KONY 2012: Campaign for justice or backdoor evangelism?

Joseph Rao Kony

The non-profit organization Invisible Children have released a sequel to their short film KONY 2012, marking a new phase in their campaign against the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony.

Kony Part II: Beyond Famous attempts to address criticisms leveled at the original film. It was alleged that the documentary was too American-centric, and that it oversimplified (or even misrepresented) complex political issues in order to further its own agenda.

The viral campaign to bring Joseph Kony to justice for his crimes against humanity shot to fame in recent weeks, and has achieved significant results already: In America, a resolution has been proposed calling for the US to support African nations in their efforts to stop Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army, while the African Union has announced its intentions to put together a brigade of 5,000 international troops to hunt down and “neutralize” Kony.

However, the movement has become steeped in controversy. Firstly, the founder of Invisible Children, Jason Russell, was recently diagnosed with temporary psychosis following a public breakdown – during which he was videoed walking naked on the streets of San Fransisco, mumbling about the devil – which hasn’t exactly helped the public image of the movement. More importantly though, concerns are being raised about the links that Invisible Children has to fundamentalist Christian organizations that have been involved in the oppression and persecution of homosexual people in Africa.

This article will look at this controversy, and consider whether the success of the campaign is tainted by its origins.

1)      The atrocities committed by Kony in Uganda

Joseph Kony heads a Ugandan guerrilla group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The LRA lost public support in Uganda when it turned on the people, supposedly to “purify” the nation and turn the country into a theocracy.

Since then, he has ordered the abduction of children to become child-sex slaves and child soldiers. An estimated 66,000 children became soldiers and two million people have been internally displaced since 1986. In 2005, Kony was indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court, but has evaded capture.

The KONY 2012 campaign aims to apprehend Joseph Kony before the end of December this year.

2)      The success of the viral campaign

Although it is not clear whether anyone is any closer to capturing Joseph Kony, insofar as the KONY 2012 video has been pervasive in social media since its release last month, the campaign has been extremely successful. The first video has already been viewed over 100,000,000 times worldwide.

A graphic from the SOCIAL FLOW report, depicting the distribution of tweets featuring the KONY2012 hashtag in America

A Social Flow report into the success of the initial Kony 2012 campaign found that, early on, its spread was down to two factors: i) Invisible Children has pre-existing networks in place to help the spread of their message, and ii) steps were taken to ensure that influential celebrities became aware of the campaign and helped to publicise it via social media.

Of these factors, (i) is interesting. These pre-existing networks were not located in large cities, but in smaller American towns. (The hashtag #KONY2012 first trended in Birmingham, Alabama on March 1st, a few days before the video was even placed online.)

It has been suggested that the reason for this is that, culturally, the campaign draws its support from the Christian far-right, and that this explains the geographical distribution of Invisible Children’s support networks.

The success of (ii) depended on obtaining the support of a select group of individuals in order to “help bring awareness to the horrific abuse and killing of children in the East and Central African countries at the hands of Kony and his leadership.” This list included 20 “celebrity culture makers”, as well as 12 “policy makers” that have the power to keep US government officials in Africa in order to work toward the capture of Kony. (The list includes former US President George W. Bush and US Senator and former presidential candidate John Kerry.)

3)      Criticisms of ‘KONY Part 1’

The first KONY 2012 video has been criticized for oversimplifying events in the region such that the message it conveys distorts the situation. Africa researcher Alex de Waal accused the film of “peddling dangerous and patronizing falsehoods”, and suggested that the campaign has naively elevated Kony to a global celebrity – the fear is that this new publicity may only help him as a terrorist and cult leader.

However, a far more troubling revelation concerns that backing received by Invisible Children that made the campaign possible at all. Some of the major organizations that support the KONY 2012 campaign are linked to anti-gay movements, and while this does not undermine the legitimacy of the campaign, the worry is that supporting KONY 2012 will aid or legitimize these other movements.

Are we really doing a good thing in denouncing one evil if, at the same time, we are promoting another?

4)      Invisible Children and its fundamentalist backers

It recently emerged that Invisible Children have strong ties to Christian organizations which are widely believed to be involved in the oppression of homosexual people worldwide.

The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power protests in New York City against the Ugandan anti-homosexuality bill

An exhaustive report released yesterday by researcher Bruce Wilson reveals alarming social and professional associations between the non-profit organization and a secretive group called The Fellowship (also known as The Family), who are thought to be behind Uganda’s internationally-denounced anti-homosexuality bill, which would make the “crime” of homosexuality punishable by death, were it to be passed.

The Family/Fellowship is a secretive US-based brotherhood of international political and business leaders, which aims to provide a forum for decision makers to share in Bible studies, prayer meetings, worship experiences and to experience spiritual affirmation and support. The organization has been described as one of the most politically well-connected ministries in the United States, but prides itself on conducting itself secretly and avoiding publicity.

At least two of Invisible Children’s programs have involved collaboration with The Fellowship and its members. In 2007, the two organizations partially merged their education and schooling programs in Uganda. The stated aim of The Fellowship’s program is to raise Jesus-centred leaders who will transform their nation along “Biblical” lines, with one apparent objective being the categorical elimination of homosexuality.

Invisible Children also received substantial donations from National Christian Foundation (NCF), who describe themselves as “the largest Christian grant-making foundation in the world”. The NCF has donated money to several anti-gay groups over the years, including the Fellowship Foundation (which has The Family as a shadow organization).

5)      The release of ‘KONY Part 2’

As part of the on-going campaign, American supporters have been asked to put up posters in their hometowns on 20th April in an action named “Cover the Night”. Invisible Children offers posters from an online shop in an attempt to gain wider recognition.

The release of a second video, made without any input from co-founder Jason Russell, can be viewed as an attempt to ensure the success of this event – since Russell’s public breakdown and the release of the details about Invisible Children’s shady backers, some have feared that the whole campaign has been thrown into jeopardy.

The video may go some way towards addressing the concerns raised about the way the original video represented the situation in Uganda, but it surely can’t alleviate concerns about the source of the campaign’s success. Indeed, anti-extremist groups such as Truth Wins Out have raised concerns that the organization has an “invisible fundamentalist agenda”.

So while KONY 2012 certainly backs a good cause, it is unclear to what extent Invisible Children supports the anti-gay movements which it is linked to. For this reason, there is good reason to view the movement with caution.


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