A group of blond-haired, blue-eyed Southern California surfer boys from advocacy group Invisible Children got more than 30 million people to watch a half-hour video on a 20-year-old conflict in Central Africa—in just three days. But the fallout has been some tough criticism charging that the group is raising awareness about a conflict that has essentially wound down since its height in 2003-4—and cut corners with the facts to amp up its message. Detractors piled on that Invisible Children spends the bulk of its budget on staff salaries and making films that attract much publicity, but don't do much to help people on the ground. But in a backlash to the backlash, other Africa experts and human rights advocates today say the widespread negativity is unfounded.
"The argument now is that Kony and the LRA are no longer this massive threat," Cameron Hudson, former Africa director in the Bush administration National Security Council, told Yahoo News Thursday, referring to Joseph Kony, the founder of the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), which is accused of abducting and killing thousands of children and committing other atrocities in his two-decade war against the Ugandan government.
Hudson, now policy director at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, stressed that he doesn't share the critique, praising Invisible Children for creating a campaign that reached tens of millions of people who probably never previously heard of Joseph Kony. "I just saw P.Diddy tweet about this thing," he said.
Hudson believes the criticism is mostly sour grapes. "I think that these guys are getting mercilessly picked apart by a bunch of intellectual elites who spend their days tweeting but never trending," he said. "If their aim is to raise awareness, they have done that in spades."
Invisible Children is a California-based advocacy group whose founders were San Diego college students who went to south Sudan and northern Uganda in 2003 at the height of the conflict. On Monday, Invisible Children released a powerful, slickly produced half-hour video on the conflict, seeking a half million viewers. By Thursday they had surpassed that goal more than sixty-fold, with well over 30 million viewers. Their viral tag lines: #Kony2012 and #Stop Kony, along with Uganda and Invisible Children, were top-10 trending topics around the country.
"Where you live shouldn't determine whether you live #KONY2012", the group posted to Twitter Thursday.
Michael Poffenberger, executive director of Resolve, an advocacy organization that works with Invisible Children, agrees the awareness generated about a previously mostly invisible conflict is nothing but a good thing. "You have to recognize that for more than two decades [Joseph] Kony and the LRA have been perpetrating horrific atrocities in remote parts of Central Africa, and nobody has been paying attention," he told Yahoo News in an interview Thursday.
Poffenberger said he and the founders of Invisible Children became obsessed with the Lord's Resistance Army, its founder Joseph Kony and the plight of thousands of African children disappearing in the conflict, when they traveled to the region separately in 2003-2004. "They created this initial film that took off," he said. "And they have been connecting with an audience. The majority of their supporters—and they have hundreds of thousands of supporters—are millennials" who never previously donated to a nonprofit. And he believes this newly activated millennial audience could help foment political change.
In May 2010, members of Invisible Children and Resolve were in the Oval Office as President Barack Obama signed legislation—the Lord's Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Recovery Act (see photo below). The bill, originally spearheaded by former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), ended up with the support or sponsorship of 267 members of Congress—more than any other piece of Africa legislation in history, said Sarah Margon, a former Feingold staff member.
"We have seen your reporting, your websites, your blogs, and your video postcards—you have made the plight of the children visible to us all," Obama said in a statement to the groups that had spearheaded the grassroots advocacy campaign, including Invisible Children.
Last year, Obama ordered a few hundred special forces to Central Africa to assist in the hunt for Kony.
Invisible Children does have programs on the ground in Uganda, including information collection and monitoring programs for tracking abductees. (According to financial information Invisible Children posted to its website to rebut some of the criticism, it spent about a third of its $8.8 million 2011 budget on programs in Central Africa.) But there's an inherent push and pull between advocating for a cause and explaining the actual complexities on the ground, even those who praise the group note.
"There is a legitimate debate about the degree to which the video oversimplifies a complex issue," Resolve's Poffenberger said. "But you can't present a documentary that appeals to the human rights professional crowd and also gets viewed by 30 million people ... about something occurring in Central Africa. There's a trade-off that you have to accept and make very carefully."
Invisible Children has helped raise awareness so that millions of Americans now know about the LRA and are pressing their members of Congress for action, Margon, the former Feingold Senate staffer and an Africa expert at the Center for American Progress, told Yahoo News Thursday. "At the same time, there are certainly cases where they have cut corners on some of the facts to get their message out," she said.
Others note that the production value of the video sets it apart—and may speak to the next big tool in global activism. "Ten years ago, the Stop the Landmines advocacy group got the Nobel Peace price because they used email," said Hudson, the former Bush White House aide. "This is the next iteration. Desk-top movie-making, to create a video of such high production value, that you change the way these conflicts are viewed and understood."
Academics and Washington policy wonks aside, Hudson said, few Americans had heard much about the LRA issue before Invisible Children's video—at least not in a way that captured their attention and compassion. "So they have tapped into a huge market that had not been tapped into before. And there is limitless empathy in this country for these causes."
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