Why the Kony Video Went Viral: A UT Student Explains

Joseph Kony has been making waves across the Internet the past few days, thanks to a slick, emotional video produced by Invisible Children, a nongovernmental organization based in San Diego, California.

Who is Joseph Kony? He is the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a brutal group from Uganda.  The LRA has devastated Central Africa, destroying towns, raping women, and, most infamously, kidnapping children and forcing them to fight. In 2005, the International Criminal Court put out a warrant for Kony’s arrest, and Kony and his cronies have the dubious honor of sitting near the top of the Interpol’s most wanted list.

It took only a matter of minutes for Invisible Children’s video to go viral after the organization uploaded the film to YouTube on March 6. The 30-minute video has been viewed more than 83 million times. Almost everyone on Facebook has seen a link to the video. #Kony steadily climbed to 2.83 percent of all of the traffic on Twitter at midnight March 7 and has yet to dip below .09 percent. That’s a lot of discussion on a subject that almost no one had heard about the day before.

The success of the video has been matched by the criticism. Critics have attacked everything from Invisible Children’s finances, motivations, and understanding of what is actually happening in Uganda. Slate is linking to an Al Jazeera article that claims the story told in the video about Kony is outdated, that his power has now dwindled and he no longer operates inside Uganda.

Building a good vs. evil paradigm to further a cause is, of course, nothing new. Invisible Children’s activism fits within a larger historical phenomenon of activists calling on governments to help downtrodden people.

The fight to end the African slave trade was one of the earliest and most successful examples. During the First World War, Brahmins assembled in Boston at Faneuil Hall to protest the Turkish government’s treatment of the Armenians. During the 1980s, the same appeals to morality rung out on our television sets with the fly-covered children of famine-wrecked Ethiopia; in the 1990s with the mass graves in Srebrenica; and in the late 2000s, with the gut wrenching pictures of what Colin Powell called “genocide” in Darfur.

Perhaps the most important piece of the quilt that set the stage for Invisible Children was activism during the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970). The images of emaciated women and children coming out of the secessionist state of Biafra stirred people across the United States toward activism. Over 200 nongovernmental organizations sprouted in the United States alone, all calling for the United States to help with the relief effort in Biafra.

In the New York Post, the organization compared the Nigerian head of state Yakubu Gowon to Hitler. Much like Invisible Children, the American Committee sought out and got celebrity endorsements, as Jimi Hendrix, Joan Baez, Cliff Robertson, Michael Caine, and countless others spoke out over Biafra.

But this is where the similarities between these previous organizations and Invisible Children end. While all these previous groups wanted the U.S. to help, they believed that aid should be handled under the flag of the United Nations or other supranational or regional groups.

But Invisible Children has advocated for the U.S. to send its troops unilaterally into Central Africa under its own flag. This is an extraordinary demand, given that the U.S. has just left a nasty intervention in Iraq and is struggling to extricate itself from Afghanistan.

By suggesting that the U.S.  military should send its own troops under its own mandate to help capture Joseph Kony and “save” Ugandan children, Invisible Children has inserted itself into a centuries-old debate on America’s role in the world.

John Quincy Adams warned in 1821 that while evil existed in the world, the U.S. should act alone and not go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.” A century later, Woodrow Wilson argued that it was in the interest of the U.S. to seek those monsters, but it should only be done in concert with a League of Nations. Invisible Children’s call for action, then, seems to be an interesting mix of the two: acting unilaterally with American military power to destroy monsters like Joseph Kony.

The blending of unilateral American force and moral concern should sound familiar because it was precisely the logic of the George W. Bush administration and its neoconservative foreign policy. The most striking aspect of Invisible Children’s campaign is that the use of American troops to enforce moral imperatives has been almost unquestioned by its supporters.

And judging by the money that is pouring in, the support for this foreign policy seems massive. Maybe to this younger—and judging from the video, mostly white—generation, sending American troops on moral missions is not problematic.

Are we witnessing a resurgence of neoconservative foreign policy? Probably not. Instead, we are seeing the ability of humanitarian morality to transcend ideology. The Internet has amplified this by not only making it easier and faster to share information, but fostering a sense of democratic connection that makes us feel as if Joseph Kony is our problem, too.

Invisible Children has been successful for the same reasons that the abolitionists succeeded in persuading Parliament to end the slave trade: they portrayed their subjects as a human tragedy that rose above politics.

The danger, of course, is that by constructing the Ugandan situation as a fight between good and evil, Invisible Children’s advocates are supporting a military initiative against which they might normally voice dissent. It is not that Invisible Children’s supporters do not understand the alleged lessons of intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq. Rather, Afghanistan and Iraq are not seen as applicable to a moral situation like the eradication of Joseph Kony. This sounds eerily similar to the well-meaning American intervention in Somalia during the early 1990s. Let’s hope that this American intervention works out better than the last time the United States tried to destroy a monster in Africa or the Middle East.

Brian McNeil is a doctoral student in history at UT. This article first appeared on Not Even Past.


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