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Fact Checking The 'Kony 2012' Viral Video


Propaganda. That word has a negative connotation, but in its most neutral sense, it simply means to get a message out, to propagate the ideas that are in that message. And this week, we have seen the enormous success of a message that was designed to do just that, to get out. A 30-minute film that was posted on YouTube and Vimeo and has now circled the world many times over - a call to action to people everywhere to raise their voices against a little-known Ugandan leader named Joseph Kony. Joseph Kony, who, for 45 years, has been killing and raping and maiming often with children as the targets.

The makers of the film, a nonprofit called Invisible Children, aimed to make Joseph Kony famous so that the world will do something to take him down. They really want to make him infamous. The video has had an astounding number of clicks, nearly 37 million at last count. And that is what you call viral. It is definitely speaking to a lot of people. But is it speaking the whole truth or is there more to the story or possibly even less to the story? If you've watched the video online, what questions do you have now about Joseph Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army?

Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website, go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Now, Michael Wilkerson joins us by phone from Oxford in England. He is a freelance journalist who has lived and reported in Uganda. And his piece "Joseph Kony Is Not In Uganda (And Other Complicated Things)" appeared on the "Passport" blog on ForeignPolicy.com yesterday. Michael, it's very nice to have you with us.


DONVAN: So, Michael, you have been in and out of Uganda a lot. This Joseph Kony is not a very good guy, right?

WILKERSON: No. No. I mean, the LRA is the longest continually operating, you know, rebel group that commits the kind of atrocities that it commits in the world. You pick any infamous group, and the LRA is right up there, except that it's still going.

DONVAN: And what kind of atrocities are we talking about?

WILKERSON: Anything from abducting children, raping women, murdering people, perhaps the most infamously often forcing children to shoot their relatives as part of the abduction to stigmatize them and keep them from wanting to escape because they were too ashamed to go home.

DONVAN: All right. And those elements of the story are something that the film makes very clear. In fact, I want to play a little bit of an excerpt. The filmmaker befriended several years ago a boy, a teenage boy whose brother had been killed in this way by Kony's men. And he was asked - the boy was asked: What would you say to your brother if you could speak to him now?


JACOB: I love you, but now I miss you. So it is better when we meet we are going to - even if - we are not going to meet but we may meet in heaven, you see? So it is better. I will not talk much. It will start something because if I saw my brother once again. I don't.



DONVAN: And he sobbed there for 10 seconds. And it's painful. It's painful to listen to. And it certainly pushes a button, and that's what this film does is push a lot of buttons. And yet, there are questions about the portrait of the situation that the film actually paints - what the actual portrait is today. And you've written about that. So what are some of the issues that you've raised about this film?

WILKERSON: Well, the biggest issue that I've raised or perhaps the easiest to understand to begin with is that the Lord's Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony, was actually forced out of Uganda by the Ugandan military in 2006. So I came to start paying attention to this "Kony 2012" campaign because all of a sudden on all of the places that I monitor - things happening in Uganda - there were these hordes of people saying stop the war in northern Uganda. Let's go to northern Uganda and get rid of Kony. And there is no war in northern Uganda anymore, not since 2006. The LRA is still what I like to call a regional wrecking ball. It's still raiding and massacring and abducting in neighboring countries, but northern Uganda itself is peaceful.

And only 15 minutes into this 30-minute film is it mentioned that the LRA left northern Uganda, and they don't mention the year, and it's only a few second in the 30-minute video. So it's easy to understand why people who are directed by celebrities or whatever might misunderstand this. But I think if the goal is to raise awareness and you define awareness as more than just: I know Joseph Kony's name, and I've watched this video, and I shared it on Facebook - awareness means understanding some basic facts about where the LRA is and where Kony is today. Because if you want to stop him, you have to understand that he has a tiny force scattered in a vast jungle area across three countries. And so it's not simply a matter of flicking a switch and saying, yep, we voted. Let's stop Kony now.

DONVAN: It also says that he's - he has - over the years, that he has abducted an army of 30,000 children. And, yes, it's true that over 25 years, he's abducted 30,000 children - which is terrible - but the impression the film leaves you with, I would argue, when they show an image of 30,000 faces, it's as if there are 30,000 children in captivity now. Do you - did you read that claim the same way?

