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The Kony 2012 Sensation
I shared the video on Facebook, but now what?
Julijana Stefanovic

I had just come home from dance practice—tired, hungry, and in desperate need of a long, hot bath—when I decided to log on to Facebook really quick. Scrolling through my news feed I saw the same video posted multiple times. “Julia and 8 others posted a video” … “Alice is attending Stop Kony 2012” … “Marco and 10 others mentioned ‘Kony 2012’ in their status.” Some of my friends had commented, “I know it’s long, but just watch it.” Though I was exhausted, I knew I had to click on the link and see for myself what all the fuss was about.

I was about to witness a phenomenon. Within days, the half-hour "Kony 2012" video had been viewed more than 100 million times worldwide—making it the most viral video ever, according to Visible Measures, a social video analytics company. The video, which was produced by a nonprofit called Invisible Children, explains the evil deeds of a Ugandan warlord named Joseph Kony.

Since the 1980s Kony, who presents himself as a leader chosen by God, has headed a vicious group called the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The LRA’s original purpose was supposedly to defend a group of people being oppressed by the Ugandan government and install Kony as the political and religious leader of Uganda. But over the years it has moved into neighboring countries and committed massacres around the region.

Young people especially drove the video’s popularity. They responded to “Kony 2012” by spreading the word on Facebook and Twitter. The video has also drawn negative attention, especially last week, when Jason Russell, a 33-year-old American who co-founded Invisible Children and stars in the video, was picked up by police for behaving bizarrely in public.

I was one of the young people deeply affected by “Kony 2012.” I watched as a child abductee named Jacob Acaye spoke about witnessing his brother being slaughtered. Listening to his fragile voice crack made me crack on the inside. The screen went blurry for a moment, and then a neat row of tears conducted its way down my cheek.

As the video went on, Jason Russell described how Kony ran a cult that kidnapped children, turning little boys into soldiers and little girls into sex slaves, and forced some children to kill their own family members as a way to destroy community and family bonds. I looked at the images of hundreds of displaced African children lying on the floor with nothing but filthy blankets to cover them. They looked terrified.

Going Viral

A huge jolt of pain radiated down my body; I was appalled. There I was, in a warm apartment with a bed and plenty of food and clothes, while children in Uganda were terrorized by this evil man, Kony. I couldn’t help but feel guilty. Russell made it seem that every human being was obligated to help, and until I did something, I would be partly responsible for these children’s sufferings. I shared the video on my Facebook page and wrote, “What are you waiting for? Share!” as my caption. I was sending text messages to all of my friends saying that they must go on my Facebook page and watch this video, then pass along the word.

The “soft spot” that the video struck in me, and in many young people, wasn’t something our parents necessarily understood. A friend of mine wrote a Facebook status update saying she had been so inspired by “Kony 2012” that she’d rushed to her parents and urged them to watch it—only to have them roll their eyes at her. Why would different generations react so differently to the video?

For one thing, older people tend to have a harder time believing one person can make a change. But in some ways, social media has made it easier for one person to have an impact than ever before, at least in cases where a person uses social media tools strategically and has some support. Jason Russell had the help of his organization (Invisible Children has a team of more than 100 people), and the video they made together had a carefully-orchestrated release. Invisible Children targeted celebrities such as Zooey Deschanel and Rihanna, asking them to share, Tweet, or repost the video. Their millions of (mostly young) followers in turn watched, Tweeted, and reposted the video, and word spread like wildfire.

I think the video also caught on by appealing to young people’s emotions. It begins by drawing attention to the way that social media has empowered youth worldwide: “Governments are trying to keep up, and older generations are concerned. The game has new rules,” says Russell’s voiceover. His words made me feel I could save all these little children—that I could have a voice; that I have a place. Then the video builds on this sense of inspiration: lively music kicks in, accompanying images of motivated young people putting up posters showing an image of Kony and “2012.”

Russell calls on everyone to come out on April 20 for an event called “Blanket the Night,” when volunteers all over the world are supposed to put up these posters to grab people’s attention and prompt them to act. Seeing how happy people in the video looked getting involved in addressing the Kony issue made me want to get involved, too. But the video doesn’t offer a lot of options beyond signing their petition, paying $30 to buy the “Kony 2012” bracelet and “action kit,” putting up posters, and donating money to Invisible Children.

