If you had told me before break that a video about a Ugandan warlord, in seven days, would get more views on YouTube than Coldplay’s The Scientist, ZBB’s Chicken Fried and Carly Rae Jepsen’s extraordinary hit Call Me Maybe had amassed — combined — I would have called you a lunatic.
But Invisible Children, in a remarkable video calling Americans to act to popularize and encourage the capture of Joseph Kony, has done just that. They created the most viral, most popular human rights campaign in recent history. I’d argue that it’s one of the most successful, too.
Recently, the publicity surrounding Kony 2012 has turned negative. Critics argue that the video is too little, too late. They say that it oversimplifies the Uganda conflict greatly, and misleads people about the process of capturing the warlord. Just a few days ago, a non-profit group showed the video to the people whose families had been directly affected by Kony, and these northern Ugandans reportedly reacted poorly to the movie. They felt that Invisible Children had commercialized their suffering.
I understand these criticisms fully, and I appreciate the instinct for people to pause and question whether the campaign is really worthy of its acclaim. I agree that catching a warlord will barely begin to solve all of Africa’s problems. I agree that the video lacks nuance; that change is not a rudimentary five-step formula. I agree that it dramatizes for effect.
But we’re not talking about writing a thesis here. We’re not discussing whether this video has educational value, whether it considers every argument and counter-argument, and whether it describes the conflict with pinpoint accuracy. Invisible Children didn’t set out to produce a comprehensive documentary on the Lord’s Resistance Army.
Rather, Invisible Children is trying to raise awareness. They are faced with the harder, more practical task of capturing people’s interests, engaging them with their government’s efforts to stop Kony, and maintaining that level of civic engagement through 2012 and beyond. There’s always going to be a trade-off between total accuracy and popular appeal. It’s a fine balance, and I think that Invisible Children has found it.
Invisible Children has made caring about human rights and justice fashionable, especially about a region that has been too readily ignored over the past century. That’s an extraordinary feat. They turned the phrase “Kony 2012” into a brand, and people bought it. They made it easy for people to feel like they were part of the campaign — by sharing it on social networks and discussing it with friends. They truly understood how digital connections work. They took advantage of America’s consumerist culture, along with our love for drama and intrigue, and nestled their human rights campaign right in the heart of it.
If Invisible Children had tried to explain everything about the conflict, or chose to portray Kony in exact objective detail, the video would not have gained this much traction. It probably would have been a typical, failed human rights campaign; one that sought to “raise awareness” but instead failed miserably at doing so. No one wants to watch a 30-minute academic lecture in their free time on a story that we’ve heard played out countless times on academic circuits and in the media.
So when critics decry the video as useless or naïve, I’d ask them to weigh the practical against the ideal. They’re frightened because they somehow think it’s morally wrong to ignore the little details or to paint a black-and-white portrait of a long and winding conflict. After all, that’s the spirit that has defined everyone’s academic careers — that nuance, comprehensiveness and precise attention to detail are the keys to a good argument.
That’s not the case in the real world. What’s actually morally wrong and naïve is to try the same traditional approach to raising awareness, knowing that it is almost always doomed to fail. The cost of inaction is much higher than the cost of oversimplifying or dramatizing a conflict.
Kony 2012 is not designed to fade into the woodwork like most news stories. Even if Joseph Kony isn’t captured this year, the campaign has already left a lasting impact. It’s a legacy of citizen engagement in their government’s policies toward a distant conflict; a legacy that, even if it doesn’t bring about the demise of the LRA, will change how we appeal to people’s better angels.
Geng Ngarmboonanant is a freshman in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.