by Ginnie Seger
Have social media transformed the way the world can leverage its power towards issues of social justice? This is a question often pondered on this blog and by many researchers who analyze the power information and action have in transforming political structures, inciting revolutions, and now engaging in a global manhunt.
The Invisible Children campaign began in 2003, when three filmmakers stumbled upon Uganda’s 20-year-old struggle against rebel leader Joseph Kony and his group the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The LRA has abducted and killed tens of thousands people, oftentimes children whom they recruit to join their army, forcing them to commit atrocities. Since their transformative experience, the filmmakers have set out to end the struggle in Uganda by creating the non-profit, Invisible Children. Their efforts are mainly focused on advocacy by showing their film on college campuses and fundraising to support development projects in affected areas. Since 2003, they have generated a large following and in 2011 they raised more than thirteen million dollars. While this is an impressive feat for an organization that is just under ten-years-old, one piece is missing before the organization can accomplish its mission: Kony.
Since 2003, the power of the LRA has decreased, but elusive leader Kony has slipped through the cracks and has begun operations in neighboring countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. In October, President Barack Obama dispatched 100 U.S. troops to advise the Ugandan military in the capture of Kony and his estimated 200 to 500 fighters. Despite these efforts, Kony has evaded capture. Invisible Children wants to see him captured, and is enlisting an army of its own — anyone with an internet connection.
The campaign entitled “Kony 2012” is leveraging the power of social networking to capture Kony, by making his name known throughout the world as public enemy number one. They are doing this by using many avenues of social media. The YouTube video they created explaining the campaign and the struggle was posted on March 5, and is rapidly approaching five million views in only two days. The video itself asks viewers to not only share the video but also to reach out to strategic celebrities and politicians (such as George Clooney and John Kerry) via Facebook and Twitter. The hashtag #stopkony has been trending globally since the release of the video. Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell understands social media, but also has a knack for appealing to viewers’ altruistic side. He states in the film: “It’s always been that the decisions made by the few, with the money, and the power dictate the priories of their government and the stories in the media. They determine the lives and the opportunities of their citizens, but now there is something bigger than that. The people of the world see each other and can protect each other; it is turning the system upside down and it changes everything.”
But is it ever that easy? I think the work of Invisible Children is powerful, and the organization capitalizes on empowering youth towards a social mission. But why does this not happen with every cause? Think about Palestine or Syria. (For more on this, please see: “Why the Palestinian Spring Hasn’t Gone Viral.”) This might be due to Uganda’s unique situation. While most struggles are filled with nuances, implications, and divided supporters, Kony exemplifies a rare unified condemnation, from not only the United Nations but also the African Union, and Ugandan government. As the video calls him, Kony is “the bad guy.”
Or at least that’s how Invisible Children wants you to see him. The video sweeps in and out of Russell’s personal story focusing heavily on his relationship with his son, to his work in Uganda and the campaign in the U.S. to find Kony. The video also stars social media, employing the Facebook timeline as a vehicle for advancing the plot. Facts about the LRA and Uganda are sparse and the Acholi (the tribe most affected by the LRA) are never mentioned, but I believe the message is simplified for maximum distribution: use social media to change the world.
The Invisible Children campaign is quickly approaching viral status, but the benchmark for success will really be Kony behind bars and out of power, and the implications of this will be dramatic.
Russell states optimistically: “Arresting Joseph Kony will prove that the world we live in has new rules that the technology that bring us together is allowing us to respond to the problem of our friends.”