Mr. Joseph Kony is a nasty piece of work. The warlord is the founder of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), an insurgent group that has been battling the government in Uganda for over two decades. Founded in 1987, the group was formed as a rebel group that fought for power and spoils against southern Ugandans (a long-standing division within the country). Mr. Kony proclaimed himself a spokesperson for God and a spirit medium, vowing to overthrow the government in Kampala and establish a theocratic state based on the Ten Commandments and the Acholi culture from which he came.
Two decades of fighting had little impact on Uganda politics, but it established the reputation of Mr. Kony and the LRA for brutality. It is estimated that as many as 12,000 people have been killed by violence involving the LRA and 2 million more driven from their homes and forced to become internally displaced people. Most horrifying has been the way the LRA has fought. It is reckoned that as many as 30,000 boys have been kidnapped by the LRA over time and forced to become child soldiers. Young, taken from their families and forced to fight, they have become acculturated to violence and have committed terrible atrocities, such as rape, torture, mutilation and mass killings. An equal number of girls have been taken as well; they have been used as sexual and domestic slaves. In 2005, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Kony to face charges of crimes against humanity.
At one time, the LRA had thousands of soldiers. Today, it is thought that the group consists of as few as 200 to 300 troops. Yet it is a testimony to their resilience and the incompetence of the Ugandan military that the LRA continues to bedevil the authorities and wreak havoc.
It is tempting to see Mr. Kony as the devil incarnate. The advocacy group Invisible Children makes that case in Kony2012, a 30-minute video that was released on YouTube and quickly went viral. As many as 100 million people have watched the film since its release March 5. The speed with which the campaign has spread and the attention that it has gathered testify to the power of new communications media and their potential use and misuse.
Proponents point to the speed with which the message about Mr. Kony has spread. Not only has the video inundated social media, but the strategy itself (of which the video is just a part) has received extensive coverage in the mainstream media, amplifying the message. It has raised awareness of the crimes he and his soldiers have committed, ratcheting up pressure on the international community to do something about him and the LRA.
As remarkable as the spread of Kony2012′s message is, is the opposition it has encountered. Complaints against the campaign range from charges that the information is outdated — the LRA was driven out of Uganda in 2005 — to the fact that it oversimplifies the situation. Mr. Kony may not be “the world’s worst criminal” — the words of one teenage viewer — and the conflict in Uganda reflects far more than the crimes of one man and his army. Some worry that a superficial assessment may do more harm than good by focusing on Mr. Kony rather than on a systemic problem. Indeed, the warlord’s influence seems to be on the wane.
Critics also charge that the tone of the video promotes — subconsciously — the view that Africans are incapable of handling their own affairs and external (Western) intervention is required to set things straight. For some, this is racism; others call it neocolonialism. A related charge is that the message of the campaign is that war is the solution to this problem. It is another simplified, and potentially dangerous, path to follow. And it should be noted that the United States last year sent 100 military advisors to the region to help the Ugandan government track down Mr. Kony. Military force is rarely the solution to a decades-old problem.
Simplification of the situation in Uganda encourages “slacktivism,” the belief that equally simple and glib responses will suffice. Passing on a tweet or pushing the “like button” on Facebook is not the same as real action to address a problem. Some human rights activists worry that such campaigns can even be a substitute for substantive action; others fear that groups will learn that this is just another way to manipulate the public. After all, “on the Internet no one knows if you are a real human rights activist.”
The criticisms are worth noting. Complex problems demand complex solutions. But complex problems also demand attention and the Kony2012 campaign deserves credit for raising public awareness of an appalling situation. Even if the Invisible Children project is overly simplified, forcing a debate about the facts and the complexities of the situation is a good thing. Mr. Kony’s best ally is silence. Anything that penetrates that veil is to be applauded.