Brown: What ‘Kony 2012′ craze says about our generation

Posted by McKenna Brown on Thursday, Mar. 8 at 2:30 am.

On Tuesday afternoon, my Facebook and Twitter feeds exploded with the same link: Kony 2012.

For those who haven’t seen the video, “Kony 2012″ is a film by the nonprofit group Invisible Children that aims to make Joseph Kony, the Ugandan leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army in central Africa, “famous” so he can be brought to justice for his crimes, which include abducting children and forcing the boys to become child soldiers and the girls into becoming sex slaves.

Dozens of my Facebook friends have shared the link, encouraging people to get involved, get educated and, most importantly, donate. Twitter has become overrun with the idea, and “Invisible Children” has been trending ever since. Celebrities from Rihanna to Diddy to Justin Bieber have all been getting the word out about this guy.

I thought the Kony trend would die out pretty quickly, but when Wednesday afternoon rolled around and I was still being inundated with the link, I decided to check it out.

The images were violent and upsetting, but quite honestly, it wasn’t the worst thing I had ever seen in my life; the videos I watched in seventh-grade history class about the Holocaust will always — I hope — be the most horrific things I will ever have to see. The filmmakers blatantly compared Kony’s crimes with those of Hitler, which shocked me, but not for the reasons Invisible Children wanted.

What is it about this cause that has our generation so riled up? What’s different about this movement that’s making even my most apathetic, spaced-out Facebook friends stand up and shout?

Yes, Kony’s crimes are atrocious — the film does a pretty good job of establishing that. Invisible Children estimates that some 30,000 children have been abducted during Kony’s 20-plus-year reign, while the World Bank put that number as high as 66,000 back in 2007. The New York Times adds that Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army has killed “tens of thousands of people, burning down huts and hacking off lips.”

No one would argue that this man needs to be stopped. But where was this outrage in the summer of 2011, when a drought enveloped East Africa and killed between 50,000 and 100,000 people — more than half of them children less than 5 years old? Where were the Facebook statuses when 29,000 children under 5 died within a span of 90 days between May and July 2011, and 3 million Somalian people — 3 million — were forced into a mass exodus across the desert, desperately searching for food and water?

Why don’t people encourage donating to charity all the time? Why have the millennials designated this cause as the only one worthy of their full attention?

I’ll tell you why: Because it’s easy. Welcome to activism, social-media style.

Now, with just the click of a “share” button, you too can feel like you’re saving the world. You can paper your city with posters and stickers (only $1!) during Invisible Children’s “Cover the Night” event (which, intentionally or not, is to take place on April 20 — Hitler’s birthday). You can buy “action kits” (only $30!) which include nifty bracelets so you can show everyone how generous you are.

The brilliance of this campaign is that it has harnessed our generation’s main reason for living — telling everyone how amazing we are — and used it to their advantage. They made a feel-good film that targeted a specific problem and explained how we, just by watching the movie, were already a part of the solution. How awesome are we?

They repeated over and over that awareness, as opposed to action, was what this cause really needed. They showed us images of smiling, young (mostly white) Americans stoically standing up for justice in matching T-shirts, and threw some Mumford and Sons music on in the background to give it some hipster cred. They pulled at our heartstrings with a passionate little blond kid proclaiming that he too wanted to go to Africa to save the children. And even better, they showed us how we could make a difference using our favorite website in the world: Facebook.

Now I’m not arguing that Kony 2012 is not a worthy cause; though I certainly have some questions about where donations to Invisible Children go and the overall wisdom of such a large-scale, one-sided publicity campaign, I think that anyone who is in favor of a conscripted child army has some serious problems. I am pro-charity; in fact, I donate every month to the Red Cross (#humblebrag). I love the spirit of social justice that has permeated social media the last few days. But “liking” something on Facebook or tweeting a link doesn’t give you the right to call yourself an activist.

Activism requires action. Sharing a YouTube video can definitely raise awareness, but real change is brought about on a national and international level. If people really want to help #stopkony, then they should be writing letters to Congress instead of telling people that even just critiquing the video is tantamount to supporting Kony, as some of my Facebook friends said.

