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Kony 2012: Cynical Marketing Ploy Or Genuine Plea?

Posted on the 09 March 2012 by Periscope @periscopepost
Kony 2012: Cynical marketing ploy or genuine plea?

From the video campaign Kony 2012

The Kony 2012 video is still causing turmoil. The thirty-minute long plea to stop Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony has been an internet sensation. But it, and Invisible Children, its creators, have come under a barrage of criticism. The video has been called partial and manipulative: it quotes only three Ugandans, two of whom were politicians. It also spends more time on Jason Russell (one of the organisation’s leaders) son than on explaining about the conflict. The video came to international attention since it was taken up by stars such as as P Diddy, Rihanna, and Justin Bieber, reported Simon Hattenstone on The Guardianand then retweeted and shared of its own accord.  At the time of writing, it’s had almost 50 million views on YouTube. Which, given that it’s half an hour long, is something of a viral win.

Who’s Kony? Kony, once a church altarboy,  is the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and has terrorised eastern and central Africa, reported The Daily Telegraph, for nearly three decades.  The LRA originated in Uganda, but has since disappeared into any one of its neighbouring countries. National Post said that Kony’s methods in controlling his followers included “forced drug use, torture, execution of dissenters.”

What does the film say? The film shows Jason Russell calling for Kony to be made “famous” and for money to be raised to send in Americans to hunt him down. It uses footage of Russell’s five year old son reacting to hearing about Kony’s crimes, which are vividly described – young girls are raped, young boys forced to be child soldiers, children made to kill their parents. T Russell also seems to be encouraging vigiliantism; and he directs his message at children. He wants their publicity, and their money. And it calls for people to plaster streets with posters so that the “rest of the world will wake up to hundreds of people demanding justice in all corners.” It also wheels in George Clooney to give his two cents.

So what’s up with Invisible Children? Surely it’s a good cause? Invisible Children has also come under fire for its accounts, and for the way in which it encourages people to buy merchandise from its site. The Guardian  reported that it spent 25 per cent of its income (£5.68 million in 2011) on travel and filmmaking. The Telegraph said that less than £2.3 million was spent on people on the ground, the rest going on “awareness programmes and products”, media, management and other things. It isn’t clear from the film exactly what the money it demands will be used for once it’s been raised.

Commentators are scratching their heads. Invisible Children is effectively arguing for military intervention; they have been accused of shameless manipulation, not giving all the facts, and not thinking about larger geopolitical implications. The Guardian pointed out that there are already US troops, aided by local armies, in the area looking for Kony; they tried to assassinate him in 2009. Michael Winkerson on the Foreign Policy blog said “it is unclear how millions of well-meaning but misinformed people are going to help deal with the more complicated reality.” So are we meant to be celebrating the fact that a little-known issue has been brought to light successfully, or throwing our hands up at the cynical manipulation of millions of people via social networks?

“It is totally misleading to suggest that the war is still in Uganda,” said Fred Opolot, spokesman for the Ugandan government, quoted on The Daily Telegraph. “I suspect that if that’s the impression they are making, they are doing it only to garner increasing financial resources for their own agenda.”

So what’s really going on in Uganda? Mike Pflanz in The Daily Telegraph said that Kony fled Uganda six years ago, and his “diminishing troops” are now hiding in other countries. Ugandans are reportedly furious about the film. Pflanz quoted Dr Beatrice Mpora, a director of a community health organisation in a town that was once held by the rebels. “There has not been a single soul from the LRA here since 2006. Now we have peace, people are back in their homes, they are planting their fields, they are starting their businesses. That is what people should help us with.” The Guardian quoted another writer, Angelo Opi-Aiya Izama, who said that the main problems in the area now are “child prostitution, HIV,” and a terrible disorder known as “nodding disease” that affects children.

What about the claim to make Kony “famous”? Pflanz quoted a Ugandan blogger, Javie Ssozi, who said that it could make Kony “stronger.” The threat of more US troops “could make him scared, and make him abduct more children, or go on the offensive.”

How is Invisible Children defending itself? In a statement, quoted on The Daily Telegraph, it said that the people and government of Uganda had a “vested interest in seeing him stopped.” Jededia Jenkins, director of idea development for the organisation, said criticisms were “myopic”, and that the film “got young people to care about an issue on the other side of the planet that doesn’t affect them,” quoted on The Guardian.

In defence. Jacob Acaye, the former child abductee featured in the film, has defended it and its makers. Now studying law in Kampala, he told The Guardian that it wasn’t “too late”, and that suffering was still going on in the Central African Republic and Congo. Invisible Children had also helped to rebuild schools, including his own.

It’s seemingly aimed at children – what’s their reaction? Simon Hattenstone on The Guardian met teenage students from a Stoke Newington school in north east London. He spoke of the “sense of astonishment” amongst the pupils “that one man could be responsible for so much evil.” These youngsters, though, are not stupid – they think the film is “partial with its history and selective with its facts.” Glorifying Ugandan troops, for instance; asking for a corrupt government that calls for the deaths of gay people to be supported. They also thought that the video overplayed the role of Facebook. They hadn’t fallen for the marketing, too: Hattenstone quoted one: “Last time I looked it was $10 a bracelet … and then $20 more for overseas delivery, which I think is just … well it doesn’t cost $20 to send a package overseas.”

“It’s an internet phenomenon. It’s the mob mentality. Everyone can feel outraged. We are buying into the emotion and handing over money but who it’s going to and how it is helping [Uganda's children] is left unanswered”, says Phil Borge, a director of London-based 1000 Heads, quoted on The Guardian.

Oh dear. Is this leading to mob rule? Not yet. But it is a brilliant exercise in social media. Forbes gave the rundown on the social media success of the video and justified Invisible Children’s activities on the grounds that it’s a “social media startup” whose product is “conflict reduction” rather than a “purely humanitarian organization.” It did point out the “unforeseen implications” of the video’s challenges, and quoted Jack McDonald on his King of War blog. The latter showed that “the area to be reconnoitered is equivalent to the size” of South Carolina. We didn’t find Osama bin Ladin in similar circumstances. The article continued: and think further – will foreign policy now “be guided by social media fiat?”

How did the video succeed? The article analysed the video, and said that it successfully manipulated viewers by being positive, grabbing their attention, adding a personal touch; calling on mainstream media, pulling on the heartstrings, and making it simple. It also says that the video will be deleted by the end of the year – but offers no explanation.

But there’s a troubling caveat. Whatever such slick pieces of video do, “there is always the risk that Invisible Children, and all social media efforts, will win the battle but lose the war.”

Watch the video and judge for yourself

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