Invisible Children Needs to Stop “Having Fun” and Start Growing Up

By Shadee Ashtari

On March 5, 2012 the Invisible Children (IC) campaign released “KONY 2012,” a viral video that reached over 100 million views on YouTube and Vimeo within three weeks. The purpose of the video, according to IC, is to make indicted Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony internationally known in order to have him arrested by the time the campaign expires in December 2012. Shortly after the release of the film, however, criticisms of IC and its defensive rebuttals began to surface.

Many viewers immediately reposted the video to Facebook and Twitter with statuses like “Wow. Life changing” or “Watch this! Stop Kony!” Other viewers criticized the film for being overly white-centric, simplistic, and a misrepresentation of facts.

Personally, I am not arguing that Invisible Children’s general mission is flawed; in fact I commend their years of work in bringing a dark and serious issue to light. I am, however, arguing that if they are going to stand in front of not only the American public, but also a global viewership, to promote a message and solicit money, they better be prepared to defend every word they profess. Ultimately, I hold that despite the founders’ seemingly good intentions to raise awareness through film, they are young, immature, filmmakers—not educated diplomats. Moreover they not experienced charity organizers, and not tangibly law altering political figures.

This fact becomes blatantly clear as Jason Russell, one of the co-founders of Invisible Children, narrates and stars in “KONY 2012.” The film’s slick editing and obnoxious, self-satisfied voiceover seemed too polished in comparison to the grim subject matter such as child abduction and rape. Although I understand the film was targeted toward a younger audience, I hope my generation is more educated and analytical than this video assumes us to be.

Aside from my personal revulsion to the pretentious marketing strategy, there are deeper issues with this childish depiction of an intricate and tragic story. First, the slew of misinformation being pandered to visually hypnotized viewers. First, the video and campaign attempt to overwhelmingly depict the search for Kony as containable to Uganda, whereas the reality is that Joseph Kony has not been living in Uganda for several years.  As Mikaela Luttrell-Rowland adds in a Huffington Post article, “It grips viewers with claims that Kony has trained 30,000 children soldiers. But this number covers a 30-year span…The filmmakers definitely live in a time warp. They collapse past and present.”

Then, Jason Russell begins to sell the vast simplification of a deeply complicated issue. According to Invisible Children, “the only feasible and proper way to stop Kony and protect the civilians he targets is to improve the efforts of regional governments… The Ugandan military (UPDF) is a necessary piece in counter-LRA activities.”

Again, IC seems to be leaving out major inconvenient truths. Michael Deibert explains in another Huffington Post article “…the Ugandan government currently in power also came to power through the use of kadogo (child soldiers)…something that Invisible Children seems willfully ignorant of.”

Although it may be easier for Invisible Children to depict the last 30 years of Northern Uganda about Joseph Kony, the history between the Acholi people (from whom the LRA emerged) and the central government is far more complicated. In rebuttal to these criticisms, Jason Russell spoke out on television explaining that the video is purposely simple so that masses can understand the issue. Personally, I have more faith in my peers. I do not believe the warping of figures and situations is necessary to appeal to us.

So after these hoards of young “passionate” viewers finally find out what’s been going on for the past decade, the video not only does nothing to help them further their knowledge but it also leaves the question: who precisely is KONY 2012 telling the average American teenager to motivate? The U.S. government? No. According to a Policy on Point article, “The United States has already launched several attempts on the life of Joseph Kony. In fact, just in October, President Obama sent a ton of Special Forces into Africa to eradicate the LRA.” Perhaps the video is telling us to motivate the international community? No. The same article continues, “They have been on the case for years. The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Kony in 2005.”

The idea that Kony is at large because most people are unaware of his crimes against humanity is not only offensive, but blatantly false. Those who did not know are not likely to be those changing the world. As I read through blogs responding to the Kony 2012 video, one woman wrote, “My teenagers had me watch this video and they are passionate about trying to help stop Kony…My biggest surprise is that my girls are finding an interest in something other than boys…” Sadly, these teenage girls are the types of people re-posting a decade late KONY 2012 video, and this same type of ignorant audience niche unaware of a huge international issue because they have been too busy with “boys,” is not the type of person frankly that will matter in appeasing the situation in Uganda. Moreover, the video misinforms young people who are not aware of the international history behind the message. It leads them to think Kony is the problem, when in fact he is only a small part — especially considering the next four people after Kony on the International Criminal Court’s top wanted list are also Ugandan war criminals. It leads them to believe that the current Ugandan government is an ally to be trusted when in fact many officials within the government are just as bad as Kony. These misleading representations for the sake of mobilizing a mass movement of uneducated and trend-seeking youths does nothing but feed ignorance and aggravate other countries. Deibert adds, “By blindly supporting Uganda’s current government and its military adventures beyond its borders, as Invisible Children suggests that people do, Invisible Children is in fact guaranteeing that there will be more violence, not less, in Central Africa.”

Take Uganda’s reaction post-KONY 2012 release. An Al Jazeera reporter Malcolm Webb attended a screening of the film in Uganda and wrote:

“People I spoke to anticipated seeing a video that showed the world the terrible atrocities that they had suffered…and the ongoing struggles they still face trying to rebuild their lives after two lost decades…Towards the end of the film, the mood turned more to anger at what many people saw as a foreign, inaccurate account that belittled and commercialized their suffering, as the film promotes Kony bracelets and other fundraising merchandise, with the aim of making Kony infamous.”

