100 Million Viewers Can’t Be Wrong

How Kony 2012 succeeded beyond our wildest expectations.


While Kony 2012 was being released, I was working with Invisible Children staff and community leaders in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) on civilian protection initiatives. I was astonished to see the view count climb into the millions. None of us expected that a 29-minute film about Joseph Kony would go viral — or that the backlash would include criticisms that Invisible Children was unaware of the current location of his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), when, in fact, our work has extended into currently affected regions of central Africa over the last two years.

What was perhaps most surprising to see in the wake of Kony 2012 was the misperception that the LRA are still in Uganda. Kony 2012 does portray the LRA’s movement away from Uganda into the DRC, the Central African Republic (CAR), and South Sudan (minute 15:01), and a quick look at the LRA Crisis Tracker leaves no doubt about the LRA’s current area of operation. Yet somehow the message in the film fell short of getting the point across. Perhaps it was due to the focus on a young Ugandan who was affected by the conflict, or perhaps it is driven by the unfortunate fact that only 20 percent of viewers actually watched the entire film, and the rest may have missed a few crucial details.

There has been much discussion about the video’s impact in the days since Kony 2012 launched, but unfortunately almost none of the opinions have come from the three countries currently affected by the LRA. The insight of local leaders in the DRC, the CAR, and South Sudan has been largely excluded from the broader conversation, as has their viewpoint on the apprehension of LRA leadership in 2012, and it is clear that the discussion needs to expand.

Kony 2012 is undoubtedly simplified. It is, after all, a short film geared toward high school and college students. It was also designed for the Internet, where attention spans are notoriously short. But the backlash criticizing the film for being oversimplified misses the point — Kony and his top commanders are still committing atrocities today in central Africa with impunity, and international efforts to stop him have not succeeded.

Delving deeper into the issue quickly reveals its complexity. The LRA have become masters of evasion and survival, eluding regional forces by weaving between country borders and veiling their tracks among those of nomadic herders. They are much smaller in number than they were a decade ago, and yet the atrocities they commit against the civilian population remain devastating. Since 2008, the LRA has abducted more than 3,400 civilians, killed more than 2,400 others, and displaced more than 400,000 people from their homes. The history of the conflict is complex, and the solutions require a multifaceted response from an array of humanitarian and security actors. A 29-minute Internet video will inevitably fall short of addressing these nuances.

What is not complex, and what the film appropriately simplifies, is the morality of the issue. For 26 years, Kony has perpetrated some of the most egregious human rights abuses on the planet, with total impunity. This idea justly demands the world’s attention, and in the simplicity of Kony 2012, the film has garnered just that. The film is a gateway to learning more about the conflict, its background, and involvement in broader social issues around the world.

In their rush to point out Invisible Children’s oversimplification of the LRA, the critics made an error — an oversimplification of Invisible Children itself.

Invisible Children and dozens of other groups have been directing attention to this conflict for years. We’ve made 11 films about the LRA, starting in 2003 when the group was still active in Uganda. After the LRA moved out of Uganda, we launched an advocacy campaign with hundreds of thousands of youth from around the world asking the international community to support the Juba Peace Talks in South Sudan. Yet in these talks, as in the past, Kony took advantage of the relative peace to stock up on supplies and abduct young recruits to strengthen his force. With dialogue off the table, we worked with a coalition of partners to pass the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, which President Obama signed into law, pledging U.S. support to apprehend top LRA leadership and provide assistance to LRA affected communities. Most recently, we’ve expanded operations on the ground in the DRC and the CAR to support civilian protection and rehabilitation initiatives led by local partners. For eight years, we have been following the LRA’s movements, working with LRA-affected communities and collaborating with local and international organizations to promote lasting solutions to the crisis.

Invisible Children’s program leaders on the ground are from Uganda and the DRC, many of whom have been personally affected by the LRA, and who are leading the design and implementation of innovative recovery efforts in the region. In Uganda, Country Director Jolly Grace Okot has pioneered the model for our programs, taking a long-term approach to overcoming the effects of conflict by improving the quality of education at schools and offering merit-based scholarships to the region’s most promising youth. In DR Congo, we’ve partnered on projects with local leaders like Abbe Benoit Kinelegu, who have committed their lives to stopping the LRA crisis, most notably through a civilian early warning network and FM projects that encourage LRA defection. A glance at our programs on the ground and the substance of our most recent advocacy campaign shows that we do our homework, and the choice to make this film "simple" was just that. A choice.

The true impact of Kony 2012 in this conflict will not be in its ability to raise awareness, but in its demand for results. This is not about tweeting a warlord into submission or ending a conflict with a click. This is about years of advocacy work done by groups in central Africa, northern Uganda, Washington, D.C. — and, yes, San Diego — united with groups around the world that have enabled us to reach this moment. Each person involved in the efforts to make Kony famous is helping to build a global constituency, bigger than any one person or organization, invested in the end of LRA violence — pushing those in positions of power to increase their commitment towards peace in the region. And with the introduction of a new bipartisan resolution introduced into U.S. Congress this week, progress has already begun. To end the LRA threat to communities, we need to change the conversation to a solutions-focused approach on the ground in currently affected regions.

I was able to witness part of this dynamic discussion last October at a civil society conference in Dungu, DRC, where leaders from the DRC, the CAR, and South Sudan came together to lobby their own governments for increased action against the LRA. The leaders also asked President Obama to follow through on commitments made in the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act. Representatives from currently affected areas thanked Obama for support to regional efforts, and then demanded to see results. Kony 2012, in its simplest form, is asking each of us to demand the same.

<p> Adam Finck is director of programs at Invisible Children. He spent two years living in post-conflict northern Uganda and, more recently, two years working with local partners in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic on the expansion of community-led civilian protection and rehabilitation initiatives. Follow him on Twitter @adamfinck. </p>