As I write this, 80 million people have seen aid organisation, Invisible Children’s half-hour documentary entitled KONY 2012, which was released barely a week ago. Chances are you’ve seen it. If not, you’ve heard about it. The speed and tenacity that people have shared this video is absolutely staggering, as are the figures presented within the film. The first line, uttered as the camera pans over a darkened earth, informs the viewer that more people now use Facebook than the world’s population 200 years ago. The voice continues to speak of the wonders of social media as a montage of clips play, ranging from videos of children to footage of revolutionaries, to screengrabs of Twitter and YouTube.
The pace of the images is relentless. A countdown appears as the viewer is told ‘the game has new rules’. The screen turns black. ‘The next 27 minutes are an experiment’, the voice continues. An experiment in what?
If I were to show this video to someone who knew nothing about KONY 2012 and stop it at one minute and fifty seconds, I could guarantee that a Ugandan warlord and his abduction of children would be the last thing on their mind. But the concept of ‘going viral’? The idea that what they are about to see will be infinitely shareable? That every single person should witness what they are about to? That’s definitely worth watching.
The next 27 minutes are not an experiment in filmmaking, nor are they an experiment in social work or international aid. They are an experiment in virulence. This is an experiment in seeing how quickly millions upon millions of people can learn about Invisible Children’s fight against Joseph Kony.
By definition, a virus is highly contagious, easily spreadable between organisms. The ability for a virus to spread and reproduce so rapidly is what gives viruses their strength – they infiltrate a host’s own cells to reproduce. Without a host, they are weak and easily destroyed. This is the downside of digital virulence. The main strength of KONY 2012 is the desire it instills in people to share it with others. However, the means Invisible Children have used to attain this spreadability may have weakened the message itself, and may have ended real change before it even started.
The documentary is an emotional assault. Indeed, it would be difficult to demonstrate the torment and turmoil Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army have brought to Central Africa without being emotionally affecting; however the reporting of such a complex situation has been severely watered down; even made infantile, instead of being objective and truly informative. Jason Russell, lead filmmaker, asks his four-year-old son his opinion on Joseph Kony. This is condescending to the viewer, as it is readily apparent that Kony is an evil man. This segment, emulating past viral videos of a toddler’s innocence, and even like those shown in the introduction montage, is made to be ‘viral’. Not to be informative, not to enlighten the viewer, but purely to give the film spreadability.
This is an issue for Invisible Children as well as the viewer. A documentary should be able to stand on its own due to quality of its production – which the company does exceptionally well – but also on the truth and legitimacy of its content. Invisible Children must ask themselves, ‘does this film have the ability to stand on its own, without pandering to people’s emotions?’
I believe the answer is no. By now, the exclusion of facts and the inaccuracies of the ones contained in the film are well documented. KONY 2012 fails to mention that Kony and the LRA have not been active in Uganda for years, and the fact that the group’s numbers have dwindled to less than 500. Invisible Children ignore the fact that the Ugandan government, who the charity actively supports, have utilised child soldiers in the past. KONY 2012 was shown in a public screening with victims of the LRA present, where the film was met with confusion and anger. The Guardian reports Victor Ochen, head of a charity based in Uganda, as saying: “People were very angry about the film . . . They were all saying, ‘This is not about us, it does not reflect our lives’.” The merchandising of the conflict by Invisible Children – who also only spent 31 per cent of their budget last year on actual aid – has been called insulting, and likened to selling Osama bin Laden branded clothing post-9/11. This isn’t even mentioning the charity’s inclination towards direct military intervention.
Invisible Children have created a potent social phenomena with KONY 2012. However, by misleading their target audience they have critically weakened their campaign. By his own admission, Russell wants Invisible Children to be the ‘Pixar of human rights stories’. The only problem is that human rights abuses are not ‘cool’ or ‘hip’. People should care about Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army because they are terrible, odious, and hugely detrimental to Central Africa – not because it’s ‘in’ to care about them at the moment. Invisible Children should know this too.