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Opinion | Web Update

Kony 2012: The dangers of misinformation

Published: March 15, 2012, 1:49 am ET
Contributor, WC '12

With more than 76 million views, Kony 2012 has taken the Internet by storm on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. This 30-minute viral video, produced by advocacy organization Invisible Children (IC), aims to make Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony famous “not to celebrate him, but to raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice.” Kony’s infamous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) originated in Northern Uganda and is known for its egregious human rights abuses, widespread child abductions and extensive use of child soldiers. But Kony 2012 offers an important lesson that has little to do with the realities of the LRA. Instead, Kony 2012 offers a sobering lesson on the dangers of misinformation.

To be honest, I have had little respect for IC after studying abroad in Gulu, a small town in northern Uganda. Its regional presence and relevance is minimal at best, while its local approval is even less so. Above all, Kony 2012 is flawed in its blatant lack of Ugandan, specifically Acholi, voices. Mark Kersten writes, “It is hard to respect any documentary on northern Uganda where a five-year-old white boy features more prominently than any northern Ugandan victim or survivor.” 1

In response to IC’s documentary style, Debbie Smith argues that the filmmakers “effectively re-victimize the children” by portraying them as “victims in need of pity and not as humans with individual dignity.” 2

In a northern IDP camp called Corner Agula, a product of the civil war, I met with elders who did not mention the LRA. They instead spoke of their children, their lost homes, new farm projects, uncultivated land and unreliable aid. The reality of northern Uganda has more to do with post-conflict reconstruction, combating infectious diseases, rebuilding infrastructure, settling land disputes, providing mental health services, ensuring good governance and allocating justice. The misinformation of Kony 2012 effectively pigeonholes all Africans as helpless victims in need of Western help, thereby perpetuating negative conceptions of Africans one YouTube view at a time.

Another danger of Kony 2012 is simply the rapid spread of misinformation. If your only source of knowledge on this 26-year conflict is a YouTube video, you might want to research more before jumping on the IC bandwagon. With some extra effort, it’s relatively easy to find out that the LRA has been largely inactive in northern Uganda for years.

Admittedly, there were sporadic attacks after the failed 2006 peace talks, but the LRA has generally been absent from the region. In fact, the LRA now operates in South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As for the video’s claim that the LRA currently has 30,000 child soldiers, this figure cites the cumulative number of children abducted during its more than two decades of existence. 3

Overall, the video grossly misrepresents the situation of current northern Uganda as a region still mired in widespread violence. Ugandan journalist, Rosebell Kagumire writes, “My major problem with this video is that it simplifies the story of millions of people in northern Uganda.” 4

Its sensationalist voiceovers and imagery obfuscates an otherwise extremely complex geopolitical nightmare that extends far beyond Ugandan borders. Kony 2012, in attempting to simplify the “LRA problem” to reach a broader audience, has irresponsibly propagated false information.

Finally, Kony 2012 offers a dangerous solution sugarcoated in endless montages of running hipsters. The video first establishes a false problem that if the “American government doesn’t believe that Americans care about arresting Kony,” military advisers assisting Ugandan forces will be withdrawn. The video then proposes to make the world’s most notorious and wanted warlord even more famous. The notion that Kony has evaded capture for nearly three decades because Americans had not heard of it reeks of American arrogance. Moreover, if a five-year-old can easily understand your policy solution, it might lack some crucial nuance.

But the more dangerous result of IC’s misinformation campaign is its near-perfect alignment with increasing U.S. government efforts to militarize Africa. Adam Branch of Makerere University in Uganda writes, “Invisible Children are ‘useful idiots,’ being used by those in the U.S. government who seek to militarize Africa, to send more weapons and military aid to the continent, and to build the power of states that are US allies … The U.S. government would be pursuing this militarization with or without Invisible Children — Kony 2012 just makes it a little easier.” 5

Already, two House lawmakers have introduced a resolution that would, among other things, “[expand] the number of regional forces in Africa to protect civilians and [place] restrictions on individuals or governments found to be supporting Kony.” 6

Before supporting Kony 2012, I would advise viewers to educate themselves. These are issues that could never be thoroughly addressed in a half hour. That said, I commend IC for providing a fresh opportunity to discuss the perils of inaccurately representing a regional conflict and community. To take part in a discussion of this video, please attend Amnesty International’s screening of Kony 2012 this Friday at 5 p.m. in the Brown Alley room.

Awareness is important. But IC’s irresponsible use of misinformation to garner popular interest is dangerous.

1 http://justiceinconflict.org/2012/03/07/taking-kony-2012-down-a-notch/

2 Smith, Debbie J. “Big-eyed, Wide-eyed, Sad-eyed Children: Constructing the Humanitarian Space in Social Justice Documentaries.” Studies in Documentary Film 3.2 (2009): 164-165.

3 http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/03/07/guest_post_joseph_kony_is_not_in_uganda_and_other_complicated_things

4 http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=KLVY5jBnD-E

5 http://misr.mak.ac.ug/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=186%3Aadam-branch-on-invisible-children&catid=1%3Alatest-news&Itemid=50

6 http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-57396592-503544/joseph-kony-resolution-introduced-in-house/

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