Invisible Children‘s “Kony 2012” campaign provides many of us professors with a unique opportunity to address and learn how students respond to such campaigns and engage with human rights issues. College is an opportunity for students to feel empowered by activism and knowledge that we partly provide, shape and encourage. We do have a responsibility to course correct this empowerment when the knowledge is incomplete or skewed and the call to action may be ineffective or counter-productive.

Invisible Children, founded and directed by youth inspired to help war-weary Northern Uganda, has made their advocacy bread and butter with young college students who donate to and participate in their campaign. “Kony 2012” encourage its supporters to buy an “action kit” of bracelets and posters to pressure primarily the U.S. government to further support efforts to arrest Joseph Kony, war criminal and leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, with the assumption that he is the main impediment to peace in Northern Uganda. Putting aside IC’s flawed presentation of the conflict and its solutions, and the self-involved campaign film that profiles their own success at the expense of presenting the voices of Ugandans themselves, there is a fundamentally disturbing bandwagoning effect of empowerment taking hold. Among the stinging comments on this development is from the Wronging Rights bloggers, Kate Cronin-Furman and Amanda Taub, writing for The Atlantic:

“Invisible Children has turned the myopic worldview of the adolescent — ‘if I don’t know about it, then it doesn’t exist, but if I care about it, then it is the most important thing int he world’ –into a foreign policy prescription.”

If one were to course correct the bandwagoning empowerment, the following critiques of “Kony 2012” are most instructive.

First, advocacy can be ineffective or counter-productive. In this vein, many reference Rebecca Hamilton’s research in Fighting for Darfur as evidence of how celebrity and youth activism does not necessarily translate into solutions for complex political and humanitarian crises. Moreover, the assumption of “Kony 2012” is that if only the world knew it would not stand for such atrocities and impunity. Well, those that can affect change do know. The Ugandan government, in loose coordination with other central African governments, are militarily seeking to end the LRA, the U.S. has sent Special Forces assistance, and the ICC has issued arrest warrants for top LRA leaders. The policy change that IC advocates is no more precise than that these actors should worker hard at what they’re already doing.

Second, the campaign is rightly criticized for encouraging the “white savior” complex  – arrogantly empowering outsiders at the expense of acknowledging that those affected by violence have agency in peacemaking. Despite their good intentions, IC’s film is about them, not Uganda. Thankfully some media recognize the wave of criticism from Ugandan voices that see “Kony 2012” as poorly reflecting their lived reality and expectations for justice.

Finally, does the prescribed solution of taking out Kony achieve the outcome – wait – what is the expected outcome? Technically, Northern Uganda is relatively stable as the LRA and Kony have not been active there for six years. Is the outcome “justice” or “reconciliation” for Kony’s victims? The extent of the LRA’s perpetration of atrocities runs much deeper in Acholi communities than Kony himself and some even suggest that his further stigmatization or removal will hinder reconciliation. Notable Uganda scholar, Adam Branch, also argues that the “serious problems (Ugandans) face today have little to do with Kony.”

Back to the classroom. I addressed the issue in both of my classes, one of which is The Politics of International Justice so the students in this class already have a good understanding of the justice and peace issues in Northern Uganda. Most expressed the view that awareness raising is fundamentally good and well intentioned, but that they also had a uneasiness with the film’s presentation of the conflict and were skeptical of the advocacy approach and public response. Several students said that it was frustrating for them to see friends distributing it by social media, “liking” and “sharing,” when they doubted that their friends watched the whole film or truly understand the issue. Another said that he found the bandwagon effect to be as irritating as the self-righteousness of those who opposed it. Another said that she hoped it would at least encourage students to learn more about the conflict on their own, using “Kony 2012” as a starting point.

All of this points to the cynical conclusion that “Kony 2012” accomplishes little more than raising awareness, albeit of a narrow view, of the issue and gives a false sense of empowerment to those participating in the activism of social media, emailing politicians and celebrities, and buying action kits can change can affect the future of Northern Uganda. But as posters and bracelets begin to dot campuses it’s worth encouraging, not disempowering, student’s knowledge and activism with some humility.