Not All Activism is Good Activism

I’ll be honest with you: whenever I see a social media campaign going viral, I get suspicious.

It’s not because I think people are evil or stupid, or because I dislike popular things (although that is often the case). It’s because for anything to become popular, it must be simple, easy-to-understand, without nuance.

The violence in Uganda is none of these things.

I have not posted the Kony 2012 video to my Facebook like so many of my friends have. That is because I don’t know–I can’t know, really–if the video does justice to the reality in Uganda. If you haven’t seen it yet, you can watch the video here.

My views on this subject are much more complex than the act of posting a video. That’s why I’ve chosen to add my two cents not by reposting it, but by writing this.

First of all, look at some other types of activism that have gone viral lately. There were the SlutWalks, started when a Toronto cop told a bunch of students that women should avoid “dressing like sluts” in order to not be raped. SlutWalk consists of some very simple concepts: Don’t blame women for their own rapes. It’s not about what they’re wearing. And, by the way, what’s so bad about being a “slut?”

Then there was Occupy Wall Street, and all the other Occupy protests it spawned. The message of OWS was simple, too: there is too much damn inequality. The gap between the One Percent and the 99 Percent is too wide. Wall Street’s gains have become excessive.

There’s obviously plenty to criticize about SlutWalk and OWS. The former has been accused of marginalizing the voices of non-white, non-hetero, non-middle class women and pandering to the very sexist forces it seeks to combat by having women march around in their underwear.

The latter, meanwhile, has been criticized for being too ambiguous, not having specific demands for the government or for the financial sector, being anarchist/socialist/Communist, being unrealistic, consisting of too many people who supposedly majored in something stupid in college and don’t deserve jobs anyway.

But for all of their failures, SlutWalk and OWS have ensured that the issues of victim-blaming and economic inequality have entered our public dialogue–and stayed in it.

Kony 2012 seeks to do a similar thing. By “making Kony famous,” its creators insist, we can place Joseph Kony on the public agenda and “do something” about his terrible crimes.

But this is where things start to get dicey.

First of all, let me just say that I think awareness is extremely important. I think that American citizens, as a whole, aren’t nearly aware enough of what’s going on in their own backyards, let alone on another continent. More awareness, in my opinion, is almost always better than less awareness.

So on that front, I commend Invisible Children and the Kony 2012 campaign. The video they have created is well-made in a way that ensures that nobody who watches it can remain ambivalent about what’s going on in Uganda.

However, the purpose of the video isn’t just to spread awareness. It’s to raise money.

For what, exactly?

Invisible Children supports military intervention–yes, you read that correctly–to stop Kony. Specifically, the money it raises goes towards supporting Uganda’s government and its army, which Kony’s LRA is fighting against.

But here’s the sad, sad irony of the situation: Uganda’s army is likely just as bad as Kony’s. It has also been reported to use child soldiers and has been accused of raping civilians and looting their property.

Guys, I don’t know how else to say this: do not give money to these people.

Besides this glaring issue, Invisible Children has also been criticized for their own actions as a charity organization. Last year, they spent about 8.7 million dollars, but only 32% of that money went to direct services. The rest covered the organization’s internal costs.

I know what you’re thinking: yeah, yeah, that’s any charity. Sure, all charities have to cover certain costs before they can contribute money to the actual causes that they support. However, not all charities are as bad about this as Invisible Children, which was rated 2/4 stars by Charity Navigator.

Here’s another thing not all charities do, but Invisible Children does. That’s right, they’re actually posing with guns and soldiers from the Ugandan army. This is unprofessional at best and narcissistic and self-congratulatory at worst. (Here’s the source.)

According to Foreign Affairs magazine, Invisible Children has also exaggerated its “facts” about the LRA in order to gain support. Now, some people don’t see much of a problem with this. Whatever keeps the checks coming, right?

Needless to say, I disagree. If you need to manipulate information in order to raise money, you’re not behaving ethically, and that’s the case whether you’re a Fortune 500 company or a non-profit. That’s just what I believe.

Fortunately, there are plenty of more reputable charities that provide aid to Uganda. Here are some: War Child, Children of Uganda, Kiva (you can make microloans to people all over the world, including, obviously, Uganda). Some great organizations that aren’t specific to Uganda are Doctors Without Borders, Help International, Women for Women.

So giving money to Invisible Children might not be the best idea, especially if you don’t want your money going to an army that rapes people. But what about the other half of Kony 2012′s mission, raising awareness?

I’m not sure how making Kony a “household name” is going to help things, to be honest. Unlike campaigns like SlutWalk and OWS, which targeted ordinary American citizens to make themselves aware of issues they can actually do something about, Invisible Children wants to stop a powerful Ugandan warlord. But contrary to their claims that Kony needs to be “made famous,” he’s already quite well-known among the people who matter. The International Criminal Court indicted him for war crimes back in 2005, and the American government has already had Kony on their radar for some time. In fact, as the Foreign Affairs article I linked to above discusses, they’ve been sending troops there for a while. So far, though, they haven’t succeeded in actually capturing him.

But even that raises difficult questions. Does Invisible Children want the United States to intervene militarily in order to stop Kony? If so, how is this any different from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (which, ironically, were strongly opposed by the very same progressive-minded people who are now feverishly posting the Kony video on Facebook)? And if not, what exactly are ordinary Americans supposed to do upon learning about Kony?

These are all questions that aren’t really being asked in the rush to spread an admittedly powerful and emotional video. But they need to be asked. You’ve Facebooked it, you’ve Tweeted it, you’ve favorited the video on YouTube. Now what?

Unfortunately, just the act of asking these questions, and of suggesting that Invisible Children may not be winning any awards for the world’s most ethical charity, is frowned upon. Every article and Facebook post I’ve come across that criticizes this campaign has been deluged with comments about how “they’re just trying to do a good thing” and “why do you have to criticize everything.”

Ah, the age-old question–why, indeed, must we criticize everything?

Here’s the thing. The stakes are quite a bit higher here than for other viral campaigns. If SlutWalk fails, nothing happens. If Occupy Wall Street fails, nothing happens. If Kony 2012 fails, nothing may happen–or, Uganda’s army will obtain more power that it can use to rape more people and enslave more child soldiers. Kony may be captured and someone else may take over who is even crueler. The United States may become involved in yet another costly foreign entanglement.

Another fact worth noting is that many, many African writers (including Ugandan ones) have been criticizing this campaign very strongly. Now, I’m not one of those people who claim that Americans have no place doing charity work in Africa because White Man’s Burden, but I do think that when the very people you’re trying to help are criticizing the help you’re providing, you need to sit down and listen. I’ve included some links to these criticisms at the end of this post.

I keep hearing the remark that criticizing Kony 2012 only “brings down morale” and keeps people from donating money. However, as long as the criticism is factual–that is, as long as Invisible Children really does support the Ugandan army and really is only spending a third of its money on actual aid to Uganda–then those are facts that potential donors ought to know before they make their decision.

If you’re relying on misinformation or lack of information to get people to donate to your cause, what you’re spreading isn’t awareness. It’s propaganda.

As I said before, awareness is important. But a free society thrives on dialogue. Posting a video and then condemning everyone who dares to criticize it is not dialogue.

These are, quite literally, matters of life or death. This is not the time to be upbeat and positive about everything you hear just because you don’t want to rain on the parade.

For more perspectives on Kony and Invisible Children’s campaign, here are some good sources: