Kony 2012: revolutionary, misguided, or just a scam?

Nine years ago, Jason Russell graduated from the University of Southern California after studying film. According to an interview with the New York Times, he was looking for a story to tell. What he got was Joseph Kony, a warlord that has allegedly kidnapped over 30,000 children in Uganda, turning girls into sex slaves and boys into soldiers for the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). He heard the horrors firsthand from a young Ugandan boy named Jacob Acaye, who escaped from Kony and his army after seeing them murder his brother. After hearing Jacob's story, Russell promised the boy that he would stop Kony and bring him to justice. On March 5, nine years later, Russell uploaded a thirty-minute film on YouTube about the horrors he had seen on his trip to Uganda, trying to bring visibility to his campaign, “Invisible Children.”

In an explosive show of social media power, the video had 80 million views within weeks of being posted. The video has generated more awareness in two weeks than diplomats and activists from around the world have been able to achieve in two decades.

“No one wants a boring documentary on Africa,” Russell said in an interview with the New York Times. “Maybe we have to make it pop, and we have to make it cool.”

Unfortunately, “cool” is coming at the cost of accuracy – the film implies the LRA is using up to 30,000 children as soldiers, yet various recent reports suggest the total number of fighters in the army may be down to hundreds. However, the accuracy is the least of the film’s problems.

The video’s intention is to capture Kony and bring him to justice, an admirable cause – but not a well appreciated one. The campaign has been heavily criticized for focusing more on capturing Kony than trying to help the actual child soldiers.

"We would prefer the focus on the children and the funding going to the children, rather than focusing purely on a military solution,” said Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN Secretary-General's special representative for children and armed conflict, at a London media briefing, adding a reminder that many of Kony’s soldiers are themselves children. That would make a military solution sent to rescue children ultimately counter-productive.

The campaign against child soldiers has been subject to much criticism about its finances as well as its intentions. Russell encouraged good-hearted Americans to join his cause by purchasing merchandise to make Kony internationally known and help bring him to justice – but it seems their money may not be helping Ugandans at all.

The Invisible Children blog page wrote that the non-profit organization spent over $8 million to make the film. However, only 32% went to direct services in Uganda while much of the rest was used on staff salaries, travel and film production, according to financial statements released by the organization.

It doesn’t help that Jason Russell was recently detained for public masturbation, vandalism, and public nudity, and is now receiving psychiatric care for “exhaustion.” Was he genuinely wrung out from activist efforts, or just partying on donations the video has brought him?

Between the finances, the intent, and the results, it seems like the video is a scam – at best, a very misguided effort that may just do more harm than good.