While pecking away on a blog about the 100th Anniversary of the Oreo cookie, my teenage daughter engages me about Kony something or other. I could tell she was quite passionate about the subject, but for the life of me, I had no idea what she was talking about. I felt as though I had walked into the middle of a movie, which isn’t unusual with my daughter, but the nature of this was more serious. “Dad it’s a big deal… how can you not know about this?” She had me watch a video that, to my surprise, was almost 30 minutes long. The movie was Kony 2012. Oh well, I was a Hydrox guy anyway.
After we watched the video, she looked at me, waiting for some sort of affirmation. “Is this a scam?” I said abruptly, starting an evening-long discussion of why I would say such a thing. I couldn’t help my reaction. Running through my mind the entire time I was watching the video was the film Wag the Dog.
Wag the Dog (1997), starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro, is a dark comedy about a political spin-doctor who hired a Hollywood producer to fabricate a war in order to cover up a presidential sex scandal. I didn’t reference the movie to my daughter because at the time I knew nothing about Joseph Kony, and her emotions were running high.
Despite my suspicions, I found out that Joseph Kony is very real. In 1986 He formed the “Lord’s Resistance Army” (LRA) in Northern Uganda. His cult-like militia is believed to have killed, kidnapped, and mutilated tens of thousands of people. He’s also known for forcing young boys to fight for the LRA and abducting young girls into slavery. Since 2005, Kony has been wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. The LRA is still operational in northern Uganda and southern Sudan, whose governments tend to play down its impact as a military threat.
To say that the video Kony 2012 went viral would be an understatement as it continues to set a new precedence in social media. Originally uploaded to Vimeo on February 20th, Kony 2012 gained little traction. It wasn’t until March 5, when the video was put on YouTube, did it skyrocket into popularity. As of today, Kony 2012 has over 55 million views, 30 million in the previous 48 hours. By far the largest demographic of viewers is young women between 13 and 17 years of age, followed by men 18 to 24.
Invisible Children Charity
Kony 2012 is the creation of filmmaker Jason Russell. Russell, along with other filmmakers Bobby Bailey and Laren Poole, founded the Invisible Children charity in 2004, after spending a year creating a documentary in war-torn Uganda, titled Invisible Children. The movie told the plight of “Night Commuters,” children of northern Uganda who would leave their homes at night to avoid LRA abduction. The charity has been under scrutiny since its inception. Its critics decry a lack of financial accountability and transparency, centering on the amount of donation dollars spent on awareness. The underlying accusation is that the Invisible Children charity is a fraudulent means to fund a group of filmmakers. The unspoken retort is that social awareness is the new currency.
So why did have the reaction I did to Kony 2012? What made my antenna go up and made me think of a 15-year-old movie about manipulating the media to manufacture a cause? After watching Kony 2012 a few times, I realized that it has many similarities to an infomercial. The video poses a problem, provides a solution, makes a promise, and has a distinct call to action. It has celebrity endorsement, repetition, a fast pace, and gives us a “before and after” assimilation. It even has a “hurry, limited time offer” element to it. Kony 2012’s sales pitch: “make him famous.”
I realize that many of the tactics used in an infomercial are acceptable persuasion techniques, and I appreciate Russell’s well-told story, but his reliance on emotional persuasion to cause a direct response for such a serious subject leans toward the sensationalistic. I believe sensationalism’s effectiveness is also its most damaging effect, which is it serves the ego by objectifying the victim. The story behind Kony 2012 features a young Ugandan named Jacob who lost his brother to the LRA. If I could say one thing to Russell about his film it would be, “Don’t make yourself the hero and Jacob the victim. Jacob is the hero.”