This is a decisive moment in the life and times of Kony 2012. Will the country’s youth turn out en masse to the campaign’s “Cover the Night” event on Friday April 20th? My hunch is that they won’t. Many young people have taken a step back from the frenzy that accompanied Kony 2012’s early-March launch to ask some tough questions about the campaign and their own activist inclinations.
(QUIZ: Are You In A Cultural Bubble?)
Kony 2012 ostensibly seeks to raise awareness of the horrific human rights abuses perpetrated by Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army in central Africa, but it has been widely critiqued by Ugandans and informed advocates internationally. Its misleading presentation of the conflict, its silencing of Ugandan and central African voices, and its perpetuation of what Teju Cole aptly calls “the white industrial savior complex,” have all been rightly scrutinized. So too have the funding structure and priorities of the organization behind the campaign, Invisible Children (IC).
But, what does Kony 2012’s target audience, namely young Americans, actually think about it? According to undergraduates at Fordham University where I teach African history, the video’s unprecedented viral success masks a varied and evolving set of reactions amongst its viewers.
When I asked a group of these students what their initial take on the video was, a number of them said that it immediately aroused suspicion because it peddled troubling stereotypes about Africa. Others felt it was intentionally manipulative. Two students, who had volunteered as roadies for IC during high school, said that Kony 2012 marked a departure from the grassroots activism that had initially brought them to the organization.
Overall though, most students reported that they didn’t initially question the campaign. They Facebooked and Tweeted first and queried later. In this way, they all said the critical pushback against Kony 2012 was the key factor in their pausing to ask what exactly it was that they were feverishly supporting.
As we discussed the video’s slick production qualities, its over-simplifications and colonial mentality, a number of students turned their critical gaze inward. The video was wildly popular, they said, because its makers knew exactly what would appeal to its youthful target audience: a cool aesthetic married to an easily digestible message that would require minimal effort on their part to execute. Tweeting, clicking “Like” and “Share” on Facebook, or even contacting IC’s designated policy and culture makers, were all simple things cash and time-strapped students felt they could do with minimal disruption to their lives. IC shouldn’t be criticized for designing a campaign that accommodates rather than expands the limits of their activist inclinations, remarked one student.
Kony 2012’s success was a reflection of their generation’s desire to do something good, no matter how small, rather than a particular commitment to bring Joseph Kony to justice. In the end, the cause could have been different. What mattered, said another student, was that they had been empowered.
But when asked what they had been empowered to do, the group fell silent. Slowly the conversation veered toward the ugly reality of what Kony 2012 advocates: a military intervention in central Africa. As we discussed the risk this would pose to the LRA’s remaining child soldiers and innocent civilians, even those students who staunchly defended the good intentions behind Kony 2012 took pause. Were they being recruited into “a well-intentioned but unsuspecting army of children…responsible for magnifying the very crisis to which they claim to be the solution,” as Mahmood Mamdani has suggested?
If so, asked another student, what was the alternative to a military solution? When I suggested a negotiated political settlement a light bulb went on in the classroom. Why hadn’t IC proposed that to begin with, quipped a young woman.
While IC hasn’t said it outright, the release of their follow-up video suggests that they realized that first attempt was misleading. The sequel, however, flopped, leading many to wrongly conclude that young Americans’ notoriously short attention spans had snapped before IC ‘s do-over.
But many young people had already consciously distanced themselves from the campaign because the fiery pushback against Kony 2012 provoked them to critically rethink its message. Realizing that the damage the campaign was capable of doing to Africa and Africans was far greater than the damage we might do to the activist impulses of America’s youth, critics spoke up and spoke out. This is the real success of Kony 2012.