Kony baloney

March 8, 2012

Call me a traditionalist, but when a non-fiction film’s soundtrack includes anything but incidental music, my eyes cease to view it as a documentary and begin to receive it as propaganda. Kony 2012, this week’s viral video sensation on YouTube and Vimeo, reaches for the heart-melting, minor-chord music about 16 seconds into its 30-minute run, efficiently alerting me to its emotional scheme.

Produced by the non-profit group Invisible Children, Kony 2012 implores viewers to purchase bracelets and action kits (tax deductible!) to help stop the murdering, raping, looting and enslaving ways of African warlord Joseph Kony, head of Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army, and to forward the video to friends. Kony 2012 also calls for U.S. support for Ugandan efforts to capture the warlord. According to the YouTube counter, the video has been viewed close to 40 million times since its release on Monday, although New York attributes that performance to clever marketing, high production values and a website that made it easy to push the link to celebrities who tweet.

Whatever the source of Kony 2012‘s viral power, it has been more than matched by a swift anti-viral counterreaction, with commentators at the Atlantic, the Guardian, Jezebel, the Independent, the Wronging Rights blog, the Traveling While Black blog, the Backslash Scott Thoughts blog and the Visible Children blog scrutinizing the video and its maker-marketers. They criticize the Invisible Children project for exaggerating the evil Joseph Kony is perpetrating these days; for engaging in paternalism that verges on colonialism; for failing to note that some of the “good guys” that the group supports are known to rape and loot themselves; for pretending that viewers sharing a video with other viewers will change the world; for selling “yesterday’s papers” and calling it news; for portraying Africans as helpless victims in need of saving by Westerners; for oversimplifying the central-east African crisis; and for other clap-your-hands-and-everything-will-be-all-right dreams.

Even the Associated Press is giving the slick video the stink-eye this morning.

Invisible Children has answered its critics by posting its financials and highlighting both its good intentions and its good works in Africa, which given the millions it takes in had better exist.

By any measure, Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 has backfired. Every project and video the group now launches will be analyzed and criticized to the nth degree, and I can guarantee that enterprising reporters are excavating the group’s history looking for dirt. People who hate to be taken for a sucker — that would be you, me, and the ghost of Christopher Hitchens — will avoid the group, its maudlin videos, its fundraising forays, its silly T-shirts and its action kits with maximum effort.

If only there were more of us. The people behind the Kony 2012 video aren’t so stupid that they couldn’t have foreseen this week’s backlash, even if they may have underestimated its potential. By making war criminal Joseph Kony its literal poster child, the reductionist face of African evil, it risked ridicule. An emotive, fundraising video such as Kony 2012 — filled with footage of innocent, defenseless, crying children who live in fear of an evil rapist-abductor — must be careful not to overtax the heart. Push the message too far in one direction, and you produce a snuff film. Too hard in another, a camp classic. Not hard enough, a fundraising failure.

But the fact that Kony 2012 is closing in on 40 million YouTube views indicates that the group hit the sweet, sentimental spot — that tens of millions of viewers didn’t come away from the video irritated that their emotions had been shamelessly abducted. As genre work, you’d have to place Kony 2012 and other Invisible Children videos alongside the work product of televangelists and telethon producers, who make a living by picking your pocket while soaking your eyes in stories of redemption and good works. As long as villains like child-killing diseases, Satan and Joseph Kony continue to exist, the telefundraisers will always be in business.

Invisible Children, which like the 700 Club or the March of Dimes is primarily a fundraising group, knows better than any of its critics how this game works. They cherish today’s criticisms because a backlash always comes paired with a front-lash. For every person who ever tuned out the Jerry Lewis muscular dystrophy telethon because he couldn’t endure the host’s mawkishness, another five tuned in because they couldn’t miss it.


Coming soon to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com: action kits, T-shirts and swizzle sticks stamped with my logo. Demonstrate your devotion to all things Shafer by adding me to your Twitter feed. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns and subscribe to this hand-built RSS feed for corrections to my column.

PHOTO: Lord Resistance Army Major General Joseph Kony, in this exclusive image, poses at peace negotiations between the LRA and Ugandan religious and cultural leaders in Ri-Kwangba, southern Sudan, November 30, 2008.  REUTERS/Africa24 Media


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An extremely cynical article that almost goes as far to denounce the good work these people are doing to bring to light the atrocities of a criminal whose actions are almost unimaginable to the western world. I wonder Mr. Shafer if you are motivated by the notion that you are a dieing breed thats done little in the way of deeds of such selfish nature. To write off a short film because it makes an emotional attachment through the use of music and attempts to rally people sounds to me like great marketing to raise awareness to an otherwise unknown cause. It seems that in your ideal world one should make little use of the tools that todays generation can relate to and serve up some cold spam explanation of a story and then sit back and watch everyone ignore it but yet somehow feel that you left your dignity intact even though you had incited a reaction no more extreme than when a fly hits your windscreen on a highway. If they suceed in bringing this man to justice, we will either see the cynical old guard win ( and children continue to die) or we will see if you have been left powerless when so many rally to a cause that is a selfless cry for humanity. Maybe you should join in and lend your well read column to the cause instead of bashing it as you have with your cynical hammer

Posted by Barrym21 | Report as abusive

If you feel like you have been duped by the video then you miss the message entirely. Yes, it is intended to strike emotional chords and if it failed in that aspect to touch your heart, then it succeeded in another – by getting to think about it, to speak about it – to blog about it. The ‘experiment’ was precisely to spread awareness; to get people talking about a particular issue, be it commendation or cynicism, you have taken part in Kony2012.

