The KONY2012 Campaign and Its Critics

Guest contributor: REX BRYNEN
Professor of Political Science, McGill University

In recent days, a social media-based campaign called KONY2012 has gone viral with worldwide calls for the arrest of Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The LRA is responsible for 25 years of violence, child abduction, and forced sexual slavery, first in northern Uganda, and later in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic. Kony and several other LRA commanders were indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2005.

More than 39 million people (thus far) have seen the KONY2012 campaign video on YouTube, and tens of thousands of young people on Facebook and elsewhere have indicated their desire to take part in postering and publicity activities organized by the U.S.-based NGO Invisible Children.

Not long after the campaign exploded online, critics emerged too. Some questioned Invisible Children’s finances and its heavy emphasis on advocacy efforts rather than local community programs. Others complained that the video drastically oversimplified a complex regional problem with no easy answers. Some saw KONY2012 as yet another example of emotionally manipulative Western paternalism. Some of this backlash, however, itself reflected the faddishness of snarky commentary which is so prevalent in social media, responding to Invisible Children’s evidently faddish Internet campaign. In turn, Invisible Children responded to some of the substantive criticisms on its website. At the time of this writing, debate continues to swirl in the media, on Facebook, and via Twitter.

There is a lot that can be said about all of this. First, there is no doubt that the KONY2012 campaign has over-simplified a complicated problem; and it is mobilizing public opinion in ways that may not have much useful effect. Much of what the KONY2012 campaign wants—military advisors to assist regional states, aid to affected communities, greater intelligence sharing and cross-border cooperation—is already being done by the Obama Administration, and with rare bipartisan support to boot. Nevertheless, the key challenge remains that of actually finding and eliminating the LRA, in what is one of the least accessible places in the world.

Criticism of the KONY2012 campaign, however, points to another problem that reflects back on some of the critics themselves: namely, their assumption that international engagement with such issues necessarily entails big budget, trillion dollar wars, such as what we have seen in Afghanistan and Iraq. Typical of this is one commentary at the excellent Kings of War blog, in which Jack McDonald lambastes Invisible Children for what he sees as their failure to grasp the challenges of military intervention and its massive requirements, such as U.S. airbases and the deployment of large number of personal to protect local “safe areas.”

A quick look at what Invisible Children is actually calling for, however, suggests a rather more modest set of recommendations than McDonald is assuming:

  • Invisible Children calls for strengthened regional political will and improved cross-border cooperation. This isn’t easy, of course, especially in areas where political suspicions abound and border demarcation might even be in dispute. On the other hand, everyone recognizes it would be useful. Moreover, this is what most diplomats actually do for a living: try to achieve useful political gains under complex circumstances.
  • The KONY2012 campaign also calls for continued efforts to address the evident shortcomings of local military forces with regard to their mobility and intelligence and communications capacities. There is no doubt that these shortcomings exist, but the solutions hardly need be (as McDonald would have us believe) that regional states permit “the U.S. to build a base on their turf.” Communications means a radio or satellite phone and the ability to use it. “Tactical airlift” in this part of the world is often about dirt airstrips, rented short-takeoff-and-landing aircraft and helicopters, and a few private contractors—not major air bases. With regard to intelligence, there is much that can be (and is being) done at minimal cost, including the sanitized sharing of information that is already collected by local actors and the U.S.
  • In many cases the KONY2012 campaign is simply calling on the U.S. to fulfill its existing commitments of funding, and to support NGO and other projects that are already underway. Again, this is hardly indicative of massive interventionism.

I hold no particular brief for the KONY2012 campaign. I find its simplifications and emotionalism annoying, and I think its viral appeal masks its limited utility. However, I am struck by the extent to which the “interventionism” critique of the campaign is embedded in an inappropriate Iraq/Afghanistan/Libya paradigm, which presumes that external assistance must be big, expensive, and noisy. It doesn’t need to be so. Indeed, it usually has not been.

In short, there are shortcomings not just in the KONY2012 campaign, but also the failure of critical commentators to recognize that a lot of things actually get done in the world with a handful of military advisors, a few radios, some intelligence sharing, cash, a few drunken expatriate pilots, an aging helicopter, and duct tape.

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