Or better yet, they should find another cause worth fighting for. America’s college students seem to have this one covered.



  • Steve

    I would agree with many of your sentiments, but I find that whenever people say ” a generation is this way or that way” I get skeptical.  Are you founding that on a general feeling or do you have any data to back that statement? I agree that activism means actions, but I’ll tell you, as an activist, sometimes a social media campaign can do more to stop/compel a governing body on a specific issue than a protest. Look at the success of SOPA/PIPA, 350.org, and Avaaz.

  • UO Activist

    This article is deeply disappointing. When individuals decide to publish a piece about a topic, I would hope they would take the time to do research. You’ve clearly only looked at the shallow level of links that are floating around social media. Instead, I suggest researching the tangible products of non-profits including Invisible Children such as the Mend program, rehabilitation centers in Uganda, mentors for escaped child soldiers, and towers that alter villages as the LRA approaches allowing them to protect their children. In addition, if you want to see more than “liking” a status, follow IC’s history back to 2009 when IC activists from around the country traveled to Washington DC to lobby in congress. That was activism from our generation that results in much more than donating to the Red Cross.

    I’m ok with you not supporting Invisible Children. That’s your opinion. But the two problems I have with this article is that you give no credit to the true IC activists who give time, dedication, and creativity to this cause. Also, I dislike that you provide no alternative. Just because you don’t support the way a charity decides to tackle a problem does not mean that you do nothing about the problem. That’s ignorant and naive.

    I’m truly disappointed in this article, writer, and publication.

    • Jfogg

      IC is one of the worst charities out there.  Spending only 32% of funds on direct aid to actually help?  What the hell are they doing with the other 70?  They support the Ugandan government which itself is accused of war crimes.  She has no reason to give credit to IC activists because their cause is misguided, and in my opinion, arrogant and dangerous.

  • Ted S.

    I’m with McKenna on this one, but I’ve experienced interest in the issue in a different way.  Of the 14 statuses mentioning Kony on my news feed yesterday, 13 were negative or critical about the campaign.  When I posted my own status asking people why they were supporting the campaign, all that came back was snark; of 24 comments, only two were defensive of the campaign, both from the same person, and even then the support was reserved.

    Kony hasn’t been in Uganda for 6 years.  The response from Uganda to this has been negative, which we should expect.  Once again, thenarrative is that awful, broken Africa can only be saved by a bunch of young white people with awareness bracelets.  We should not be surprised that this narrative chafes Ugandans.  

    My personal opposition is based simply on this: I cringe to see otherwise-progressive people clambering for unilateral US military intervention in foreign countries.  We have tried this, folks. Ask the Iraqis, Afghanis, Palestinians, Chileans, Nicaraguans, Vietnamese, and others how much our interventions have helped.  We must stop policing the world.  We are terrible at it.  We have increased suffering.  

    It is very telling that the comparison to Hitler and WWII is always made to justify this stuff; by “Radical” in the Kony video and by Netanyahu last week before Aipac when describing Iran’s possible pursuit of nuclear weapons.  These conflicts are not WWII.  These people are not Hitler.  We do not benefit from seeing all conflicts as WWII, which was itself an immensely complicated war that we have only reduced to black and white in victorious retrospect.  From atom bombed civilians to alliances with Stalin to domestic internment camps, we would do well to remember how much we ourselves flirted with the devil in WWII.  Modern conflicts are every bit as complex, fragile, and dangerous.  Our experiences in the above-mentioned countries make that abundantly, and tragically, clear.

    Among my peers, the cynicism about #KONY2012 runs deep. For now, I think that’s good.  

  • Guest
  • Anonymous

    What I wish you had addressed in your article is the idea that the “Kony 2012″ cause might not be as warranted as everyone seems to think.  I’ve found articles online saying that Joseph Kony and the LRA haven’t been active since 2006.  I first heard of Invisible Children back in 2008 when Fall Out Boy did a music video to raise awareness for their cause.  Why didn’t people band together in outrage back then?  People need to do their research instead of jumping on the bandwagon for a cause based on, in this case, one video.