Posted by PekedeCalifa | Report as abusive

Mr. Shafer,

Very disappointing column. Your cynicism is disheartening. The young people in this world are finding new ways to connect and bring light to darkness. I would encourage you to join them. If you believe that the efforts of Invisible Children are misguided and potentially harmful then please explain your position and provide alternatives.

Posted by Gilbert77 | Report as abusive

Sounds like the three above bought everything IC was selling hook, line and sinker. Nothing but ad hominems for the author of the article.

If people will turn off their brains for a good cause, they will turn off their brains for a bad one.

Posted by GeekP | Report as abusive

Yeesh! Settle down, guys! Shafer is simply doing his job as a responsible journalist by taking a critical look at this story. He’s not defending Kony or saying that the documentary was false. He’s simply pointing out that the documentary has several glaring ommissions and should be taken with a grain of salt.

Don’t attack the messenger.

Posted by KrisCraig | Report as abusive

Maybe the people above are just sick to death of all the apathy and people offering NOTHING as far as taking action. It is true that a t-shirt or bracelet will not change the world, posters will not stop a war lord thousands of miles away. But it will raise awareness. This campaign has done more to SHINE A LIGHT on the LRA and Kony then anything else has in my recollection. Sure it is popular and “hipsters” feel like they are doing SOMETHING. How about instead of writing negative articles about how someone else is failing to do the right thing you do something to make a change in this world? Oh, or this article your contribution?
Stop the HATE and get off your ass and do something.

Posted by urbngreen | Report as abusive

This video obviously targets younger population. And if someone,anyone wants to raise awareness to a problem that very few average westerners even know exists..it is a good thing.
But,of course there are always those who by being cynical think their intellect will shine and impress the reader.Wrong. I’m more impressed by good intentions,regardless of their possible faults,which in this case are really minor.And thankfully I’m not the only one.What I find the funniest are the people who untill a few days ago never even knew that some guy named Kony and LRA existed,now take some higher pseudo-intellectual ground and criticize something they really know nothing about.They even go as far as to call it simplistic,which realistically it is.(see targets younger population)But as they didn’t even know about it,it is..even in it’s simplicity more than their knowledge about the situation in Central Africa.
This doesn’t go for the author of this article,but it does for a lot of other people though.

Posted by Jimzed | Report as abusive

Pseudo-intelectual cynicism will not outshine a good cause.And funniest thing,most people who call this vid simplistic,untill a few days ago didn’t even know about the existance of some guy named Kony,or LRA,or problems in Central Africa..haha.
Btw,this video obviously targets younger population.Population that will not be swayed by the cynicism of so called experts,who have done nothing even close to this to raise the awareness to a serious problem.

Posted by Jimzed | Report as abusive

Kony is nothing more than AFRICOM propaganda to justify US military intervention in the oil rich region of Uganda. Where was the outcry when US Iraq sanctions killed 500k children in Iraq during the 90’s?

Posted by dafdfdasfda | Report as abusive

We’ll take as many swizzle sticks as you can air freight by Monday if you’ll take a hacked credit card number. We would have paid cash but we sent it all to the Invisible Children dudes.

We don’t know what to believe anymore. We’re going to check with Streisand and Marlo. They’ll know. Or maybe that Beckham guy.

Posted by WeWereWallSt | Report as abusive

If Schafer had stopped at claiming that donations to Invisible Children aren’t fruitful, I could respect that. Asserting that trying to stand in the way of genocide is Western chauvinism is despicable.

Posted by MasterJeff | Report as abusive

The author completely misunderstood that the group is actually fighting pure EVIL and crimes against humanity – They are taking action against the very core idea that nobody cared about Kony’s crimes for so many years (including probably the author who I am sure never wrote about those crimes). This is the type of individual who who would not have gone after nazi criminals just because their crimes happened in the past. Thank God we have young people who don’t want to live in the same world as this guy and who are outraged by the silence of those around them. I am ashamed that individuals such as him are given a platform to propagate their hatred for people who are more successful at investigative journalists and as thought leaders. They are NOT in it for the money. They just want to try a way of doing things that has not been done before. Get with the program grandpa.. For those who are bothered by the fact that the group spent more money on making movies than helping the people on the ground, they should try to help those young folks by giving them advice maybe instead of criticizing them from the comfort of their chair. If you are against those fighting evil, you are actually rooting for evil to win.

Posted by Peertoperr | Report as abusive

Excellent articles I agree with every thing being said. Why is it that the Invisible group is wasting their money doing films instead of helping people through education and medical services?They seem to be determined to make this guy famous. He is famous in his own country and it is up to his own country to get rid of him. As outsiders westerners can only “take sides” when they intervene and since in places that are bankrupt like Uganda Syria Libya Iraq Afghanistan at the end it means that our new “friends” may be as bad as the previous monsters just in different ways…

Posted by Peertoperr | Report as abusive