A screen shot of the You Tube video KONY 2012, which is extremely popular and extremely controversial.

In just a few weeks, a 30-minute YouTube video about a Ugandan warlord has racked up a staggering 80 million views. At the same time, its intentions have triggered heated criticism and some admiration across the Web and across the Mission, where nonprofits struggle with the issue of how to get their message out and galvanize supporters.

“It’s easy to sensationalize a moment in time without understanding structural imbalances that lead to such forces in the world,” said Rajasvini Bhansali, executive director of IDEX, a Mission-based organization that works with development projects in Africa.

Still, she acknowledged that the viral sensation is “a game changer” for what her organization does.

The video, called “Kony 2012,” chronicles the atrocities of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, who forces children to fight in the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel militant group. Made by the organization Invisible Children, the 30-minute video urges people to spread the word, write to policy makers and sport the organization’s apparel, with the goal of arresting Kony and disarming the LRA forever.

“It’s making people tune in to international issues,” Bhansali said. “It challenged the standard that the U.S. public doesn’t care about what happens in other parts of the world.”

But Bhansali said IDEX’s African partners on the ground are wary of the western push and are waiting to see if any of the money that is raised through the campaign will really help.

“To them, it seems like a blip in the universe, and it’s going to raise resources that may or may not ever make it to community-based solutions,” she said.

Some skeptics in the Mission wonder if the wildly popular video will have any lasting impact, and some say the campaign has boiled a complex issue down into a feel-good video for a western audience.

“It’s like wildfire: it catches quickly,” Ritual Coffee barista Sergio Arreola said of the viral social media campaign. “But no one gets any real facts.”

Those in the Mission who had heard of the campaign also knew of the surrounding controversy.

“They’re calling it the Great White Hope,” attorney Julie Ahrens said, referring to the criticism that many of her friends voiced about the video, which was made by a team of white filmmakers based in San Diego.

“There is this thought that they are exploiting the issue.”

Ahrens watched “Kony 2012″ after several of her Facebook friends shared it within two days.

“It’s a sexy video, well-produced, and gets people’s attention,” she said. She was touched by the video, but wary about taking its facts at face value.

“It’s good to have skepticism so [the activism] is not just a bandwagon,” she said.

Since the video was uploaded, the Internet has been flooded with criticisms like Bhansali’s and Ahrens’. Critics also charge that Invisible Children is promoting slacktivism, a couch-potato way of protesting with the click of a “like” button.

Enough with all the criticism, said Evan Jarrell; look at what happened — an organization was able to get millions of people to sit down and pay attention for 30 minutes, when keeping most viewers interested for even 30 seconds is difficult.

“[The organization] went to Africa, found a problem, and are trying to catch a bad guy,” Jarell said. “Why are you complaining? What are YOU doing?”

Eliana Gesheva said she has a “strong stance” against using flashy viral campaigns to get out a serious message. She said she doubted that most people looked deeper into the issue after watching the video in the comfort of their homes.

“That’s not the way social media is constructed.”

That’s exactly why this video is ultimately successful, said Steve Charalambous, who works in marketing. Charalambous pointed to the video’s catchy music, sympathetic voice and strong visuals.

“I think people can be overwhelmed quickly if you communicate [serious issues] to them,” he said. “You have to do it in an easily digestible way.”

On Monday, Invisible Children’s CEO, Ben Keesey, posted a response to the week’s worth of complaints. In the video, Keesey insisted that the campaign is working with local development groups and is “connected to a really deep, thoughtful, very intentional and strategic campaign.”

Charalambous said this conversation-like response proves how powerful social media can be in communicating humanitarian concerns. “The very fact people are talking about this is good.”

But can talk create change? Peter Van Wesep isn’t sure. Social media has played an enormous role in the organization of recent uprisings in the Middle East, he said, but the uprisings themselves came from within the countries. This campaign against Joseph Kony is happening mostly in the West. Change, Van Wesep said, must come from a country’s people.

“I haven’t seen real change happen from just awareness.”

