Joseph Kony achieves online infamy

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A Ugandan rebel leader has become the subject of international social media hype. Kony2012, a video documentary about Joseph Kony has focused global attention on his war crimes... while sparking criticism about the charity behind the video.

The Lord’s Resistance Army led by Joseph Kony has been operating for about 25 years and is nowadays far from front-page news. For the last week though, the whole world has been talking about his war crimes. This is thanks to the documentary and campaign Kony 2012, launched by the charity Invisible Children. The US-based group's aim was to make the rebel leader world-famous, thereby increasing pressure to finally get him arrested.

Joseph Kony and the LRA

Joseph Kony heads the rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army, which has been operating since 1987.

The group began in Uganda but is now active in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.

The list of LRA atrocities against civilians is long: murder, mutilation, rape, abduction, sexual slavery and the large-scale deployment of child soldiers.

In 2005, the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued an arrest warrant for Kony on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Despite this, he is still at large.

The campaign has already catapulted Kony to world fame. The video has gone viral and has had well over 20 million hits since Monday. Viral videos (short films which reach a global audience via the internet) are mostly amusing clips of pandas on roller-skates or toddlers falling from the tenth storey only to get up and walk away unhurt.

But a half-hour documentary about human rights abuses committed by an African rebel leader? Internet expert Roeland Stekelenburg says the film’s makers have been clever to exploit the ‘viral’ approach:

“They managed to get a number of American stars behind their campaign. These celebrities spread the news of the campaign via social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Then, as you often see with rumours around news, it spread like wildfire across the internet.”

‘Who is Kony?’
American superstars such as Rihanna, P Diddy and Vanessa Hudgens used Twitter to generate interest in the campaign. The result was that the hashtags, #stopkony en #kony2012, became trending topics on Twitter worldwide. Lots of countries were buzzing, including the Netherlands, with masses of Dutch teenagers becoming curious about the LRA leader’s activities.

Their questions about Joseph Kony are answered on the Invisible Children website, Kony2012, where the documentary film can be seen, a petition can be signed and money can be donated. Kony2012 T-shirts, armbands and posters are also for sale.

Turning point
The campaign’s enormous success has also attracted criticism. This has mostly targeted the Invisible Children organisation itself. It has been accused of manipulating the facts and of using only one-third of donations to actually help people in Uganda. The rest of the money is said to be spent on salaries, travel and making films.

Jedediah Jenkins of Invisible Children describes the criticism as short-sighted. She defends the campaign as being “a turning point, if you consider that young people now feel involved in an issue affecting the other side of the world which would otherwise be of no interest to them at all.”

Roeland Stekelenburg is guarded about the possible results of Kony2012:

“Posting positive comments on Facebook doesn’t mean you’re going to do something about it. People retweet Kony because everybody’s doing it. So I don’t know what the end result will be.”

Kony’s had his day
So, the whole world’s buzzing about Kony, but will the campaign change anything in Africa itself? Correspondent Koert Lindijer is sceptical.

“As so often with campaigns for Africa outside Africa, you see that the dynamic is mostly from the United States and Europe. In the region itself, Joseph Kony isn’t a priority anymore. The LRA doesn’t have real military clout now like it had a few years ago. And there are militias operating now, certainly in Congo, which are responsible for much more death and destruction than the LRA. This terror group has had its day.”

Watch a video from RNW’s Africa desk in response to Kony2012

Link to the Invisible Children site