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Kony video misleads, manipulates its viewers


By Shafaq Hasan
On March 12, 2012

  • While he coached at St. Anthony High School, Darren Erman, above, slept each night on this air mattress on the floor of his friend's New York apartment. Photo by Jennifer Szymaszek/The Associated Press. Rachel Marder

Last Thursday, I posted a link on my Facebook wall unaware that I was feeding into the latest, passing Internet fad. It was not a Brandeis meme or the most recent "Sh*t (insert choice demographic) Says" video. No, this fad is far more damaging and dangerous than free Shabbos candles.

"Kony 2012."

The 30-minute long video became an Internet sensation within four days of being posted by the Invisible Children, a non-profit organization fighting to capture Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army. This promotional documentary for the organization chronicles the atrocities committed by Kony against the children of Uganda. With intermittent clips of the director's son trying to grasp this complicated issue and a Ugandan boy relaying his own troubled past, the video has precipitated a worldwide movement to stop Kony.

Like with every Internet fad, this too has developed a following of mindless individuals eager to jump on the bandwagon. While other trends like memes, flash mobs and planking were invented for the purposes of entertainment, the "Kony 2012" video was created as a call to action to incite anger and passion toward Kony and for these children. This video was manufactured to bring people together for a cause and it's really hard to resist.

The problem with this video is that by compressing a complicated issue into a half hour, viewers leave with few facts but an inebriating urge to join the cause. More than that, with every major news network, print media and social network reblogging, retweeting and reposting this video, the information is reaching everyone. And that's where the video's oversimplification of the facts becomes dangerous.

To start with, the video fudges some of the basic facts about the conflict.

The video applauds and celebrates President Barack Obama's authorization last October to deploy U.S. troops into Uganda to help remove Kony from power. However, the video leaves out the fact that these U.S. troops were dispatched to train the Ugandan military to capture Kony.

But, the Ugandan military itself has a complicated history with human rights abuses. According to Amnesty International's annual report last year on Uganda, the "torture and ill-treatment by the police, other law-enforcement officials and the military [remains] widespread." This entire backstory, of course, is tidied up in the 30-minute video.

The Ugandan government has never initiated any legitimate investigations into their military's human rights violations and, in all likelihood, never intends to. While Invisible Children condemn the Ugandan government's actions, they also acknowledge on their website that "the only feasible and proper way to stop Kony and protect the civilians he targets is to coordinate efforts with regional governments." The organization is more concerned with simply returning the children to their homes than finding and assessing one of the roots of the problem; the Ugandan government's apathy.

Moreover, the video has depicted the conflict as mainly manifesting in Uganda. However, according to Matthew Green, the author of "The Wizard of the Nile-The Hunt for Africa's Most Wanted," Kony was pushed out of Uganda in 2006 and fled to Sudan.

For the last six years, the LRA has spread and continues to terrorize remote regions of Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic, whereas the threat to Uganda has mostly subsided. While troops have been dispatched to Uganda to support and advise the Ugandan military in capturing Kony, it's a known fact that Kony has not been back to the country for the last six years. Understandably, there have been no new developments in Uganda since the troop deployment.

The Invisible Children organization itself has undergone intense scrutiny since their video went viral last week. While the organization says on its website that none of the money donated to the cause goes directly to the Ugandan government, the very nature of the organization's programs still ensures that the its money will go toward supporting the regional army and the various militias who are suspected of consistent human rights abuses. Though Invisible Children allows public access to its financial information, one look at the expenditures indicates that only 37 percent of the proceeds go towards its Central African Programs. The rest of the 63 percent is spent on awareness products (clothing, bracelets, DVDs, etc.), fundraising and creating films like "Kony 2012."

I'm not diminishing the crimes that Kony has committed. Nor am I unnecessarily finding reasons to downplay the magnitude of this problem. Logically, the filmmaker could not include every facet of the issue to show a comprehensive picture of the conflict. But if Invisible Children has "manipulated facts for strategic purposes," as the Council on Foreign Affairs believes they have, then it's questionable what millions of misinformed viewers can be expected to do.

The tangible message behind the video and program is truly admirable, but misleading entire populations will garner support for but fail to save these children. However, as an Internet fad, the video has piqued general interest about the LRA and Kony.

The video may even compel some individuals to dig deeper into the conflict and investigate what Invisible Children has omitted. It has also raised awareness about the inherent fallibility of believing everything you read-or watch-on the Internet.

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