Cracks in the Story

The very personal angle Russell gave the video also made it more emotional and touching. He showed us more about his life and family than about anyone in Uganda. On one hand, this probably made “Kony 2012” the sensation it was; if the target audience is young people in wealthy countries, they can more easily relate to Jason Russell than to Jacob Acaye. But if Russell’s concern is Ugandans, it’s strange that he focuses more on his own life, and how this issue feels to him and his family, than on the Ugandans themselves.

Russell’s starring role in the video also meant it was headline news when, last week, he was found running through San Diego in his underwear, yelling incoherently and banging on the pavement. He was hospitalized and his family and colleagues said he was suffering from exhaustion and dehydration. Whatever the story behind this unexpected twist, by being so conspicuous in the video, Russell left himself and Invisible Children wide open to judgments based on his actions.

And it wasn’t the first negative publicity associated with the video. People have criticized “Kony 2012” for, among other things, presenting outdated information: Kony’s forces are weaker than the video indicates—they now only number in the hundreds—and they have moved to other border regions and are no longer in northern Uganda. Critics also say the video includes too few voices of actual Ugandans, and puts too much emphasis on “raising awareness” rather than helping Kony’s victims directly.

My peers and I aren’t really “inspired to help” anymore. After hearing criticisms like how little Invisible Children donates to Ugandans, and then learning about Russell’s outburst, we all feel a bit confused. My friends’ Facebook comments have varied from “I can’t believe that this is the voice of the Invisible Children, this guy is crazy” to, “I can’t believe I wasted my time on this.”

Skeptical, but Still Sympathetic

image by Collin Harvey

Putting aside all the drama and negative energy that’s surrounded “Kony 2012,” I truly believe that the video describes an unfortunate and heartbreaking situation. My heart goes out to all Kony’s victims, and I would love to help them and the people of any nation dealing with such problems. The issue is that a lot of other nations are in fact dealing with similar problems; we just don’t know it.

“Kony 2012” seemed like such a good thing because it presented everyone with a simple message: It screamed, “HEY, NOW THAT YOU KNOW ABOUT THIS, YOU CAN HELP MAKE A CHANGE!” Nothing that has come to light in the past two weeks should change our sympathy for Kony’s victims and our willingness to help if we can. It also sparked a lot of young people to think about human rights, and maybe pay more attention in the future to what’s happening in other parts of the world.

But one concern going forward is how many times a video like this can make a big impression. The next time someone makes a plea for young viewers to get involved or pay attention, that plea will probably be weaker because we’ve seen something similar. What’s more, we may be skeptical because of the “Kony 2012” controversy.

One thing is certain: Social media has provided a new way for people to learn about world politics and to spread information themselves. We should keep in mind that people can spread a false or misleading message as easily as any other. But it is also a good thing that at the click of a button, the whole world can know what’s going on.

Going Deeper: Beyond “Kony 2012”

Being able to quickly spread the word about crimes against humanity is a powerful thing. But beyond clicking “like” or “share,” what else can you do to make a difference?

An important first step is to learn as much as you can, from reliable sources of information that provide facts, not emotional pleas or propaganda. That puts you in a better position to take informed actions like contacting your public officials, deciding which kinds of charities you want to support or volunteer for, and educating your friends and family.

As the world has learned since the “Kony 2012” video went viral, Joseph Kony is no longer in Uganda, but hundreds of thousands of his victims are. Finding and bringing people like Kony to justice is important. So is helping the victims—many of them young people—who are suffering the psychological and physical injuries of war even after escaping from the Lord’s Resistance Army that Kony leads.

Here are a few places you can go to get more detailed, accurate information about Joseph Kony and the current situation in Uganda, and to learn more about other places around the world that are struggling with war crimes and human rights abuses. By taking the time to dig a little deeper, your voice can be more powerful.

United Nations Office of the Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict
This section of the UN’s website provides information on countries, including Uganda, where children have been greatly affected by conflict. There is also a special fact sheet on Uganda, in response to questions raised by “Kony 2012.”

Human Rights Watch
New York-based Human Rights Watch monitors human rights abuses around the world by doing detailed, on-the-ground research. You can search by country, region, or topic.

CIA World Factbook
The Factbook provides information on the history, culture, politics, economy, military, and people of every country in the world. Check out the Uganda profile for the basics on that country.

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