College of Arts & Sciences

arts&sciences

Why Kony 2012 Failed

By Andrew Thurston

Photo by Cydney Scott

“There are three things you can do right now,” urged the web movie Kony 2012. Premiered by the nonprofit organization Invisible Children in March 2012, the powerful 30-minute documentary lobbied for Ugandan guerilla leader and indicted war criminal Joseph Kony to be brought to justice. To play your part in taking down this scourge of central Africa, you could sign a pledge, buy a bracelet and action kit, and donate a few dollars.

The film went viral. School kids started Kony groups; senators called for his arrest. Within six days of its release, Kony 2012 had been viewed 100 million times. But despite its virtual surge, the video appeared to have less of a sustained real-world effect—Joseph Kony welcomed in 2013 as a free man.

The African Viewpoint

While Invisible Children was still attracting headlines stateside, Director of the African Studies Center and Professor of Political Science Timothy P. Longman was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which had been plagued by Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army. On the precipice of violence when Longman visited last summer, the country was subsequently rocked by the march of a rebel army, M23, led by Bosco Ntaganda.

In the DRC, Kony, now with just some 300 fighters to his name, is old, if still brutal, news. What many people in the region most want, says Longman, is for America to “give them a fair shake in economic trade and stop propping up dictators.” He also lambasts the refusal of successive U.S. governments to fully back the International Criminal Court (ICC), where Kony would be tried. Forget Invisible Children’s bracelets, he argues, “If Americans actually want to make a difference, the number-one thing they could do is to get the U.S. to sign on to the ICC.”

For regional experts like Longman, it’s indicative of one of the flaws in Invisible Children’s work—its aims, many claim, never reflected the priorities of those on the continent. In his view, the charity was politically “naive,” and failed to engage with Africans to find the best outlets for its efforts. “If Invisible Children really wanted to make a difference, it would use its media savvy to help raise money” for more-established organizations, like Oxfam and CARE.

Seizing the Opportunity

Longman acknowledges those behind Kony 2012 were well-meaning, but sees a broader cultural problem, racism, in the film’s apparent failure. The Western press, he says, only covers “disasters and the exotic” in Africa, which perpetuates a “subtle racism that still enters our approaches to Africa…the idea that Africans are helpless and hopeless and need to be saved by white people in America and Europe.”

The publicity the film generated did, however, provide an opportunity to influence how Africa is taught in American schools. The African Studies Center, which runs an outreach program for educational institutions and museums, launched a Kony 2012 teaching guide. Presented to Boston-area teachers and downloaded more than 10,000 times, it included historical background and celebrated the continent’s often-overlooked diversity.

“We don’t want people to stop caring about Africa,” says Longman, “we just want to help them engage with Africa in a way that is less demeaning to Africans and more productive.”