true “villain”. President Al-Bashir has admitted to backing Kony and is the reason for the genocide currently happening in Darfur. There are much larger, more current problems that need to be addressed.
Invisible Children states that this oversimplification was a deliberate move to summarise a 26-year conflict into a thirty minute film in a clear manner. The film is merely an entry point to this conflict, to raise awareness and encourage people to do their own research and make their own conclusions.
At the end of the day, Invisible Children has succeeded in raising awareness concerning the problems in Uganda and its surrounding regions, and any raised awareness should be regarded as a net positive. People who hate the campaign argue that it will succeed only if people do something, and that “raising awareness” is a futile effort. I beg to differ. Every person viewing the video might not subsequently make a donation, join the 20th April efforts or write to their local MP, but they are aware. Awareness breeds discussion, which in turn will eventually lead to action by people, like Natalie Warne, who recently gave a stirring TED talk on her Kony campaign involvement. It is about being young, and being unafraid to step out and make an impact on an issue that we personally care about.
It must have been a strange feeling for Ken Jennings to stand powerless at a podium that he had dominated for longer than any other champion in the history of the game – not only defeated, but crushed.
And perhaps this is the most disconcerting aspect of it – the magnitude. Perhaps Jennings could have trained himself night and day and eventually overcome Watson, or at least made his IBM opponent’s massively parallel processors feel the digital equivalent of pressure, the computational version of sweat. But were Jennings to do this, it wouldn’t matter – Watson’s performance would keep skyrocketing upwards along the exponential trajectory of Moore’s Law, constantly becoming cheaper, faster, smaller.
The implications of artificial intelligence make the head spin with incredulity. Step outside, walk down the streets, and it’s difficult to believe that technology really improves exponentially. But then reach into your pocket, feel the thin rectangular shape that beckons, and ask yourself how many people would have believed you if you had calmly explained the concept in 1985. What will people in 2035 have to show us?
In the mean time, we are left only to admire the astonishing slope of the curve and wonder vaguely how it works, what it means, where we’re going. Perhaps these are questions to best posed to Siri.