Why ‘Kony 2012’ Misses the Mark

Like millions of others, I helped the video about Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony go viral. But I knew quickly that despite its creators’ good intentions, Kony 2012 is a flawed campaign that promotes an incomplete form of activism.

VIRAL SENSATION: In less than a week, the Kony 2012 video campaign was viewed by more than 100 million people, including countless high school and college students.

Like most everyone today, I am wired, wireless, and connected. Like millions upon millions, I also was drawn to the Kony 2012 video. Produced by the San Diego-based human rights organization Invisible Children, the 30-minute documentary shines a light on the brutal crimes of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony (especialy his use of child soldiers) and presents a compelling call for his capture. A week after its release, the video already has been viewed more than 100 million times.

Working on a college campus like Seattle Pacific University requires a certain level of social media capacity and commitment. I guess this is how I justify my constant connection to the hit, trend, and tweeting world. Even for the stodgiest of universities, social media “skillz” have become a type of tool of the trade. So when Kony 2012 showed up on the Facebook pages of some of my students as “the greatest story ever told,” I slowed down from my busy schedule and watched the video.

Yes, I did my part to keep the Kony video “viral,” but my interest transcended the obvious curiosity. In fact, the Ugandan and Central African story was one I personally knew well. Many of my students over several years studied the Lord’s Resistance Army and Uganda. They led group presentations noting the complexity of a 26-year war of organized tribal and religiously affiliated groups. We knew Kony was no longer in Uganda, possibly since 2010, and his army was massively smaller than reported. Furthermore, we also regularly send teams of students around the world. We monitor everything from national security issues to communicating and partnering with indigenous leaders. Seattle Pacific University’s John Perkins Center has also hosted Central African leaders who lead reconciliation ministries throughout the region. Combined with my own multiple travels to Africa over the last 12 years, the Kony video was enlightening and troubling, frustrating and affirming, doubtful and hopeful.

It took a few days but eventually I began to share my thoughts. My bias is present and obvious. I favor a faithful, missional response rooted squarely and firmly in biblical justice. My experience and knowledge of these issues may account for something, but they may also lead to a sort of defensiveness. I own that as well. Holding both bias in one hand and defensiveness in the other, struggle with me to reflect on this global phenomenon.

The Limits of Awareness

Creating awareness in response to atrocities hidden in alleys and brothels, tenements and executive offices is very important. Awareness can lead to the pursuit of further education and activism. Awareness can inspire and create hope in the unseen places of our world. To that end awareness means we rejoice with them that rejoice and mourn with them that mourn.

Awareness can be viral in that it can lead to advocacy and activism. But what happens when those creating awareness simplify the message for easy consumption and unashamedly play to our often insular and over-inflated worldview that we can save the world? You get 100 million hits.

You also get passion-filled and loosely educated constituents attempting to become activists. To that end, we can thank the filmmakers for poorly educating millions on a very complex issue. Maybe “poorly” is too strong of a word. How about lightly educating millions?

But it is here I am reminded of John Perkins’s many sermons on “over-evangelizing the world too lightly.” The same can be said in regards to over-discipling the world too lightly.

Some describe the Kony video as a new form of the TV infomercial, light on facts but heavy on hype. The product being marketed can literally do everything for $19.99 plus shipping and handling. Honestly, I have no idea what $30, a bracelet, a T-shirt, and millions of hits on YouTube produces. I am not sure anyone knows. This is new territory in many ways.

Beyond Slacktivism

What I do know and fear is we run the risk of moving from true advocacy and activism, to what I heard on a recent news show labeled as “slacktivism.” I hope this word never makes it into Webster’s Dictionary, but we can easily assert a definition for this occasion.

KEEPING IT SIMPLE: Filmmaker Jason Russell, co-founder of Invisible Children and the director "Kony 2012," agrees with critics who have called the film oversimplified. "It was deliberately made that way," he says. (Photo: Brendan McDermid/Newscom)

Slacktivism is feeling satisfied that one has contributed to ending injustice in the world because they have pressed the send button. This is in no way to diminish from the importance of giving of money to support a cause or to make light of informing people about a great injustice. And maybe for some people pressing the send button while sipping a latte is a good start. But can we all agree that it should not be the only missional proposition to millions of viewers? If you really have the platform and ability to tell a great story, please encourage us to do more than purchase a kit. If nothing else, we privileged people need that encouragement.

We need the type of encouragement Jesus provided both in word and in deed. The scripture that says “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” has made its way into my reflection time more than once this past week.

