Kony 2012 Poster. Wikimedia Commons

Click, Cry and Move on?

A recent YouTube video marked a milestone in social networking: in less than a week, it captured the attention of over 100 million people. Some students around the U.S. explored the phenomenon, acknowledging that only a relationship can truly move us.
Tricia Branagan

“For two days solid, it was all over Twitter,” says Taylor Forman, a senior at Broad Run High School in Ashburn, Virginia, of the “Kony 2012” video. “Everyone was tweeting about it. Even guys cried.” Flannery McGale, a senior at Brookewood School for Girls in Kensington, Maryland, agrees that the video had a powerful effect. “I was really kind of in awe,” she says. “It opened up to me the whole world outside of middle-class America. My whole life, it had always seemed so far away, but this time I felt like I could be a part of it. It was surreal.”

The “Kony 2012” video, released March 5th by a U.S.-based non-governmental organization called “Invisible Children,” became an instant social media success–the most viral video of all time. Thanks to a Twitter push by celebrities such as Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Angelina Jolie, and Oprah, in just six days, “Kony 2012” captured the attention of over 100 million people in the U.S. and around the world.

The 30-minute video tells of the atrocities perpetrated by Joseph Kony, head of Uganda’s so-called “Lord’s Resistance Army” (LRA), through the eyes of a witness, Jacob, whose brother was kidnapped and killed. The LRA terrorized northern Uganda for two decades, kidnapping children and forcing them to become child soldiers and sex slaves. The video claims to be “an experiment” of the power of the people and social media. It invites the viewers to take concrete action to stop Kony, by sharing the video as widely as possible and ordering “action kits” so that the world will know who Kony is, putting pressure on government leaders to arrest him and bring him to justice.
Flannery was so moved by the video, she bought the “action kit.” “I’m so American in my mentality, I had to do something,” she explains. The action kits sold out within a few days of the unexpected and unprecedented success of the video.

The social media frenzy was quickly seized on by the traditional mass media outlets. Suddenly, the director, Jason Russell, was being interviewed by television reporters across the U.S. He came under fire for oversimplifying the story and for neglecting to mention that Kony was no longer in Uganda and that the war has been over for six years. Journalists and pundits criticized him for using too many white people to tell a story about Africa. Even the Ugandans seemed to hate the film: they threw vegetables at the screen during the showing of the film there.

“The arrest of Kony would be justice, yes, but not justice that is a magic bullet,” explained John Makoha, Uganda Country Representative for AVSI, a non-profit organization which runs many projects for the Ugandans most affected by the conflict. He and some of his colleagues recently visited New York and Washington, D.C., to present the results of a successful micro-enterprise program for vulnerable women. “The video is kind of a diversion. We have 2 million people who have lived in hardship for 26 years... the need is now more intense than before. The people of Uganda did not see the contribution of that film to their lives or to the unemployment problem.”
All of the media pressure led Russell to a nervous breakdown, which was unfortunately caught on video. The meteoric balloon of success was popped. It seemed the phenomenon was over as quickly as it had begun. Twitter and Facebook were once again filled with the banal details of what people had for breakfast, who was seen with whom, and who was wearing what.

Truly engaged. For Gioventù Studentesca (GS) leaders in the U.S., all the buzz surrounding Kony 2012 created an opportunity to examine the issues at a deeper level. When these adults–most of them teachers–realized that their students were excited about the video and it was garnering an inordinate amount of media attention, they invited the students to reflect on what it meant in terms of justice and charity.

“These kinds of things provoke a sentimental reaction. We have a need for justice, and as Americans we want to ‘fix it’ by sending in an army to take care of Joseph Kony, yet lack the commitment to truly engage with a problem and with the people who have a problem,” states Barbara Gagliotti, a teacher at Brookewood. She notes that simply changing a profile picture or “liking” a Facebook page may make people feel good about themselves, but she questions whether this behavior has any real value. “It is not charity in the sense of uniting yourself to another, bearing the suffering of another. Nor does it recognize the fact that we all connive with evil.”

Joseph McPherson, headmaster at Brookewood, adds, “It is like Victorian ladies who cried reading Dickens and never did anything in their lives to alleviate suffering or consider how they themselves might be the cause of suffering in others. They had a false sense of themselves as moral beings, but ‘Only God is good.’ We can do good things to drown out evil, but it always involves real sacrifice and not just good will.”

A Skype encounter. In New York City, Monica Canetta’s 7th and 8th grade students at the Cathedral School brought the video to her attention because they knew she had lived in Uganda, and they wanted to know more about the war and Joseph Kony. Canetta watched the video with her students and then set up a Skype conversation at the school with her friend Agnes, a kidnapping victim from Uganda who is now a human rights lawyer. Agnes explained to the teens that, as a high school student, she lived at a boarding school in northern Uganda. In the middle of the night, the LRA rebels broke into the school and kidnapped 139 students. The nun in charge ran after the rebels, pleading for the children’s lives.The rebels returned most of the children, but kept 30 of them, including Agnes, who escaped a short time later.

Agnes told the students that the real drama today is meeting the needs of the kidnapping victims, many of whom are having great difficulty returning to normal society. While Agnes’s family welcomed her back, many other families will not let their children come home, now that the war has ended. In many cases, the families are afraid of the victims, who were forced to commit so much evil. Some of those kidnapped are also having great difficulty coming to terms with what they were forced to do and find it hard to forgive themselves.

Canetta notes that despite its flaws, the starting point of the video was positive. “I like the fact that the video is born from the friendship between the producer and the Ugandan boy, and Russell wants to communicate something positive to his son,” she said. The video also showed her that the “religious sense” of her students and the other young people is still very much alive, and it makes them want to act. “This need is so raw that these American young people wanted to do something; they wanted to participate. They want justice,” she said.

In Boston, the G.S. group at Cristo Rey High School discussed the impact of the video and created a flyer to hand out to their classmates: “Even when Kony is caught, the damage to 30,000 lives is irrevocable, and our best social measures towards retributive justice become inadequate to the problem. If anything, we should be discussing education, rebuilding families, villages, and rebuilding life in Uganda–which are much more pressing to prevent future atrocities.... As one of our friends has said: ‘More than anything this situation makes me cry out, ‘Why? Why does evil like this exist?’ It humbles us and makes us grateful to have experienced that life has a value and dignity...”
For Flannery, the opportunity to discuss the video with the adults in G.S. was helpful: “If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t have questions like ‘What is justice?’ or ‘What does it mean for me?’ I’m still grateful for the video and for the attention it brought. It is the most human thing that’s been a sensation in a long time.”

Pen-pal friends. Friday, April 20th, was supposed to have been the culmination of the Kony 2012 social media activism. Invisible Children had called on its supporters to “Cover the Night” with posters and gestures to make Kony’s face visible in cities all around the world. Yet the smattering of posters hung in cities across the U.S. on April 20th was so negligible that it failed to garner press attention.

For Canetta’s students, however, the questions brought about by the video meant the start of something new: a friendship with Agnes and the desire to know more. Canetta and some of her friends in New York have been sponsoring three children in distance adoptions in Uganda for four years. “At my school, we decided to start a pen-pal friendship with these Ugandan kids we ‘adopted’ to see what happens with that; it might be the beginning of a friendship. My students said this is the way to learn more about what is going on in Uganda,” she said. “We discovered that education begins with a relationship, not an action kit.”

Tax-deductible donations for recovery activities in Uganda can be made online at www.avsi-usa.org or by check to AVSI-USA sent to 529 14th Street, Suite 994, Washington, DC 20045.