The Trouble With Kony 2012

The “Kony 2012” film, made by an organization called Invisible Children, Inc., (IC) is a prime example of how social media can push out a video and people react to it without time to get context and background to make an informed judgment.

Joseph Kony, who is believed to be in his early 50s, is head of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a Ugandan guerrilla group accused of widespread atrocities.  Although he initially enjoyed strong public support, the LRA turned on its own supporters, allegedly wanting to turn Uganda into a theocracy.  Kony claims that he is the spokesperson of God and a spirit medium, primarily of the Holy Spirit, which the group believes can represent itself in multiple manifestations.  In 2005, Kony was indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, but has not yet been captured.

The film immediately spread virally on the internet. As of March 12, 2012, the film had more than 74 million views on video-sharing website YouTube and more than 16.6 million views on Vimeo, with other viewing coming from a “Kony2012” website operated by Invisible Children.  The forceful exposure of the video caused the Kony 2012 website to crash shortly after it began gaining widespread popularity.

But, there appear to be problems with Invisible Children that call into question how much of “Kony 2012” should be believed.  According to The Daily What website, the organization behind Kony 2012 — Invisible Children Inc. — is an extremely shady nonprofit that has been called ‘misleading,’ ‘naive,’ and ‘dangerous’ by a Yale political science professor, and has been accused by Foreign Affairs of ‘manipulating facts for strategic purposes.’  They have also been criticized by the Better Business Bureau for refusing to provide information necessary to determine if IC meets the Bureau’s standards.  Additionally, IC has a low two-star rating in accountability from Charity Navigator because they won’t let their financials be independently audited.

“By IC’s own admission, only 31 percent of all the funds they receive go toward actually helping anyone.  The rest go to line the pockets of the three people in charge of the organization, to pay for their travel expenses (over $1 million in the last year alone) and to fund their filmmaking business (also over a million).

Writing for the Atlantic Wire, Alexander Abad-Santos notes that the Invisible Children’s organization’s financials are questionable, with most of their money stashed in a tax-free bank in the Cayman Islands.  According to Visible Children, an anti-Invisible blog, the company spent only 33 percent of its $8 million-plus in spending on ‘direct services.’”

Not surprisingly, Invisible Children is fighting back. On a video on the group’s website, Chief Executive Ben Keesey described his group’s finances, saying that more than 80 percent of funding is spent on program costs out in the field, and emphasized that most funds were spent through partner organizations in northern Uganda and the northeast Democratic Republic of Congo.  He also said that the group, which has launched the most viral YouTube video campaign in history, is dedicated to bringing warlord Joseph Kony to justice.  “I understand why a lot of people are wondering, ‘Is this just some slick, kind of fly-by-night, slacktivist thing?’ when actually it’s not at all,” Keesey said in Invisible Children’s response video.  “It’s connected to a really deep, thoughtful, very intentional and strategic campaign.”

“Any claims that we don’t have financial transparency, or that we’re not audited every year by an independent firm, or that we don’t have financial integrity, just aren’t true,” Keesey said.

“I understand because for many people they just learned about Invisible Children a couple of days ago through the Joseph Kony 2012 movie, according to Keesey.  “If all you see is the 29 minute movie and then you try to go to our website and it doesn’t exist because the traffic crashed it.  So you’re not seeing any information about our programs, you’re not understanding that this has been going on for a long time,” Keesey said.  The “goal has always been the same, it’s always been one thing and that’s to stop the violence of the LRA permanently and help restore the war-affected communities”.