April 3, 2012

Letter to the Editor: Kony 2012, a Global Health Perspective

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To the Editor:

Re: “#Stop Phony” Arts, March 14Kony 2012 hit everyone’s facebook, twitter and email inbox several weeks ago. The mass-(social)media bombardment ignited a debate over the 30 minute video that continues even now. Racking up one hundred million views in 10 days, Kony 2012 was a clear demonstration of how emotional investment can create an engaging media campaign — and put a relatively unknown (by popular standards) African warlord on the front page of The New York Times in four days.  In the campaign to call attention to Kony, the film also called attention to itself and Invisible Children, the underlying charity. The criticism has been pointed: e.g. Kony is not in Uganda (appearing for all of 30 seconds in the video), the international community has never really been “soft” or “apathetic” regarding Kony (mostly it was just Westerners being uninformed). Of course, these facts were the most inconvenient for telling a story and raising awareness.Two-thirds of the way into the video, the objectives (and assumptions) of this “social experiment” are unveiled: President Obama’s interest and military participation is the result of a small amount of Americans lobbying for the arrest of Joseph Kony. Therefore, if American interest wanes, the President might undo this placement of troops in Central Africa. The call for action is thus simple: Share, Sign Up, Donate (or the bad guy might come back!).The criticisms levied at Invisible Children have been no less alarming: they have strong ties to anti-gay groups, extremely poor financial controls and questionable financial practices, and they have grossly oversimplified a (literally) life-or-death issue. The cynical might see these criticisms as sour grapes by other charities or, as a founding member of the World Bank once famously quipped: “No one guards their piece of mindshare more than humanitarians.” Nonetheless, the larger criticism of Invisible Children within the Global Health community remains: Exaggeration of the scale of the current Kony problem aside, they are using social media to stir up awareness but not necessarily action.While it is unlikely Invisible Children will truly augment policy-making or “affect the course of human history” with a viral video, there are still lessons from Kony 2012. All those criticisms of the inaccuracies in the video are raising further awareness of Kony — if the debate becomes one of degree (i.e. “just how bad is Kony” and “how many troops does he really have”) rather than an existential one ( “Kony who?  Is that a food?”), then by that measure the video will have succeeded beyond any expectation. As a result, we are better informed as a society. As an attempt to inspire millions to discuss an issue that had for so long remained beyond the scope of western news, the film is truly a success. It inspires average Americans to believe that we are all connected to each other and that we can truly bring about change to better humanity.  And if people take issue with the video, they can just as easily speak to correct it — as Supreme Court Justice Breyer once remarked, “The remedy for such a situation is not less speech, it is more speech.”To the readers we ask: Had you been asked who Joseph Kony was before March 5th, would you have been able to say yes?

Stephen Allegra ’13, Sean Donegan ’12Seth Hoffman ’12, Lauren Webster ’12