If you are looking for the precise moment when the viral campaign against Ugandan rebel Joseph Kony turned to farce, it was probably at 6:21 pm on Friday March 9.
“Have you heard of this guy Joseph Kony?,” asked the rapper-turned-reality-star Vanilla Ice, in a tweet from Dallas. “America needs to send in the hero’s that killed Bin Laden and take this killer out.”
Mr. Ice’s blasé interventionism was retweeted over fifty times, reflecting both the reach of the haves on social media—the anti-Kony video drew a record-breaking 95 million views thanks to tweets from Oprah, Justin Bieber and Kim Kardashian—and a newfound name recognition for Mr. Kony, who was unknown to most millennials before March 5. That was the day the “Kony 2012” video was released on YouTube and Vimeo.
The sleek, twenty-nine-minute production from the Invisible Children NGO perfectly demonstrates the urgent, uplifting arc of successful web campaigns. It is part Obama 2008, part Bono—we are all connected, we all share the same core values, we have the power to solve our problems, and we can feel better about them today. The film argues that Joseph Kony is a murderous war criminal who will be stopped if we do our part to “make him famous,” by lobbying, donating and, of course, sharing our advocacy online. There is even a picture imagining the future front-page account of Kony’s capture. And while the filmmakers should not be held responsible for every silly celebrity tweet issued in response, they have courted stars with no demonstrated interest in Uganda. In fact, even after the video’s viral success put it on the front page of Friday’s New York Times, creator Jason Russell was still looking for more A-listers. “We are ready to make this bigger,” he told the Times, “We are waiting for Jay-Z [to trumpet the cause].”
Critics have lined up against the notion that any more sheer promotion—for Mr. Kony, Mr. Russell or his NGO—is constructive at this point.
In a widely distributed rebuttal, Michael Wilkerson, a journalist who worked on a Fulbright fellowship in Uganda, argues that the film packs an emotional wallop by distorting the facts. “Joseph Kony is not in Uganda and hasn’t been for 6 years,” Wilkerson stresses, and while the film suggests an ongoing atrocity, Kony’s former soldiers have dwindled to “at most in the hundreds.” Another writer, Ugandan journalist Angelo Izama, said the effort misrepresents the problem, stoking a sense of ongoing conflict when the “alleged crimes in Northern Uganda are from a bygone era.”