It’s not clear how much money Invisible Children has raised since the video was released, but its action kits ($30 each) were sold out as of Tuesday, and the campaign has 3 million “likes” on Facebook and over 400,000 followers on Twitter.

But according to Google Data, the number of media references to Kony and online searches for his name have plummeted. It seems that people have already moved on.

Jorge Diaz, typing on his laptop at Sugarlump Cafe, said he expected this.

The campaign “created concern, but in the end I don’t know if good, long-term policies will come out of it,” he said.

“There’s no doubt Kony is a criminal, and no doubt this story is a truthful one,” said Bhansali. “This story is a painful one.”

But eliminating the bad guy isn’t enough. “We have to think about … long-term secure livelihood, so this thing doesn’t keep repeating itself in history.”

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  1. I find it surprising the ED of IDEX would refer to the video as a “game changer” in any positive way for her organization. Unless IDEX’s mission has suddenly changed (because of the Kony game?), everything this stupid propaganda stunt says and does — and it is propaganda, pure and simple and stupid — is opposed to the principles IDEX has fought for in both word and deed for over 30 years — building respectful non-exploitative relationships over time with small local communities. The video makes a mockery of that work and sets it back immeasurably. Even worse, the “caring” it promotes is shamelessly in service of increased Western military intervention in Central Africa. Game changer? Beware what you wish for. Further, I wonder why the reporters and editors of Mission Local chose not to include reference to local outrage at the video in Northern Uganda, the scene of the crime. I understand this is a story about the reaction in the Mission, not Northern Uganda, but if hyperlocality allows you to include IC’s claim to have local (Ugandan, not Mission) support, why would it prevent you from linking to this report from Northern Uganda, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2012/03/201231432421227462.html, and/or this piece on “dangerous ignorance” from someone who has actually worked in the zone with a local human rights organization for over a decade
    http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/03/201231284336601364.html? Or maybe I’m wrong, and Kony 2012 is really all about us.

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Mark.

      Just to clarify what I meant in calling the video a “game changer” is not about the substance or the content of the video or that IDEX will now in any way change our 25 year old model of partnering in the long-term with impactful and credible grassroots groups!

      We continue to believe that the most lasting solutions to injustice, inequity and discrimination lie in robust civil societies in the global south with effective grassroots organizations that are building new, alternative systems and holding their governments accountable to ensure systems work for the excluded and the marginalized. We mobilize resources and support for community-based organizations grounded in local communities and working in alliances regionally and internationally to impact policy change.

      So, when we watch this video, we find it self promotional, lacking analysis and promoting sensationalist propaganda. We also know that the video itself smacks of the kind of cultural imperialism that organizations like IDEX work hard to challenge.

      What I meant in referring to it as “game changing” is that this video’s 80 million and rising viewership and its viral dissemination through social media does unearth some new information on how international groups could use social media more effectively for the right kind of public education and engagement inspite of our limited communications budgets.

      We want to organize people in the United States to work in solidarity with grassroots groups and social movements in the global south; and to more humbly learn from and work alongside community organizers, indigenous women, farmers, land stewards, students and frontline activists who have been tirelessly working for social change and may never get to make a slick video to promote their work. US-based international organizations like ours must shift power dynamics between those that have access to mass media and those whose stories are never heard. We must change how we use the power of new media to engage with the public in a way that neither underestimates their intelligence nor dilutes the powerful message of our grassroots partners. It’s not just about what goes viral, its about what changes consciousness.

      Here are some important reactions from African scholars, activists and leaders that we have been paying attention to:

      Gender Across Borders

      Pambazuka/Mahmood Mamdani

      Hornlight/Dinaw Mengistu

      And here is some useful wisdom from Netroots on what lessons we draw about the use of media:

      Here’s the question that interests IDEX:

      How can we harness our collective power in the social sector to make the stories of grassroots-led victories (that our partners shape through their own coalitions, alliances and movements) inspiring to a 100 million to become lifelong advocates for social justice?

      And to do so with integrity, authenticity, humility and honesty.

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