In the monthly "Ethical Inquiry" series, we examine ethical questions, highlighting a broad array of opinion from journalism, academia, and advocacy organizations. Our intent is to illuminate and explore the complexity of some of the most vexing ethical questions of our time.

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Ethical Inquiry: April 2012

KONY 2012 poster

Poster from Invisible Children's "KONY 2012" Campaign


“Something is changing. Now, the people of the world see each other and can protect each other.”

– Jason Russell, “KONY 2012” video,

"The problem with this video is that by compressing a complicated issue into a half hour, viewers leave with few facts but an inebriating urge to join the cause."

– Shafaq Hasan, columnist, The Justice “Kony video misleads, manipulates its viewers

The Ethics of Advocacy: KONY 2012

The unprecedented popularity of the 30-minute “KONY 2012” video has brought criticism.

Produced by the non-profit organization Invisible Children, a San Diego-based non-profit organization, the online viral video sensation focuses on Joseph Kony, head of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a Ugandan guerilla force that has also operated in The Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Sudan and South Sudan.

So many articles, blogs, websites and other commentaries and analyses have criticized the video from various standpoints that Invisible Children has dedicated an entire section of its website to addressing the critiques.

Critiques have included questions about the organization, about its goals, about its methods, about whether its KONY 2012 campaign can really make any impact toward its stated goal, capturing Joseph Kony and bringing him to justice at the International Criminal Court.

On a broader scale, the unprecedented success of Invisible Children’s KONY 2012 viral campaign raises questions about the ethics of advocacy in today’s digital and connected age.

The worldwide controversy has even reached the Brandeis campus, with students expressing opinions both in support of and critiquing the campaign. A sample of this range of opinions can be seen in the “Brandeis Talks Back” video on the topic from student newspaper The Justice. A column in The Justice, “Kony video misleads, manipulates its viewers highlighted some of the negative reactions to the campaign.

In this “Ethical Inquiry” we will look at some of the questions that have been touched on in the current controversy surrounding this video.


Who Should Advocate?

Who has the right to advocate and act? Should the people affected by the advocacy have a voice in the advocacy efforts? To what degree?

Part of the concern surrounding KONY 2012 resonates with a perennial question: is activism from a distant position of privilege good? Should advocates focus on the contexts they know best or the groups they belong to? (For additional exploration of the question of whether advocates should focus on the contexts they know best or the groups they belong to see the “Ethical Inquiry" “How Should I Choose My Commitments to Causes?”)

KONY 2012 has become the most "viral" video in the history of the internet, viewed more than 100 million times by people all over the world. However, nearly all of the showings of the film in Uganda (where many were unable to actually view it) have been greeted by negative or hostile receptions from viewers (See “'Kony' Screening Inflames Ugandans” ­– Wall Street Journal).

Ugandans have reacted negatively for different reasons. Some feel that they are still dealing with the scars of Kony’s terror and “would rather be left alone.” Others objected that the film focuses more on “white people than Ugandans.” Blogger and journalist Rosebell Kagumire is quoted by the New York Times saying “If you show me as voiceless, as hopeless, I have no space telling my story. You shouldn’t be telling my story if you don’t believe that I also have the power to change what’s going on.” (See Rosebell Kagumire’s YouTube response to "KONY 2012".)

It appears that this form of advocacy has been enacted on behalf of Ugandans, but without the input or permission of all Ugandans.

On the other hand, some have pointed to positive aspects of Invisible Children’s advocacy on behalf of victims of Kony’s reign. Nicholas Kristof writes in the New York Times that the makers of the video should be applauded for “galvanizing young Americans to look up from their iPhones and seek to make a difference....” He also suggests that it is a human burden to use one’s available resources to fight such injustice as the “kill[ing]and torture” that continues to be perpetrated by Joseph Kony.

Critics argue that the KONY 2012 effort “echoed the ideas in Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “The White Man’s Burden,” written in 1899 to urge Americans to embrace their imperial destiny and rule over the 'new-caught, sullen peoples,' of the Philippines — even though the typical native was 'half-devil and half-child.'” (New York Times: “African Critics of Kony Campaign See a ‘White Man’s Burden’ for the Facebook Generation”)

Invisible Children has responded to this criticism by stating, “we quickly learned that a top-down, Western approach was not the answer...over 95% of Invisible Children’s leadership and staff on the ground are Ugandans...”

Yet the video is framed as a lecture by a white American middle-class man to his 5-year-old son.


