Defending Kony 2012

10 Mar

Chances are you have already seen this month’s most viral video, Kony 2012, a polished and provocative thirty-minute film produced by Invisible Children that seeks “not to celebrate him, but to raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice.” As I write these words it has already received 63 million views, and I’m sure that number will be much higher by the time you read this. If you have not yet seen the film, take the time to watch it before you read on.

While the video has received unprecedented interest, it has also raised much controversy about the legitimacy of Invisible Children and simplistic, ill-fated attempts of the West to impose their own brand of salvation. I summarize varying viewpoints below and provide links to the full articles. I encourage you to complete your own search, too:


Ugandan journalist Rosebell Kagumire states, “If you are showing me as voiceless, as hopeless…You shouldn’t be telling my story if you don’t believe I also have the power to change what is going on. This video seems to say that the power lies in America…totally furthering the narrative of an Africa totally unable to help itself.” Many Ugandans frustrated, suspicious of Kony 2012

Tom Rollins writes, “Aside from Invisible Children’s suspect finances (pay $32 for an “Action Kit” and 10% of that goes to “direct services,” the rest on salaries, travel expenses and so on), worse is the fact so many people could be duped by a video that explicitly calls for US-led intervention in Central Africa.” Kony 2012: Don’t Be Fooled

Rodney Muhumuza writes, “But critics [in Uganda] said the video glosses over a complicated history that made it possible for Kony to rise to the notoriety he has today. They also lamented that the video does not inform viewers that Kony originally was waging war against Uganda’s army, whose human rights record has been condemned as brutal by independent observers.” Kony 2012 Video Draw Criticism in Uganda

Invisible Children posted on their site, “We are committed, and always have been, to be 100% financially transparent and to communicate in plain language the mission of the organization so that everyone can make an informed decision about whether they want to support our strategy.” Invisible Children Responses to These Critiques

Lisa Shannon writes in this New York Times opinion piece, “It was widely understood around Dungu that the United Nations would rarely get out of the vehicles outside their secure compounds, much less intervene to protect civilians. The FARDC (the Congolese Army) only patrolled the main roads…. ‘It’s not right. The soldiers should be in the front so they can protects us. But the soldiers were in the back, and we were in front, with the LRA coming.’ Modeste added, ‘I can’t even talk to my own government. Because they don’t care about the way people are dying from the LRA. They don’t do anything about it.’ Ugandan forces were the only ones reported to enter the bush and rescue abductees from the LRA.” On the Ground: Kony’s Victims and the 2012 Video


The “social experiment” that the video has started is a rare and fascinating one, and while I can understand the critics, as an educator, I ultimately support the video and the Kony 2012 campaign. Here’s why:

The video is an only an entry point. Critics are right to call the video a simplification of a complex problem. Its makers freely admit that it is. Yet, the film is meant to be a catalyst for a deeper exploration of the issues, and so it uses ubiquitous rhetoric devices to communicate incisively. When deconstructing the persuasive techniques of the film with my students, they understand this distinction perfectly. One asked, “Critics claim this film is an over-simplification of a complex issue? Have they watched the news or read a paper lately? What do they think happens every day?” I would go a step further and ask, “What do teachers do every day?” We crystallize complex ideas into manageable metaphors, knowing that deep knowledge begins with cursory understanding.

The video does exactly what it is meant to do. It energizes viewers to go down a rabbit hole of research. Many of the links I share come from emails and lunch conversations exchanged with colleagues in the past few days. The video got us talking. (Scroll to the bottom of this post for some additional resources I have been exploring this week.)

The rhetoric of the film inspires hope. On the last period before a two-week spring break, as the hallway filled with noisy middle school students being released earlier than us, a group of 19 sophomores sat with laser-focus and watched the film. The discussion that followed was rich and sincere; nobody was watching the clock and some even stayed after dismissal to continue our conversation.

Why does the video inspire such attention? Yes, it is beautiful and slick and filled with hip music and even hipper talking heads…but I know students are reacting so positively for another reason. Kony 2012 sells hope.

My students and I often incorporate social justice into our curriculum. I urge students to use their communication skills to educate their world about modern slavery or increase sustainable actions within our school community, and one of the main points I make is, “You have to sell hope.” More and more studies of social activism (and plain common sense) show people are not moved to action through fear. Instead, the public is more engaged when shown problems but then instructed in specific actions to take to bring about optimistic change. What a worthwhile lesson to impart in our classrooms.

The film influences the content of our cultural dialogue. I have spent the last fifteen years trying to get teenagers to talk and read and write about something other than rappers, fart jokes, and Kim Kardashian. Thankfully, I am pretty good at inspiring and provoking them. Jason Russell, the filmmaker, is better.

Kony 2012 was introduced to me by my students, not my colleagues. They knew about it before the adults. They were also the first to question the legitimacy of the video. I didn’t know about the backlash until multiple students claimed only 30% of the funds raised go to Africa. (The 30% number is misinformation being spread online by the way. Quick in-the-moment research helped us find that answer and illustrated how important source validity must be in our daily dialogues. Ah, the joys of teaching in a 1:1 classroom.)

In the end, I support the Kony 2012 campaign because it has created an environment I hope to create every day in the classroom, a confluence of important questions that impels students to learn more and form their own opinions. The video is a spotlight. And, if teachers can capture such moments—guiding students to research more effectively, question more precisely, and debate more compassionately—then a new dawn really is possible, and the better world the film hopes to create will start to take shape.

Want to learn more about the issues? Here are some sources I have been reading:

African Voices Respond to the Hyper-Popular Kony 2012 Video:

Visible Children: a Tumblr blog offering a counterpoint to Invisible Children’s strategies:

Resolve: a research-based defense of the Kony 2012 strategy

Invisible Children’s “History of the War” Resources:

LRA Crisis Tracker: A real-time, on-the-ground warning system that alerts innocents to possible threats and keeps the world updated to the crisis in the Congo:

Joseph Kony Is Not in Uganda (And Other Complicated Things)

BCDS Fights Slavery: My students’ ongoing efforts to educate the world about modern slavery:

One Response to “Defending Kony 2012”

  1. ReflectiveTeacher March 13, 2012 at 9:09 am #

    I am also glad that there is cultural dialogue. As an educator I am often disheartened by the lack of compassion, understanding and empathy. With the recent Kony campaign I have had students talking about it in class, home group and in the yard. I had students wake up from their usual apathy to actually approach ME to do something about it.
    While there is definitely controversy (as you have well identified) this is a great opportunity to teach students about media literacy, global issues and the power of social media.
    I also wrote a post about how to use this campaign for good at

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