As everyone has heard by now, the viral marketing campaign KONY 2012, made by the nonprofit company Invisible Children, has recently come under intense scrutiny in the media. Most coverage of the massively successful 30-minute video has been extremely negative, criticizing the video’s questionable message and Invisible Children itself. As a San Diego native, where IC is headquartered, I am very familiar with the nonprofit. I first heard about the company during my freshman year of high school, around the time it was founded in 2005.
IC’s three young creators, San Diegans Jason Russell, Ben Keesey and Chris Carver, filmed a documentary about child soldiers in northern Uganda in 2003. After returning to California, they set up a nonprofit company and screened the film to as many people as possible, attempting to raise awareness of the Ugandans’ plight. The main operations of IC at its start were to screen the documentary, give talks to raise awareness of northern Uganda and sell bracelets made by Ugandans — providing employment to locals and visibility for their company. This idea of “raising awareness” is key to many nonprofits, especially with issues international in nature, and people mainly rely on some larger force to make a difference. IC also encouraged writing letters and calling government representatives to bring change in Uganda.
During high school, I became extremely involved with Invisible Children. It was a nonprofit aimed at teens, with a media-savvy style and attractive, relatable founders, which successfully engaged the apathetic youth, who were largely uninterested in charity work. After my friends and I saw the film, we immediately bought the bracelets and told everyone we knew about it. The documentary also spurred my deeper interest in African politics. I joined my high school’s Model United Nations club, attended local African events and began researching the situation in various African countries. I even met Benjamin Ajak, one of the “Lost Boys from Sudan” and co-author of They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky.
When I came to UCSB, I lost touch with IC and African politics, but always supported the company and its message. I had heard of the KONY 2012 campaign from friends who were still involved in IC, and I “attended” the event on Facebook and re-blogged the video in an act of lazy support. It seems many did the same, as the video became an Internet sensation, bringing Invisible Children into a harsh spotlight.
While I am not an expert or a proponent of KONY 2012, I still do not completely understand why the video brought such intense hatred of IC. The loudest critique I’ve heard is on the video’s “oversimplification” of the situation in northern Uganda. Filmmaker Jason Russell retorted, “It’s oversimplified for a reason,” being they hoped to spread a general message quickly and easily to encourage people to personally investigate further. I agree with Russell’s justification, since their initial documentary spurred great interest and action in me. Many also criticize IC’s use of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter to spread the message. This confuses me, as these sites are generously employed by every major news organization (even the president) to quickly spread information. It also corresponds with IC’s aim to target a young audience. I personally believe that any awareness, even through “cheap” mass-marketing websites, is beneficial not only to IC in gaining supporters, but also in compelling people who have never heard of northern Uganda to learn more.
Though Invisible Children has a special significance to me, I absolutely love that people are questioning and criticizing this nonprofit. In order to keep companies and governments honest, it is imperative that individuals probe below the surface instead of passively accepting “universal truths.” But this also means citizens must question these independent examinations as well and make up their own minds about the issue. The explosion of media coverage on KONY 2012 has proven this passion for legitimacy. But don’t take my word for it …
Corie Anderson is a third-year film and media studies major.