The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

The “Kony2012” Meme and the Need for Cautious Skepticism

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 9, 2012

So this week the Internet basically exploded with a massively-popular viral video titled “Kony2012” by the non-governmental organization Invisible Children.  Apparently, it is about a brutal Ugandan warlord, Joseph Kony, who leads the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Africa and has perpetrated horrendous crimes (think mass rape, kidnapping children and forcing them to be soldiers, and that sort of monstrous stuff) in the name of doing the sort of nasty crap that warlords do in their pursuit of power.  The purpose of the video is, according to Invisible Children, to aim “to make Joseph Kony famous, not to celebrate him, but to raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice.”

Here’s the video in question; it’s long (~30 minutes), but a visit to the Invisible Children website will fill you in on the basic idea behind the video.

However, while bringing scumbags like Joseph Kony to justice is no doubt a laudable goal, the fact that this video and related message seemed to spread so quickly (and uncritically, it seems) across the Internet and Twittersphere made me express some cautious skepticism about the whole thing.  And it seems that my skepticism was not without some validity – check out this interesting article from on the whole “Kony2012” meme because I think it provides a bit of perspective that should be appreciated…

Why You Should Feel Awkward About the ‘Kony2012′ Video

Stuart Price / AFP / Getty Images
Leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Joseph Kony, answers journalists’ questions in Ri-Kwamba, southern Sudan, Nov. 12, 2006.

Most Americans began this week not knowing who Joseph Kony was. That’s not surprising: most Americans begin every week not knowing a lot of things, especially about a part of the world as obscured from their vision as Uganda, the country where Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commenced a brutal insurgency in the 1980s that lingers to this day.

A viral video that took social media by storm over the past two days has seemingly changed all that. Produced by Invisible Children, a San Diego-based NGO, “Kony2012″ is a half-hour plea for Americans and global netizens to pay attention to Kony’s crimes — which include abducting over 60,000 children over two decades of conflict, brutalizing them and transforming many into child soldiers — and to pressure the Obama Administration to find and capture him. Within hours of the slick production surfacing on social media, it led to #StopKony trending on Twitter, populated Facebook timelines, was publicized by Hollywood celebrities and has been viewed some 10 million times on YouTube. Suddenly, a man on virtually no Westerner’s radar became the international bogeyman of the moment. …

… Yet for the video’s demonstrable zeal and passion, there are some obvious problems. Others more expert in this arena have already done a bit of fact-checking: the LRA is no longer thought to be actually operating in northern Uganda, which “Kony2012″ seems to portray still as a war-ravaged flashpoint — instead, its presence has been felt mostly in disparate attacks in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a nation with its own terrible history of rogue militias committing monstrous atrocities. Moreover, analysts agree that after concerted campaigns against the LRA, its numbers at this point have diminished, perhaps amounting to 250 to 300 fighters at most. Kony, shadowy and illusive, is a faded warlord on the run, with no allies or foreign friends (save perhaps, in one embarrassing moment of blustering sophistry, for American radio shock jock Rush Limbaugh.) The U.S. military’s African command (AFRICOM) has deployed its assets against Kony since at least 2008— a fact that goes conveniently unmentioned in Invisible Children’s video. …

… Not once in the half-hour film do we hear the name of Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, whose quasi-authoritarian rule has lasted over 25 years. Arab Spring-inspired protests last year were ruthlessly suppressed and the country’s opposition complains bitterly about the entrenched corruption of the Museveni state. The U.S. State Department voiced its concern over Uganda’s rights record last November. Speaking to the Washington Post, Jedediah Jenkins, a member of Invisible Children, shrugs off charges that the NGO is too much in bed with the status quo in Kampala:

“There is a huge problem with political corruption in Africa. If we had the purity to say we will not partner with anyone corrupt, we couldn’t partner with anyone.”

So I guess the take-away from this one is pretty simple: just like with those chain emails that everyone used to get (and no doubt still does, in all likelihood), when you get a Tweet from someone about ‘an amazing new video’ or whatnot, perhaps it might be worthwhile to spend some time to investigate the issue before you re-Tweet.  Food for thought, folks.

5 Responses to “The “Kony2012” Meme and the Need for Cautious Skepticism”

  1. […] The “Kony2012″ Meme and the Need for Cautious Skepticism « The Skeptical Teacher. Share and Enjoy:Written by: Jerrald Hayes on March 9, 2012. […]

  2. Jose M. said

    I agree that perhaps most people didn’t delve deeply into this matter, at least not enough to realize that these matters have complicated solutions. However, I think that it is equally important that there seemed to be some awakening by young people in this country. I am glad that there were many people saddened by the atrocities that may be occurring abroad (certainly in more places that the just the one described by this video).

    People were truly moved to some action, even if what just forwarding a link; I don’t’ see how this can necessarily be a bad thing. We parents and educators cannot simply complain about the “apathy of our youth” (as I’ve heard it referred to a few times) and then criticize a movement such as this. It is important to be critical and to be thorough, but I for one, will overlook that if this can spur young people to some action.

    I do realize that there are many young adults that are involved in activities to improve their communities, but I would argue there are more that are not. This was refreshing to witness and I hope that whatever spurred someone to forward a video can lead someone to action with more tangible effects.

  3. April McCauley said

    Nope, the KONY video clearly shows Jacob and the other kids from Uganda who are speaking out to help others to their west even though Kony has now moved on from their region. It highlights measures that are being taken to provide early warning in case he decides to come back their way and shows how much better their lives are now that he is gone from their area. It also underscores that Kony’s tactics have changed because he is now being pursued by the Ugandan military supported by Americans. They explicitly state that he is in hiding because he is being pursued and that if the pressure is let off, then he could return to his old ways. Plus, that whole thing about how he is really atrocious and shouldn’t be loose in the world. I think the word was Justice. They want him to stand trial. They want this to be a world where something isn’t okay just because it is far away.

    I saw something go across Lifehacker that analyzed the movement based on how they spend the money that is donated. I jumped on it. I think a part of me wants to believe it is a scam because if it is true then it is truly horrific. Skepticism is extremely healthy, denial isn’t. After I read the LifeHacker article, I watched the video looking for problems. What I saw is a call for political involvement and social engagement rather than money.

    Of course they didn’t mention the other bad guys. It is a marketing campaign and has to be clear and focused. But if they get Kony, what is to keep them from going for the others next?

    Have you seen anything that says Kony hasn’t done what they say he did?

    • mattusmaximus said

      To your last question, I do not deny there is a problem, nor do I deny that Kony has committed these horrendous crimes (I never said as much, because the evidence on that is clear). My criticism is more of the uncritical manner in which the issue has been spread, via social media, across the Internet by too many well-meaning, yet uninformed about the complexities of the situation, people.

  4. Pak Liam said

    Interesting, I just wrote a similar post on my blog. I think fundamentally here, as teachers, we need to try and harness our students youthful idealism into appropriate channels, use the Kony video as a teaching tool for critical thinking rather than coming across as jaded or cynical. I really like your final sentence, “So I guess the take-away from this one is pretty simple: just like with those chain emails that everyone used to get (and no doubt still does, in all likelihood), when you get a Tweet from someone about ‘an amazing new video’ or whatnot, perhaps it might be worthwhile to spend some time to investigate the issue before you re-Tweet. Food for thought, folks.”

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