The event ended with upset members of the audience throwing rocks at the screen and shouting aggressive criticisms.

Not only does the video offend Ugandans, but it also insults the intelligence of the American people with its vague, unwarranted, and illogical main premise: “if the government doesn’t believe the people care about Kony, the mission will be cancelled. In order for the people to care, they have to know. And they will only know if Kony’s name is everywhere.” As I watched the video, I sat in awe as Russell attempted to sell this blatant lie to its viewers. I have not been able to find any mention by the government of withdrawing the forces already in place. What then justifies this massive production campaign and multimillion dollar donation drive? As the aforementioned Policy Policy article confirms, “One would think that if the threat of withdrawing forces is so imminent that it demands a wide-ranging marketing campaign that will no doubt generate millions in donations someone besides the narrator of the film would have heard about it.”

This inaccurate fabrication only adds to their already unimpressive transparency rating by Charity Navigator: 2/4 stars because they haven’t had their finances externally audited. If their reputation isn’t bad enough already, let me leave you with my main point: that Jason Russell and the co-founders of Invisible Children are filmmakers, and as much as they want to pretend to the real world that they are something more, that they know something more, which is just sadly not true. They produce a commercialized product, a KONY 2012 video that concludes with merchandise to buy, 30 minutes of annoyingly inaccurate information, and a pretentious white-centric cast and voice-over.

Jason Russell’s initial attempts in making his first film several years ago to raise awareness should most definitely be applauded, but at this point, eight years later, he needs to grow up. Eight years ago, he raised awareness—he has now raised millions for his $3,000/day traveling expenses and hyper-edited videos, and is now doing nothing but misleading viewers, offending Ugandan victims, and annoying the educated populace who has been involved in arresting Kony since day one.

Nothing represents Russell’s blatant miscasting in the role of African savior more than his speech at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in November: “The point is we can have fun while we end genocide. It’s an adventure. There are so many obstacles…but we’re going to have a blast doing it!” Invisible Children and its new-age, status-posting audience needs to stop having fun and start growing up.

Shadee Ashtari is a junior at UCLA majoring in Communciations with a minor in Political Science. She is a co-editor with The Generation.

Picture used under Creative Commons license:
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  Chun Lam 


  • Hi,

    What would you suggest to students who want to become more involved with this situation of child soldiers? Do you know of any programs or organizations that are more reliable?

  • You point out all the flaws of this organization, but present no alternative sources of information or action for your “peers” that you seem to have so much faith in. And why is it such a problem that they are filmmakers? Must an individual be an “educated diplomat” to make a difference in this world?At least these ‘uneducated’ filmmakers that you seem to have such a problem with haven’t been passing legislation that appeals only to the mega oil conglomerates by which their campaigns are funded. Your elitist views appeal only to the class system in which you reside. Get off your high horse.

    • Tyler,

      Give me a moment to step off my high horse…okay! Phew, I’m off!

      1. My purpose in writing this article is to tackle some of the major fabrications, exaggerations, and misleading marketing tactics employed in order to garner attention from a mass youth culture. As I am not an expert in the history of U.S.-Uganda relations and warlord destabilization, I cannot say what the best “action” for Uganda would be–but I CAN say that using inaccurate figures and blindly supporting a tainted Ugandan government (that as I mentioned, came into power through the use of child soldiers) is morally impermissible, and the public has the right to enlightening criticism.

      2. “Must an individual be an “educated diplomat” to make a difference in this world?” Absolutely not. But an educated diplomat is also not soliciting money from millions of people on the basis of misleading and dangerously blind information. Yes, anyone can make a difference through grassroots efforts for example, however my point is BECAUSE they are not experts in the complicated field they are tackling, is precisely why they are producing commercials instead of informative insights.

      3. Be careful with your assumptions, Tyler, I don’t think my medical even covers the horse for me to get on in the first place. 😉

  • Shadee,

    I can’t even begin to express my frustration with the KONY 2012 campaign. The resulting product comes off as simply a hip, cultural fad that appeals to a previously uneducated, overeager constituency. And that’s the worst part, all of this support is coming from a group that really is genuine and eager to help. IC has captured this audience and solicited money from them very successfully, donating a very small percentage to the cause they claim to represent and spending the bulk on extravagant travel expenses and stipends, which I find outrageous. And Tyler, that’s why people need to hear and adopt these “elitist” views; IC raises an enormous amount of money from people I assume you would agree want the most bang for their buck. In my opinion, IC is taking money away from organizations that quite frankly actually know what the fuck is going on in the region; Save the Children would be a good place to start and I’m sure a quick google or background search from Charity Navigator would give you some great alternatives that would utilize your money. IC aims to support and arm the current Ugandan government, which if you were to continue expanding your google skills, is unbelievably corrupt and is accused of committing the same atrocities as the LRA. What the Ugandan people need is an infrastructure rebuild, which surprise surprise is the emphasis of charities you’ll find with a 4/4 rating. /end rant

  • I appreciate this article. So much of what you have written have been the thought I’ve had for so long! It seems to me that the IC is nothing more than a fad with great video editing skills. One thing that I wish you would have touched on was the awareness fact. All the IC seems to do is raise awareness. Raising awareness in and of itself will not solve any problems. The problem is they never seem to have an actual plan that will end the conflict. Mad props for this article.

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