WILKERSON: Well, so again, I highlighted in my first post for Foreign Policy, a Twitter post that said Joseph Kony is Hitler and has 30,000 - an army of 30,000 mindless children, because I can see how that perception was created. I don't think that was Invisible Children's goal, I think they were trying to dramatize the size of the entirety of all these abducted children over the years. But you can see how, again, people being introduced to this for the first time might interpret it that way. And frankly, that's not bad for the - this viral and urgent nature of getting the word out there about this video.

DONVAN: You mentioned, as you said, that the film makes very, very passing reference to the fact that Kony is no longer actually in Uganda. I want to play a moment from the film where, again, the reference to the fact that the situation has improved in Uganda is made most glancingly(ph).


RUSSELL: As the LRA began to move into other countries, Jacob and other Ugandans came to the U.S. to speak on behalf of all people suffering because of Kony. Even though Uganda was relatively safe, they felt compelled to tell the world that Kony was still out there and had to be stopped.

DONVAN: So technically, there's a reference to the fact that Uganda is relatively safe. But as you say, in 30 minutes, I think that's it. I think that's the single reference to the fact that the portrait of this mad man running around Uganda is outdated.

WILKERSON: Yeah. And, you know, to be fair, they do it over a map, but it is very fleeting. And again, if this is your first introduction to the topic, you could understand expanding to other countries to mean franchising and growing rather than fleeing, which is what actually happened.

DONVAN: Is it clear to you what those of us who see the film and have the buttons pushed are meant to be doing about it? Does the film, in your view, actually offer an alternative, offer an option?

WILKERSON: I think the film does its best to make clear calls to action - and I'll go over those in a moment - but I don't think that they are, you know, actionable in the sense that they are going to have an impact in, you know, bringing Kony to justice faster. What the video says is, along with encouraging you to share it. It asks you to sign a pledge. It asks you to buy an action kit which cost $30 - which includes "Kony 2012" wristbands and posters and some information. And then if you are up for more, then to commit donating a certain amount, monthly, to Invisible Children. And the overarching goal of the video is to keep pressure on the United States government to keep up its military assistance to the Ugandan military, which is hunting Kony in the Central African Republic, eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and southern Sudan.

DONVAN: Well, speaking of the military pressure, we have an email from Juliet in Kansas City, Missouri, and she writes this: Certainly, Kony is a monster and deserves to be tried, but what bothers me most about the "Kony 2012" campaign is the idea that the movement is calling for a public outcry to influence a military action. The notion the public pressure could influence international U.S. military efforts, that most certainly would result in violence and more conflict, is troubling and dangerous, and could start us down a very slippery slope for further conflicts.

That, plus the fact that the American military advisers that the Obama administration sent in October - very, very likely as a result of some of the pressure brought by the makers of the film - has 100 U.S. troops supporting the army of a regime that isn't exactly a democratic regime

WILKERSON: Yes. I think that - well, to first just pick up on one thing that comes up often with the militarization, something that's not talked about too much is, if you want increased military pressure to go after Kony, you have to think about a lot of the potential collateral damage. In previous offensives by the Ugandan military that didn't quite catch Kony, what happens was the LRA ransacked and massacred vengefully as it fled, killing hundreds of civilians in the Congo in the winter of 2009, for example.

And secondly, let's say that U.S. special forces supporting Uganda special forces cornered Kony and a bunch of the people fighting with him currently in LRA, how many of those people are abducted and brainwashed soldiers - children? Probably a lot of them. And so what if they shoot back? That's, I think, a reason you can't just say, let's just fly a drone and blow up the whole camp if we can find it. And frankly, the area is so big that it's tough to use drones anyway, although some has been given to the Ugandan government as part of this military aid.

DONVAN: Let's go to some of our listeners and bring in Hailey(ph). Hi, Hailey. You're on TALK OF THE NATION. Hailey?


DONVAN: Hi. How are you?

HAILEY: I'm good. How are you?

DONVAN: Good. Thanks. Join the conversation.

HAILEY: I just - I guess I watched the video and it was obviously very moving and inspiring. And with all the criticisms, the only thing that I find myself asking is, is there a better way to support the cause? Because, obviously, I think that what was really neat about it is that it's inspiring a lot of people to become involved and very quickly and especially young people. And so - and obviously, it's very easy to become overwhelmed with all of this information, and I like that people are asking deeper questions. And is there a better way that we can support the cause?

DONVAN: Yeah. I think that's a great question. I mean, Michael and I are talking about what I would say would be journalistic, almost, problems with the film. You know, there's certainly could be an argument that it's not a bad thing to inspire people, and it's not a bad thing to make people care, and there's no question that Kony is a bad guy. And the main purpose stated in the film is to make him the most famous person on Earth. Well, he just became a great deal more famous today.

