Kony 2012: the viral advocacy documentary and its problems

A first-person documentary/advocacy film about a Central African rebel leader became the fastest-spreading viral video in history this week. Published Monday, it had almost 59 million views on YouTube as of Friday night, a remarkable accomplishment, and far more viewers than even popular reality series and documentaries get. That has drawn many people to the cause outlined in the film, but it has also created a backlash.

Produced by Jason Russell, who co-founded Invisible Children, the film (watch it below) is a well-made half-hour piece that focuses on bringing attention to Joseph Kony for kidnapping more than 30,000 children for his Lord’s Resistence Army, using girls as sex slaves and boys as soldiers who start by killing their own parents. Kony was indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity in 2005. (Learn more.)

The film isn’t perfect: Russell frequently comes across as condescending, like he’s talking to a child–and that’s actually how he presents his main narrative, explaining it to his young son, and, of course, to us. In some ways, the video is most interesting in its presentation of arguments about social change, and how change is affected in 2012. And ultimately, it’s about promotion for Invisible Children and a call to action using a template and tools they’ve created, which involves targeting celebrities and politicians to bring attention to Kony this year.

Clearly, it’s worked. Yesterday, White House press secretary Jay Carney even said that Obama “congratulate the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have mobilized” and “this viral video is part of that response.” Last fall, Obama authorized the deployment of 100 U.S. troops to the region to assist in finding and removing Kony.

While nobody seems to think that Joseph Kony is someone to be celebrated–quite the opposite–the film and Invisible Children have come under a lot of scrutiny, including for being more about self-promotion than anything else; how the charity spends its money; how the film oversimplifies and distorts a complex situation without giving any context or history; how their efforts are paternalistic and colonialist in their approach; and even for perhaps secretly being a ministry.

You should read some of that, especially if the film impacted you and/or you’ve decided to act, either by giving money or by helping to spread the film yourself. Good places to start are Visible Children, a Tumblr blog, and an article that expands on the film’s “narrow perspective,” and Boing Boing has rounded up reactions from Africans about it.

To its credit, Invisible Children responded to the criticism, including by publishing its financial statements from the past five years, and arguing that their efforts “are implemented with continuous input from, and in respect of the knowledge and experience of, local communities and their leaders.”

They also explain a photograph of the organization’s founders holding guns belonging to members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, and said “that photo was a bad idea. We were young and we got caught up in the moment. … we thought it would be funny to bring back to our friends and family a joke photo.” The photo’s photographer told the Washington Post that she hasn’t watched the new video but “I found all of their previous efforts to be emotionally manipulative, and all the things I try as a journalist not to be,” adding that a previous video “was the most irresponsible act of image-making that I’d seen in a long time.”

Their current effort may also be irresponsible, but it is unquestionably successful so far.

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