So maybe we should evaluate the integrity of the Kony 2012 video by its ability to inspire churches to build partnerships with ministry leaders in Uganda, send ministry teams to conferences to learn what God is doing in other parts of the world, and organize students across the nation to form prayer teams for Africa and American relationships. Or maybe the video should simply prompt us to connect with the Central African community in our neighborhood. At the very least, it should challenge us to do more than just send money.

Be aware, and be a giver. But also be educated. Be an advocate. Be an activist.

Be a servant. Then you will be like Jesus.

About the author, Tali Hairston

Tali Hairston is special assistant to the president at Seattle Pacific University and director of the John M. Perkins Center for Reconciliation, Leadership Training, and Community Development. As director of the Perkins Center, Tali leads SPU in its efforts to advance the message and ministry of reconciliation and community development. He has traveled throughout South and Central Africa and Southeast Asia, exploring the implications of reconciliation and global urban community development.
  1. Very well written and fair to the creators who had good intentions all along.

  2. Hi Tali, Thank you for this post. I SO appreciated the paragraph that ended with “Holding both bias in one hand and defensiveness in the other, struggle with me to reflect on this global phenomenon.” Love that.

    I wanted to respond that I believe you are right on. However, I’ve followed Invisible Children for the past four years and have seen all their videos except (ha ha) the Kony video. I’m very familiar with their ethos, programs and website. And what I notice in the critiques I’ve read is an unfamiliarity with just how deep this organization goes. They do, indeed, “encourage us to do more than purchase a kit” by encouraging ongoing support for schooling for Ugandan children, radio towers and alert systems for LRA-threatened communities in the DRC, support for reintegration of young people who have escaped being enslaved and more.

    While I definitely agree with you that this treatment probably misrepresents the subject matter, but I think there are hundreds of thousands of former college students who are now young adult advocates because of a deeper exposure to Invisible Children. One even did lay down his life for his friends in 2010 when he was killed in the 2010 World Cup bombings in Kampala — his first trip to work with Invisible Children in Uganda after being an advocate, getting the word out across the U.S. for years.

    So thank you for reminding us not to merely be slacktivists but to find some way to deepen our resolve about Central Africa!

  3. Wonderful & thoughtful replied. I value the voice of a constructive critique.

  4. Tali, I would love to know your take on how Invisible Children has managed to get a highly reluctant government in America to even send 100 military advisors in the pursuit of the elusive Kony.

    Next, I understand well that we all must be willing to lay down our lives for our brothers, but for Christians as well as non-Christians this sometimes is something that is just too frightening, and to many, so needlessly sacrificial to even venture risking their life for— even under a biblical mandate and assurance that losing your life for His sake will lead to your finding it. But as you said until our activism gets to the level of being ready to give up our lives for our brothers and against cruel injustice, we are by default relegated to the status of slacktivists who sip lattes and push buttons allowing the cruelty to continue. To have a cause carries its share of risks, and over the years I’ve seen causes fold up into nothingness because when it was time to lay down ones life suddenly everyone heard their mamas calling them in from play, and they went home.

    And having said that I don’t even know if I would lay down my life for my brother. I’d like to think I would, but I just don’t really know if I would. And those that insist that they would without a doubt, how do they know?

    Tali, I enjoyed your tracking with you..

  5. As a graduate of Seattle Pacific and someone whose sister works for Invisible Children, I feel compelled to respond. While I agree with your point that activism should go far beyond giving money, I think that it’s unfair to suggest that this has been Invisible Children’s only suggestion. During my time at SPU, I took part in two different IC events that aimed to create awareness about LRA violence– the Global Night Commute and Displace Me. These events were about giving of our time, and hoped to give us the smallest taste of what our brothers and sisters experience across the globe. These events had a tremendous impact on me. It’s disappointing to see so many criticisms of KONY 2012 that don’t take IC’s incredible programs and past videos into account. The goal of their most recent video was to raise awareness– its creators had no idea that so many people would view it so quickly. It’s not perfect, and cannot possibly cover the complexities of 26 years of LRA violence…. but it’s amazing to me to hear so many criticisms that don’t offer up any alternatives. To that end, I really appreciate your suggestions of forming prayer teams and connecting with the local Central African community. I just wonder why that has to be accompanied by a title saying that Kony 2012 missed the mark.
    I’d encourage you to watch this video, giving details about what has happened since KONY 2012 aired. http://vimeo.com/39084802