'Kony 2012' Ignites Attention, Triggers Controversy

Kristin Wright

'Kony 2012' Ignites Attention, Triggers Controversy

Photo: A poster from the Kony 2012 campaign (Invisible Children)

It's impossible to ignore the surge of attention that “Kony 2012” has ignited. The 27-minute film has been viewed over 50 million times since Monday, and the campaign it represents is spreading like wildfire – along with a controversy that has garnered enough attention for the filmmakers themselves to address it publicly.

It was back in 2003 that Jason Russell, Laren Poole, and Bobby Bailey, the now widely recognized filmmakers of Invisible Children, traveled to Uganda and captured the tragedy of child soldiers conscripted in Africa’s longest-running war. Their 2005 film Invisible Children was an instant success, capturing audiences across the country with its chilling, heart-wrenching account of children as the ultimate victims of a gruesome war, and its focus on rescuing and responding to those in harm's way.

Today, Invisible Children is a nonprofit organization employing 43 staff members in San Diego, and Jason Russell is back with a film that has garnered a surge of international attention through social media. "We want to do some epic things because our time on Earth is so short," Russell told ABC News on Thursday. "Why not do this? Start here with Kony. Use him as the example of what injustice looks like in the world and then we're going to move to the next one and the next one."

“Kony 2012” artfully portrays the tragedy of Uganda’s civil war, and the evil propagated by the notorious Joseph Kony, an elusive war criminal whose acts of violence include presiding over the kidnapping of some 30,000 of Uganda's children, and innumerable acts of sexual abuse and murder. Kony forced his army of children to kill and maim without mercy. He was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2005, and last year Obama sent troops to Uganda to track him down. But although his criminal acts have been curtailed – Uganda's war officially ended in 2006 – Kony remains at large.

The film addresses the conflict through the eyes of Russell's young son, whose innocence and wide-eyed questioning prompt a simple dialogue on rescuing children and catching bad guys. The goal of the film is to make Joseph Kony “famous” by bringing him to justice in the International Criminal Court at the Hague. It's a simple, dynamic message that has garnered the attention of millions of people worldwide – and infuriated more than a few.

In Uganda, journalists and government officials have taken issue with the film, saying that it inaccurately portrays post-war Uganda. Rosebell Kagumire, a Ugandan journalist, says that the film “paints a picture of Uganda six or seven years ago,” one that she is says is outdated. “That is totally not how it is today. It’s highly irresponsible.” Others allege that the film makes it seem as if the war is still going on – which it isn't. Fred Opolot, spokesman for the Ugandan government, chides the group for an irresponsible representation of the facts.“It is totally misleading to suggest that the war is still in Uganda,” he says. “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.”

It's the financial resources that have caused the most concern among critics. Grant Oyston, a grad student, gained attention with a controversial blog post questioning the Kony 2012 campaign – and the organization behind it. In a blog post that has since received more than a million hits, Oyston explained why he was “strongly opposed” to the Kony 2012 campaign, questioning the group’s financial integrity and it's messaging techniques. He alleged that the group has a low Charity Navigator rating, and that more money is spent on salaries and travel than on actual aid in Africa.

Invisible Children has responded to Oyston and other critics publicly with a breakdown of expenses and details on how their money is spent. “Some organizations focus exclusively on documenting human rights abuses, some focus exclusively on international advocacy or awareness, and some focus exclusively on on-the-ground development. We do all three. At the same time,” the founders write in a section of the website titled “Critiques.”

Yet at its core, Oyston's problem with the group seemed to be on another level altogether. He disliked the mass appeal and supposed oversimplification of the project. “These problems are highly complex, not one-dimensional and, frankly, aren’t of the nature that can be solved by postering, film-making and changing your Facebook profile picture, as hard as that is to swallow,” he wrote. “Giving your money and public support to Invisible Children so they can spend it on supporting ill-advised violent intervention and movie #12 isn’t helping. Do I have a better answer? No, I don’t, but that doesn’t mean that you should support Kony 2012 just because it’s something.”

But at over 50 million views in a matter of days, the viral video is a social media success that nonprofit activists are seeing as a blueprint for creating interest around a cause. “Feature by feature, from the like counter to the new timeline, Kony 2012 shows how Facebook can be used to engineer social change,” Anthony Wing Cosner writes in Forbes. Invisible Children identified 12 “policy makers” and 20 “culture makers,” in the film, requesting their support and backing for the campaign. The response has been overwhelming. Rihanna, Oprah, Justin Bieber, and Ryan Seacrest are just a few of the leading names lending their support for Kony 2012.

Indeed most media attention has centered around what the filmmakers did right – creating a film that captured international attention with an emotionally charged message of social justice, opening viewer's eyes to the victims of an atrocious war. At one point in the film, a former child soldier breaks down into sobs after recalling his brother's death at the hands of Kony's brutal army.  “It’s manipulative, yes, but boy does it work,” Cosner says.

But the filmmakers behind “Kony 2012” know that emotional impact is vital to their message. And for them, the emotionally-charged experience of watching the movie is as central to the campaign as the viral nature of the material. As Jason Russell says in the film, “The people of the world can see each other and can protect each other. It’s turning the world upside down and it changes everything.”

Kristin Wright is a contributing writer at Crosswalk.com, where she covers topics related to human rights, international travel, social justice, women's issues, religious freedom, and refugee resettlement. For further articles, visit her website at kristinbutler.net or email [email protected].

Publication date: March 9, 2012