Friday, March 09, 2012

Kony 2012 - Cause or Con?

Is the latest viral social media campaign really worth fighting for?

In the past week, many people who use social media tools like Facebook and Twitter have been bombarded with links with the heading of "Kony 2012". Who, or what, is this most recent viral campaign about and why are so many people jumping up to support it?

This campaign was started by a non-profit organization called Invisible Children Inc. In 2003, three friends travelled to Africa to document issues relating to Darfur. However, when they arrived, their focus was drawn elsewhere. When they got to Uganda, they were introduced to the children of the area who, on a nightly basis, are forced to travel miles on foot to seek places of refuge in order to avoid kidnap by a group known as the Lords Resistance Army or LRA. These children would seek safe places, such as bus shelters or church basements in urbanized areas in order to keep themselves safe from the threat of being abducted by the LRA and forced to become sex slaves and child soldiers. After witnessing these events, the filmmakers petitioned the US government to get involved and assist in putting a stop to such travesties. However, according to the three men, they were told that unless there was a direct threat to US national security or the US economy, there was no way that the government would intervene. After hosting more than ten thousand screenings at schools, churches, concerts, and rallies, the group found success after petitioning the government a second time, with the support of many outraged young Americans who were touched by the original documentary. The government decided to send 100 US troops to Uganda as advisors to the Ugandan armed forces. The issue now is how long the US government will allow these troops to stay.

With this in mind, Jason Russell, who is one of the three original filmmakers, has started a viral campaign to create awareness about the LRA and its leader, Joseph Kony. He created a 27-minute documentary that sums up the activity of the LRA and Kony and then asks viewers to help make Joseph Kony famous in an attempt to stop his heinous crimes. By using social media tools it seeks to target twenty "culture makers" and twelve "policy makers" in order to spread awareness and capture the man responsible for the kidnap, rape, and mutilation of Africans for over 26 years. This video has been viewed over 21 million times on YouTube, and this number continues to increase rapidly. But there has been a steadily growing amount of criticism about both the campaign and the organization, Invisible Children Inc., as the message has spread.

There have been questions raised about the organizations use of funding in previous years. As a non-profit group, their finances are public, and they've received criticism because only 32% of the money they spent last year actually went to direct services to help in the issues they say they are tackling. The rest of the money, which in total was some 8.6 million dollars, went to staff salaries, travel expenses, transportation, and film production. The organization has also refused to have their finances externally audited, which has certainly raised some eyebrows. In addition to their finances, Invisible Children Inc. is said to have exaggerated and manipulated facts in their campaigns for strategic purposes. And one of the biggest criticisms of the group is their calling for direct military intervention. The money they raise goes to the Ugandan army among other military forces in Africa, however many of these groups are accused of partaking in activities very similar to the man they are so desperately trying to have arrested, such as rape and looting. In recent years, the LRA has actually moved out of Uganda and into other areas in Africa, and yet the Ugandan army is still receiving the majority of the funds from the organization. And finally, the group is being questioned about their targeting of the US government rather than the African leaders to incite change.

So, when you consider these criticisms, you have to ask yourself what is really being promoted when the "KONY 2012" link is passed on?

The message gets blurred by the organizations money grubbing tactics, questionable practices, and the selling of merchandise in the form of bracelets, t-shirts, and stickers all in a convenient "action pack" for the cost of 30 dollars (only $9.60 of which will go to direct services on the ground in Uganda if the 32% figure mentioned above is true). The true call to action is lost in the promotion of the charity itself over the actual cause.

Undoubtedly, Joseph Kony is a horrible individual who certainly must be brought to justice. His crimes over the past 26 years are disgusting, and should be stopped. The basic premise of the campaign is admirable: to spread the word about this man and his crimes in the hope that people will be compelled to stand up and change something, and that ultimately Joseph Kony will be captured and tried for his crimes against humanity. And the word has certainly spread. However, the good intentions behind the campaign seem to be the last thing anyone is talking about at this point. Before passing the video along, do your research. If you believe in the message, spread it. If you believe in the organization, promote it. But don't jump on the bandwagon blindly just because it's the thing to do. And most importantly, don't forget what it is that is really being fought for, as it appears those closest to it just might have.

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