Independent on Sunday, 11 March 2012
It has become an internet sensation. Celebrities have rushed to offer support. The White House has congratulated the people who made it. Within a couple of days of being posted on YouTube, around 50 million people had watched Kony 2012, a short film about an African rebel leader. And I’m wondering whether I’ve seen the same video as everyone else, because when I watched it I wanted to throw up.
There’s no doubt that Joseph Kony is a nasty piece of work. His ridiculous Lord’s Resistance Army was responsible for countless murders, rapes and mutilations in his home country, Uganda, and he should be tried for crimes against humanity. But Kony’s soldiers were driven out of Uganda six years ago, leaving the country to get on with the process of rehabilitating child soldiers and girls forced into prostitution. Kony is thought to be hiding in a remote area of the Democratic Republic of Congo – so remote, indeed, that he may have missed the fact that he’s been targeted by a parade of smug celebrities.
“Dear Joseph Kony, I’m Gonna help Make you FAMOUS!!!!”, Sean Combs (aka the rapper P Diddy) warned last week. Combs is so serious about “stopping” Kony that he’s mobilised millions of followers on Twitter, ordering them to retweet his message. Rihanna, too, has added her name to the roster of stars urging an end to the non-existent slaughter of children in Uganda. Famous people emoting in a cause they know nothing about is hardly novel, but the internet has dramatically increased opportunities to look naïve, or downright foolish.
The celebrities squaring up to Kony are responding not to facts but to the film’s saccharine tone and its unashamed narcissism. It’s all about feeling good in return for not doing very much, and the rest of us can share in the glow by wearing a wristband, buying a campaign kit, and putting up posters. The aim is to turn Kony into the world’s most wanted man, which will supposedly put pressure on the United States government and the Ugandan army, itself accused of human-rights abuses, to track him down. A more urgent case could be made for “stopping” a number of people still in power, including Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir – Kony’s main backer and an indicted war criminal – and President Assad of Syria.
The film was made by an American organisation called Invisible Children. Quite why its activists think they’re helping kids in Uganda by launching a celebrity wild goose chase is a matter for them. One of several significant facts not mentioned in the film is that their own government has refused to sign up to the International Criminal Court, which is the only body with the legal and moral authority to try notorious war criminals.
But the most astonishing thing about the campaign is its total insensitivity to questions of race, power and representation: the film demands that we look at a nasty black man, Kony, through the eyes of a winsome white child with blond curls who happens to be the film-maker’s son. I’m not at all surprised it’s been greeted with anger and astonishment in Uganda.
Those who run Invisible Children have been accused of spending too much on administration and making films and not enough on helping children. But this is a morality tale for our times, showing what happens when well-meaning but utterly misguided people decide to utilise the power of the internet. Facts get lost, vanity goes viral – and a thuggish warlord trends on Twitter.