Nuance vs Impact: Oversimplification in the Name of Advocacy?

Is nuance and precision most important in an advocacy campaign, or is impact more important? Are they mutually exclusive? Is getting the message out there at the expense of education, information or balanced reporting justifiable?

Advocacy messages such as the one presented in may simplify an issue in order to reach a broader audience by presenting a simpler or more easily understood message. Getting tens of millions of people to know about an issue might require some simplification. But what of simplification and omission leads to misunderstandings, misleading elements, and even untruths?

Does the video’s “oversimplification and vilification of one man” make it “harder for real reconciliation among those in country to take place”?

Critics have labeled the "KONY 2012" video as overly simplistic, minimizing the complexities involved in actually catching Joseph Kony. Jason Russell of Invisible Children himself said in an interview that the video “oversimplifies the issue.” But he went on to assert that the video is not intended to be an answer, but rather a “gateway into the conversation.”

Yet some have questioned whether this video really encourages people to enter into a conversation, or is instead persuading viewers to accept Invisible Children’s particular ideology.

Jason Mogus, CEO and principal strategist at Communicopia, a digital strategy firm supporting social mission organizations, writes the “...#1 criticism of IC's [Invisible Children’s] work, [is] that they over-simplified (or manipulated) the issue, lacking nuance on the complexity of the situation. But,” he writes, “the fact that they made this video for their audiences, not for their policy specialists, is the secret of their success....What IC has really given its supporters is not information or policy precision, but hope and a crystal clear theory of change where individuals feel welcome contributing.”

And what should be the response? Besides its simple claim to make Joseph Kony “famous,” the KONY 2012 campaign also wants to catch him and bring him to justice in a particular way. In an open letter written on March 7th, they urge President Obama to “sustain the deployment of U.S. advisors until the LRA no longer poses a serious threat to civilians” among other actions. Essentially, they are advocating for sending American advisors and troops to Africa to work to catch Kony.

However, this is just one of the many strategies that might be used to bring Joseph Kony to justice. Others include local military action, International Criminal Court Trial, and a truce with promise of amnesty in a third nation.

There are possible dangers in the alternatives to Kony. Some argue that the strategy being advocated in the "KONY 2012" video is not the right one, and that a regional political solution is preferable to military intervention. (See also “Kony 2012 and the Failed Fantasy of Firepower in Libya, Syria, Uganda…” and “Joseph Kony Is Infamous — But Will He Be Caught?”)

Furthermore, some argue that humanitarians are not well-positioned to make these decisions.  Should strategy choices be left to the experts? And who should be considered “the experts?”

A review in the Harvard International Law Journal of David Kennedy’s The Dark Sides of Virtue: Reassessing International Humanitarianism notes Kennedy’s argument that “humanitarians often mistakenly assume that because their actions are well-intentioned, they will have only benefits.”


Is "Raising Awareness" a Proper Use of Funds?

A last question related to the "KONY 2012" video relates to whether raising and spending money to use on awareness and lobbying is acceptable. Should all efforts and funds be directed exclusively to direct aid to those in need? Or is it okay for non-governmental organizations ("NGOs") to spend on advocacy, rather than the true “substance” of their missions?

Is Invisible Children simply a self-sustaining entity making little or no substantive contribution to the greater good? Is it selling its own products simply to fund its own staff to make more videos and sell more products to fund its own staff? Or is raising awareness itself a substantive act? Do advocacy efforts like KONY 2012 really make an impact on the situation that they aim to improve?

TMS Ruge, cofounder of Project Diaspora, an organization “to motivate, engage and mobilize the African Diaspora to take an active role in Africa’s development, asserts that “[t]his IC [Invisible Children] campaign is a perfect example of how fund-sucking NGO’s survive. ‘Raising awareness’ (as vapid an exercise as it is) on the level that IC does, costs money. Loads and loads of money. Someone has to pay for the executive staff, fancy offices, and well, that 30-minute grand-savior, self-crowning exercise in ego stroking — in HD — wasn’t free. In all this kerfuffle, I am afraid everyone is missing the true aim of IC’s brilliant marketing strategy. They are not selling justice, democracy, or restoration of anyone’s dignity. This is a self-aware machine that must continually find a reason to be relevant. They are, in actuality, selling themselves as the issue, as the subject, as the panacea for everything that ails me as the agency-devoid African. All I have to do is show up in my broken English, look pathetic and wanting. You, my dear social media savvy click-activist, will shed a tear, exhaust Facebook’s like button, mobilize your cadre of equally ill-uninformed netizens to throw money at the problem.”

While Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post differentiates between raising awareness and actually helping a cause, others have argued that raising awareness is itself a substantive act. Tyler Cusick of The Harvard Political Review writes, “A human rights documentary has as many views on the Internet as a Nicki Minaj music video, people care about Central Africa and child soldiers, and Washington and the African Union have responded. I would wager that a fair number of people were introduced to the nation of Uganda by watching this video. KONY 2012 is struggling against ignorance.” While "KONY 2012" may not be an answer to the problems surrounding Joseph Kony’s continued presence in Central Africa, this argument contends that the act of drawing attention and sparking conversation is a meaningful action in its own right.

The method of advocacy being used by Invisible Children – a short video viewed online and shared via social media such as Facebook and Twitter – has come into question as particularly ineffective.

In “Hashtag Activism, and Its Limits” by media critic David Carr in the New York Times expresses skepticism towards the use of social media as activism tool, referencing the “hashtag” technique used to call attention to statements on Twitter related to a topic or theme: “...I have to admit I’m starting to experience a kind of “favoriting” fatigue — meaning that the digital causes of the day or week are all starting to blend together. Another week, another hashtag, and with it, a question about what is actually being accomplished.”

Others say that KONY 2012 is an example of “slacktivism,” activism that does not require real effort or thought, merely “a click, a retweet, a share ­– or perhaps a small donation.” In a humorous clip, Jon Stewart and the team of the satirical “Daily Show” imply that the impact of YouTube videos on young people, while dramatic by the numbers, is fleeting and superficial – and can be easily manipulated.


Yet Carr also acknowledges a sense of the promise and accomplishments of these methods of advocacy, referencing several recent social media-driven advocacy campaigns: “Many of the folks who made the unpopular decision at Komen are gone and the policy has been amended. Trayvon Martin’s death is under investigation and the president is now weighing in directly. And who knows, perhaps the Web-enabled sunlight on Joseph Kony will end with him being brought to justice, finally. Sure, hashtags come and go, and the so-called weak ties of digital movements are no match for real world engagement. But they are not only better than nothing, they probably make the world, the one beyond the keyboard, a better place.”

Sheldon Himelfarb, Associate Vice President of the United States Institute of Peace, also notes the promise and challenge of new media, writing “[f]or the first time in human history we all have this power to make media – take pictures, publish information – and send them around the world with the push of a button for little or no cost. It is no surprise, therefore, that we still have so much to learn about how to harness this awesome new capability,” while suggesting that its use in the KONY 2012 case and in the Arab Spring “…show us how little we know about this brave new world – where we are all media makers for a global audience – and the new potential we possess for driving positive and peaceful social change.”

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney asserted that President Obama backs those behind the KONY 2012 campaign. The New York Daily News reported that Carney said that “the video is worthy because it raises awareness,” and is “‘consistent with the bipartisan legislation passed by our congress in 2010'" noting that "'the United States continues to pursue a comprehensive multi-faceted strategy to help the governments and people of Central Africa in their efforts to end the threat posed by the LRA and reduce the human consequences of the LRA's atrocities.’"

The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno Ocampo, also supports KONY 2012’s campaign to make people around the world aware of this war criminal.

Final Thoughts

Many other questions are raised by the "KONY 2012" video and campaign. Among them, what are the implications of making a political advocacy campaign very personal? The video is centered on Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell, using the narrative device of him talking to his 5-year-old son. Was making it personal too risky? When Russell later publicly exhibited strange behavior it was reported that the stress of the backlash and criticism was particularly painful for him because of the very personal nature of the video – and of some of the criticism. In addition to the personal impact on Russell, did the personal nature of the campaign mean that the cause he was trying to help will suffer from any personal problems he might have?

The "KONY 2012" video and campaign have sparked substantial debate and controversy, and raise important questions about the future of activism, particularly the effect that social media can have over our attention and action. Whether or not Invisible Children’s particular course of action is the best way to seek justice for Kony, it has certainly brought more attention to a person and cause previously unfamiliar to many Americans and others around the world.

Have suggestions for additional content that looks at the ethical issues surrounding the ethics of advocacy? Let us know:

This installment of "Ethical Inquiry" was researched and written by Leah Igdalsky ’14. See another “Ethical Inquiry” authored by Igdalsky: “How Should I Choose My Commitments to Causes?”

For further exploration of some of the dilemmas explored in this Ethical Inquiry: