By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

About that “Kony 2012” video


We may not have previously seen a social-media phenomenon quite like “Kony 2012,” the online video aimed at raising public awareness about Joseph Kony, the leader of the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. I saw it on Tuesday, urged on by my son. He was skeptical from the beginning, having seen this. Today, some 50 million views later, “Kony 2012” is on the front page of the New York Times.

You may be familiar with the criticism by now, which I will attempt summarize as follows:

  • It oversimplifies a complex situation.
  • Kony’s forces, which once terrorized Uganda, have dwindled to a few hundred, and have long since fled for parts unknown.
  • Invisible Children, the not-exactly-transparent nonprofit that made “Kony 2012,” is pushing for the U.S. to launch an ill-advised military action.
  • The film plays down the brutal nature of the current Ugandan government, which, among other things, is considering a measure calling for the death penalty for gay men. (A star of the film is U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, who has been accused of inadvertently helping to foment anti-gay hatred in Uganda.)
  • The underlying message of the video is that bringing Kony to justice is something white people must do for poor, helpless black people.

“While I’ve been waiting years for a spotlight to be shown on Kony, what Kony 2012 is all about is shining the spotlight on [filmmaker] Jason Russell,” writes my WGBH colleague Phillip Martin on Facebook. “This is indeed a great white hope form of self-aggrandizement, albeit whatever good intentions he has.”

Personally, I’d been going back and forth on “Kony 2012” until last night, when I ran across this lengthy blog post by Ethan Zuckerman, an Africa expert who is director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media as well as the co-founder of Global Voices Online, which has rounded up African reaction to the film. It’s exactly the sort of nuanced, deeply knowledgeable analysis I would expect from Zuckerman, and I urge you to read it. (If you haven’t seen “Kony 2012” yet, this will take you less time.)

There’s no question that “Kony 2012” will raise awareness, and it’s possible that it will even do some good. But it’s not entirely clear what the goal is, or for that matter should be.

Video recorded by @rosebellk for Al Jazeera.


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  1. BP Myers

    It is disingenuous to claim “it is unclear what the goal is” when the goals are clearly laid out in the video, the most important of which is to “make Kony famous.” I think they are well on their way to achieving that.

    Much of the criticism strikes me as coming from other do-gooders who are simply jealous of the success of this campaign. And much of it, alas, is just the general snarkiness that has overtaken our culture, to denigrate anything that might achieve some good.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @BP: It is not possible for a reasonable person to read Ethan Zuckerman’s post and conclude that he is jealous.

  2. I’m impressed by Ethan Zuckerman’s analysis of the Kony 2012 video, but less impressed with his conclusions. Is the film advocating making Joseph Kony famous so that he can finally be captured simplistic? Yes, it is. Of that there is little doubt. Might it work. Yes, it might. Is that reason enough for making. Yes, it is.

    Osama bin Laden was well known by the powers that be back into the Clinton administration, but that didn’t stop him from continuing his terror activities. Even when his name became a household expletive, bin Laden continued doing his work for ten years. If it proves nothing else, it proves that making someone famous helps to finally stop their rampage against humanity.

    Joseph Kony may have been known by only a thousand people before the Kony 2012 film, but it is safe to say that now he is known by millions. If it takes ten years to stop the sexual enslavement of young girls, or the turning of young boys in to homicidal soldiers is that too much time. Who is really over simplying the problem?

    The point, often missed in this dialogue, is that people like Kony must be stopped.Now. If one child can be saved, is that not enough?

    I have not done enought analysis of the filmmakers work to say whether his goals are pure, or economical. But I can ask the question of whether it matters. Kony is now known by millions of more people than he was known only a week ago. It’s a start.

  3. BP Myers

    @Dan: He says in the linked blog post that he “resents” Invisible Children’s video.

    Close enough.

  4. C.E. Stead

    DK – A while ago, Nicholas Kristoff made a great film called ‘The Reporter’ – link –

    about similar dynamics in the Congo. It has the advantage of having interviews with both the monsters and their victims.

    I can’t help thinking that so little is said about the very dark happenings of the African continent, we shouldn’t squabble about who gets credit.

    Perhaps they meant that they were trying to make Kony ‘INfamous’?

  5. It’s new age social journalism that puts the reporter at the center of the story and uses emotions rather than facts to tell the story. I found a thinly veiled condensation running through the whole piece, although it’s hard to deny it’s power even despite the sloppy fact-gathering.

  6. Christian Avard


    This piece in Jezebel is also worth a look. Sounds like this organization isn’t that all transparent.

  7. Hylen Smurr

    A nuanced look at some of these matters:

  8. C.E. Stead

    @Hylen – “Did these militiamen have grievances that motivated their actions?”

    IS there a grievance that justifies hacking off the leg of a terrorized woman, cooking it, and trying to make her children eat it?

    The critic doesn’t want to have such a story told without reference to the historic and geopolitical dynamics. Kristoff addresses this in the film. He talks about ‘Psychic Numbing’ – that is, discussing these catastrophies in a rational and reflective manner, rather than responding viscerally, and humanly, to their horror.

    As it happens, my grandmother was born in the Congo at the turn of the last century – her family was involved in sheltering the victims of King Leopold’s rubber plantations, after they had their hands hacked off by Belgian masters for not working fast/hard enough. That is how long these types of actions have been going on, and a case can certainly be made that it was the brutalization of the grandparents by colonists that created the brutalizers today, in the same way that an abused child may abuse others.

    But ratiocination on the subject has done little to break the cycle – perhaps the time has come for direct stories to pierce the carapace of world indifference.

  9. Our criticism of Invisible Children does much more to discourage engagement and activism than it does to encourage a deeper look. Ethan is great, and has made great strides, but in the past two weeks, more people have learned about his work through his remarks about KONY than in the previous 20 years. The ONLY appropriate response in my mind is “great job, invisible children! Now I’m going to take this baton you’ve handed me and use the momentum to get people to take a deeper look at the problems and solutions.”

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