If you frequent the web, chances are you are familiar with “Kony 2012” – aka, “the most viral video in history.” The 30-minute video, created by American charity Invisible Children, is part of an awareness campaign against Joseph Kony, the Ugandan warlord notorious for kidnapping children and turning them into conscripts in his murderous guerilla force, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The aim of the campaign is to make Kony “famous,” that is, to show his crimes and to generate public support for international action to arrest him and end the humanitarian crisis in Uganda.
The campaign’s animating humanitarian concern is admirable. While he surely has too much competition to qualify as “one of the world’s worst war criminals,” as the campaign dubs him, Joseph Kony is indeed a monster, a faux-mystic and madman whose two-decade-plus catalogue of crimes includes the abduction of 30,000 children, the murder and mutilation of tens of thousands of civilians, and the displacement of over 2 million people in Northern Uganda. In showcasing those crimes for a global audience – the Kony 2012 video has garnered over 100 million views in six days – Invisible Children has at least ensured that the world will bear witness to what he has wrought.
Despite that, the campaign’s framing of the relevant issues is seriously flawed. For one thing, the video is strikingly self-indulgent. Notwithstanding its no-doubt sincere concern for Kony’s child victims in Africa, the child at the center of the video is the white 5-year-old son of Invisible Children’s co-founder, Jason Russell. Most of the campaign’s featured supporters are also white, and their enthusiasm for social activism via the internet, combined with the Kony 2012 bracelets they wear in support of the campaign, have the unfortunate effect of making an issue purportedly about Ugandans seem disconcertingly about, well, themselves. At least that is how it struck Ugandans, who jeered and threw stones after a recent screening of the video. Apparently expecting to see a film about the atrocities they lived through, they were angered to instead find young white people turning a murderer into an accessory. The irony, clearly, was lost in translation.