March 7, 2012

on kony 2012

Update 10 March 2012
I've done a little more looking over the past day or two and have found some better sources of information. Those that are friends or followers may have already seen me post this elsewhere. Unfortunately, it seems like all the information people are referencing at the moment is from op-ed news articles which, while they do include some relevant information, are generally only talking about people's reactions to the video and their opinions of Invisible Children. While that's all fine, I'm not looking for opinions and what people think about what's going on in Africa. What I'm looking for are the unabashed facts; what is actually happening on the ground in the Congo/CAR/South Sudan, what does Invisible Children and Co. want to accomplish, how do they want to go about it, and what kind of data do they have to back up their claims (i.e. the LRA is alive and dangerous).

First, to kick off the Kony2012 campaign, Invisible Children CEO Ben Keesey sent a letter to President Obama dated March 7th outlining their goals and laying out what they need from Obama to make it happen. This makes it fairly clear what their intentions are.

Resolve is a partner organization with Invisible Children, and they put together a fantastic report called Peace Can Be: Obama's Chance to Help End LRA Atrocities in 2012, based on a research trip in LRA-affected areas in June-September 2011. You can download a PDF of the report at the bottom of the page, which contains tons of info on the LRA they collected and the recommendations that Kony2012 is endorsing. The Executive Summary is a good read to reiterate what's found in the letter above, but I also highly recommend Section B of Part I, titled Trends in LRA activity: The final chapter? It talks about the possibility of the LRA scaling down their operations to withstand the oncoming international pressure.

Finally, and this is my favorite, Resolve also helped Invisible Children put together the LRA Crisis Tracker, a real-time data collection project that maps and keeps records on the LRA's activities. They launched it in September last year, but it contains data back to 2009 based on historical data of attacks committed by the LRA (they say they plan to keep going backwards as they move forward to get a greater picture of how the violence has affected the surrounding populations). You can find all the neat details about the database and their data collecting methodologies (verifying accuracy, reliability of sources) in the Crisis Tracker Codebook. If you're on Twitter, you can follow @CrisisTracker to get the latest reports.

So all this is great, but perhaps you're reading to get my opinion. This is a blog after all. Honestly, I think you've probably heard enough opinions on the matter after the explosion of chatter Thursday and Friday; things have gotten pretty heated between supporters and dissenters. I'm still on the fence, personally, as this is a very tricky situation. Some Ugandans appear to be worried about backlash, like more civilian deaths and child abductions, which is absolutely understandable. Invisible Children, however, is worried that we're going to miss yet another opportunity to finally put an end to the LRA. The Congo wants to purge the Ugandan forces that are currently stationed there for the purposes of fighting Kony and his followers, and should Uganda's government roll over on this (entirely possible as their interest is beginning to stagnate now that Kony is no longer in Uganda), the US military advisers Obama sent over in October 2011 may be pulled out and the LRA will likely escape pressure once again.

All things said, Invisible Children wants to get the governments of the affected nations, with help from the US military, working together to stop Joseph Kony. I think that's great, but I also think it's pretty clear they've made a mistake. The problem is that they created this video for a specific audience; the goal of their video is to move people to give money to support their efforts, therefore their audience is those that have money to give. I'm not at all objected to this, and as we can already see it's a great way to bring in funds and raise awareness. Unfortunately, many of these same money-giving people have very little knowledge of what's going on (understandable), so they decided to simplify things a bit and leave some things out to make the story easier to follow (or maybe increase its emotional impact). This I can also understand; if you make things too complicated, your audience will lose interest. But it is here where they made the mistake. They posted the video on the internet. While the internet has a knack for spreading information quickly, it also spreads it relentlessly, wherein lies the problem. They reached people outside their target audience. Namely, the people of Africa.

Africans (Ugandans especially) have been blogging incessantly about the video, criticizing it for being inaccurate in depicting what's actually happening in their own country. This has led to the veritable sh**storm of what we're seeing today. Lots of it isn't even related to the issue at hand or the Kony2012 campaign, but other things like Invisible Children's finances or that picture of them holding guns with the Sudan People's Liberation Army. But the backlash from the Ugandan community is telling; they weren't really meant to watch this video. And why should they? They already know what's going on. They're living right in the middle of it!

Regardless, this is a powerful lesson to learn. Don't just think about the audience you're creating for, think about your delivery mechanism and whether it's going to deliver your message to the wrong people.

How can they fix it? Well, they definitely took a step in the right direction by answering the critiques on their website; I've pulled a great deal of the info in this post from that page. The links to Resolve's research and the letter to Obama really should have been posted right below the video from the get-go, as it may have saved them at least some of the scolding of the past few days.

But what they should really be doing right now is garnering support and mobilizing the people of Uganda/Congo/CAR/South Sudan. As far as I'm concerned, all the American support in the world won't make a difference if the people of Africa can't get behind them, especially now that they've damaged their credibility among Ugandans. Without their support, their efforts to get governments cooperating is going to fall flat, and if that happens, they're going to have to answer to all the Americans that paid for it.

old post
Let me preface this by saying I have done very little research myself up to this point; I haven't watched the video that's gone viral in the past 24 hours or so, mostly because the internet here in East Africa has slowed to a crawl due to an accident last week, and I've only just begun to read up on Invisible Children and what they're all about. The reason I'm writing this is to promote the idea that "there's always two sides to a story."

I've seen lots of chatter on Facebook and Twitter (I'm pretty sure it trended worldwide for a while), but most of it is just people posting Invisible Children's new video without any kind of commentary. In the past few hours I've seen additional posts from some of my friends, many of whom live or have lived in Africa, that are confused about this video. Sparked by curiosity, I decided to do a few Google searches and found some interesting articles. One on reddit expressing some disbelief, and within that I found another on tumblr. Apparently the tumblr blog has been censored on Facebook, which is a bit curious. You can also check out Invisible Children's Charity Navigator page.

Again, I'm not trying to change anyone's mind; just trying to make it more informed. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

Update: it appears that the reddit post got deleted by admins on the site as I was typing this post. Check this permalink for a copy in the comments section.