Saturday, 10 March 2012

Kony 2012

I'm sure everyone is by now familiar with Joseph Kony, Invisible Children, the Kony 2012 campaign and the huge amount of online criticism of it, lead by the Visible Children tumblr.

In case you aren't, Kony is a nutty Ugandan guy who kidnaps kids for his army, Invisible Children is an organisation opposed to these sorts of things, and Kony 2012 is their latest campaign. They've released a viral video explaining what I have just said, in a lot more detail, and asking people to spread the message online to raise awareness, the idea being that if everyone knows about this, there will be more pressure on world leaders to do something about it.

This brings me to the criticisms! There are many.

Some of them are valid, like:
  • The Kony 2012 campaign advocates US military intervention and alliance with local military groups that have a history of the same sorts of things Kony does

    This is true (AFAIK). Ultimately, that appears to be the outcome they're hoping for. I'm not an expert on these kinds of things so I won't say with certainty that it's the wrong course of action, but I definitely won't say it's the right one either.

  • Kony and his supporters are small potatoes compared to some of the other bad guys with armies of kids

    This is true as well - I don't recall the exact number, but I'm pretty sure there are hundreds of thousands of people, including many kids, who have been forced in to military service for dodgy governments and nutters. Stopping Kony won't protect these people, or the people who will be victims of the next guy to fill Kony's place. The whole system needs to change.

Some of them are, in my opinion, less valid. As I said, I'm no expert on human rights or African governments or military strategy. But I do know about marketing, and in particular marketing for a social cause such as this one. (It may sound cynical but the reality is, even the best causes are promoted by Evil Capitalist Manipulative Marketers. We don't all sell booze and cigarettes to kids, guys.) And as a marketing guru, I want to criticise some of these criticisms.

  • Invisible Children only passed 32% of last year's fundraising on to direct aid

    This may well be true. If you know anything about Not For Profit organisations, you will understand why this isn't a criticism at all! 32% is actually more than a lot of charities pass on. For the record, 32% of their earnings last year would have been about $2,776,546.48. If they hadn't spend a whole heap of money on employing some awesome people and funding some slick marketing, they wouldn't have had that money to donate. I read a quote somewhere recently, along the lines of "32% of a whole lot is more than 90% of not much". (To be fair this doesn't mean they are necessarily using their funds in the best way, but it doesn't necessarily mean that they aren't either.)

  • They do a lot of merch-based fundraising

    Yes, and it's working. This, sadly, is what many people today are after - they want something to show for their money, and more importantly, something to show off. This indicates a problem with patrons, not with the organisation. They would be silly not to sell merchandise.

  • The video is propaganda

    Good luck promoting your charitable cause without emotional appeals.

  • This campaign isn't actually getting people to Do anything

    To someone who doesn't know much about marketing (i.e. most people - why would they?) this is a perfectly sensible argument. But it has a sensible explanation: you can only move people one step at a time. Given that most people were relatively unaware of the whole situation, it's necessary to educate them and spread awareness first. Once everyone knows about Kony and wants to Do Something, the people at Invisible Children will try to provide the Something. That's just how it goes.

  • This smacks of colonialism

    If, just because you happen to be a white Westerner and the people who need help happen to be black Africans, you think this video is sending a racist message about the White Man's Burden, well, that says a lot more about you than it does about the campaign or the organisation.

There have also been a lot of criticisms of the people supporting the campaign. Again, some are valid - it appears that heaps of people are spreading the viral message without thinking about its potentially negative implications, and some of them are probably just doing it to feel smug about their human rights crusade without having to make any real effort.

But just as there are people who just repost the video so they can feel like activists, so there are some who just want to call out "sheeple" and "slacktivists" so they can feel like individual thinkers and pretend they are the true experts on the matter. On both sides there are people who've never cared about these issues and are not trying to give any real assistance now, and are just flooding the internet with ideas they got from some piece of online media that went viral and then patting themselves on the back. The only difference is which viral message they're using. So why do so many people believe that questioning the campaign automatically proves that a person actually cares about what's going on?

It's fair to criticise people who mindlessly hop on the Kony 2012 bandwagon. But I think we should also criticise people who mindlessly hop on the Anti-Kony 2012 bandwagon.

I'd really love to know what you all think about this.


  1. I would hire you to market my charity any day. Or to sell cigarettes to kids for that matter.

    1. Thanks Jim! I hope some people at an actual charity will feel the same way. Or at a cigarette company.

  2. Totes agree and couldn't have said it better myself!! Love
    Love love. Those ppl u have mentioned are so annoying!


    1. Haha thanks Jane! They really drive me nuts. I think the rule of the internet should be "if you can't say something constructive, don't say anything at all".

  3. Great job Ship, it's good to read about the issues, particularly about marketing, from the perspective of someone who knows what they're talking about.

    1. Oh thankyou Meg! To be fair I don't know what I'm talking about with any of the non-marketing issues though. I'd encourage everyone to find out about those elsewhere before they come to any conclusions.

  4. Yay ship, good work I like how you looked at all sides of it. You said you wanted me to comment from a human rights perspective?:
    The role of the US acting as the International Criminal Court's and essentially the world's army is a controversial one- presumably only accountable to the US public, not the global community. At the same time the UN doesn't have the greatest track record of getting shit done.
    That being said I have found as someone who studies human rights that those who have previously been active in these kind of HR issues have been weirdly offended by those who haven't been active suddenly taking an interest- as if it matters if you're late to the party? The Kony issue is one that it's easy to get people interested in because it's one villain who is unquestionably the bad guy- not complicated. If this assists the International Criminal Court in making an arrest of anyone on their list I have no problem with that.
    Love the blog!!!!!!!!
    Elise (I don't have a google account haha)

    1. Thanks for your comment Elise! I think you make a good point about Kony being an easier issue to get previously inactive people interested in. Ends don't always justify means but it would be nice if everyone who is opposed to these kinds of awful things (and surely nobody is in favour!) would stop in-fighting and team up to sort this out.