But, Hailey, let me ask you, you know, we also have a situation right now in Syria, where the regime is bombarding its own people, and there's a great deal of discussion about whether or not the United States should get involved in Syria, having done so, through NATO, in Libya. And what about that? I mean, what about this challenge of one terrible situation after another, and we should do something about it? How do you - you don't have the Syria movie, but you have the Kony movie. How do we decide what moves us to action?

HAILEY: Right. Absolutely. And that's - and I mean, obviously we have a lot of - even just in our own country, there are a lot of issues that - I mean, I don't want to make this out to - not be a big deal at all, obviously, the terrible guy. And I think the video is great, but I hope - I guess I just hoped that it would inspire - and people to become aware of, you know, just more problems that are going on and just want to become more involved in general, and not...

DONVAN: Pay attention to the news. Hailey, thanks.

HAILEY: Right, right, yeah.


DONVAN: Yeah. Good, a very good point. Thanks very much for joining us on TALK OF THE NATION. Here's Alison(ph) from Phoenix, Arizona. Hi, Alison. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.



ALISON: I'm more interested, I guess, now after (technical difficulty) the website and seeing some of the comments on the website, to know about the financial aspects of "Kony 2012" and Invisible Children because there had been some assertions that they are not disseminating the money that they are receiving properly. So, well, I got the video, and I feel like, you know, I watched it with a discerning eye and picked up on all the things that you've already discussed. I'd like to know how the money is really being used.

DONVAN: What about that, Michael?

WILKERSON: Well, you know, to be honest, I've been in kind of the hot seat all day as the person willing to really come out strongly against this campaign. But I think Invisible Children is getting a little bit of a tough time on this because, yes, something like 32 percent, I think, is the number of their money actually goes to projects in Uganda. And so they'd been criticized heavily over that. But I think what needs to be stated is that a lot of what their actual operations are, are doing awareness and fundraising in the United States which involved road shows, going around to show their films on university campuses and things like that. And they're really good at it. And you can see their success with the social marketing. They are really, really good at generating awareness.

So if there's a criticism here, I think what it might be is that they're simply trying to do too much. And I can tell you, unfortunately, they're not that well-regarded for their on-the-ground projects by other civil society organizations that exclusively do things like education and livelihood support.

So if I were to suggest anything, it might be to focus more. You know, there are other great organizations active in this area, like the Enough Project, that do solely advocacy. And so I think part of the problem is that, you know, Invisible Children was born of its founders' very first group called Invisible Children, where they accidentally found the conflict in northern Uganda and decided they want to do something about it. And so it evolves from showing their film at campuses around to raising money for scholarships, and there's a lot of other projects, you know.

DONVAN: Right. But certainly, there's...

WILKERSON: So I don't think they're misappropriating money is the short answer. I heard(ph) an argument that they're using it well.

DONVAN: Thanks for your call, Alison. I just want to - a little bit of time left, Joe in Lansing, Michigan.

JOE: Yeah. And, you know, to that last point, my only complaint I guess would be just that, is whether they realize it or not, they're targeting a much younger audience than they realized. You know, my daughter's 14 years old, and she's just enthralled with as well all of her friends. They're just all over their phones and calling each other. And so they're actually - whether they realized it or not - getting, you know, money and support from children that really don't understand that by some token this old news. But also, they really don't have an idea of the gravity of the situation itself.

DONVAN: But, Joe, what about just the part of it that she has become civically awake as a citizen of the world today? I mean, that part (unintelligible)...

JOE: Well, in that part, you know, I have no issue with. It's just, you know, as a, you know, perhaps as just said, there are so many things to do on a local level and things that they can actually make a difference, boots on the ground singing as opposed to thinking, well, I got to give them $10 and get a bracelet. I got to give them $10 and get a shirt. I got to give them, you know, and that's the kind of thing where they really don't understand where, you know, that's certainly not going to do anything for the people, the children that we're talking about.

DONVAN: All right, Joes, thanks very much for your call. I want to thank Michael Wilkerson for joining us. He's a freelance journalist who has lived and reported in Uganda, and his appeared on the Passport blog, and you can find a link to it on our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. And he joined us by telephone from Oxford in England. Thanks very much, Michael.

WILKERSON: Thank you.

DONVAN: Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here for a look at the science of taste and how to get more from your next bite. That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.