Kony 2012, Lesson Learned?

Shakespearean dramas often feature the archetype of the tragic hero, a character who possesses qualities of enthusiasm and ambition; yet their ultimate downfall is tied to what Aristotle called “an act of injustice” or hamartia, which is caused by hubris, ignorance, or a conviction that the act was serving a greater good. The struggles of Invisible Children founder Jason Russell mirrors these age-old dramas; while the times and platform have changed, the story remains the same.

Nearly one month ago, the fated internet advocacy campaign Kony 2012 launched and has since propelled the most viral video in history to a huge audience.  (This post is actually a sequel to our first essay on the topic: “The Kony 2012 Campaign: A Manhunt Goes Viral.”)  Just like a Shakespearean drama, the tragic hero Russell has endured intense censure and a harrowing fall from grace (including an arrest).  Criticism of Invisible Children ranges from its controversial funding sources, to the unintended consequence of an increasingly militarized Central Africa.  (For more on this please see: “Leveraging Guilt:  The Kony 2012 Campaign & the Militarization of Africa.”)  Yet, some of the most poignant criticism comes from African writers such as Teju Cole, a Nigerian-born writer now living in the U.S., whose piece in The Atlantic “The White Savior Industrial Complex,” has received more than 700 comments.  His piece details the issues surrounding not only the Kony 2012 campaign, but also Africa’s portrayal by the West, and problems facing international development.

Whether you love or hate Invisible Children or the Kony 2012 campaign, topics surrounding Africa, non-profits, development, and advocacy have never reached viral status. When you examine other YouTube videos that have achieved more than 100 million views it is a mishmash of music videosfunny children, and reality show auditions  — never international relations issues. The Kony 2012 video also breaks the commonly held thought that viral video must be under five minutes to engage an audience.   The  Kony 2012 video has taught us that you can captivate an audience with an international issue, but over-simplification comes at a heavy price.

Invisible Children is still carrying on with its mission of seeing Joseph Kony arrested.  Recently, Invisible Children released another YouTube video featuring its CEO Ben Keesey and Director of Idea Development Jedidiah Jenkins.   In the video they do provide an overtly optimistic progress report of the campaign’s lobbying efforts with the U.S. Congress, and promise a Kony 2012 video, Part Two, which they describe as being “awesome.”  The two deftly avoid mentioning their tragic hero Russell, and only briefly address criticism of slacktivism. Like Horatio to Hamlet, perhaps these new ambassadors can avoid the fate (and backlash) of their tragic hero Russell, but maybe the hero here is the conversation itself.

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