(Be sure to scroll down for updates, including a statement from Invisible Children.)
The hashtag term #stopkony has been trending on Twitter all day, Reddit.com has been deluged with posts about Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony and he's suddenly the subject of a quickly growing number of blog posts and news stories.
All, apparently, because of an activist group's quite successful effort to have its latest video about atrocities done by Kony's Lord's Resistance Army go viral.
The organization is Invisible Children, and the 30-minute video is indeed a powerful piece of work. It skillfully tells the tale of Kony's army, which as NPR's Michele Kelemen has previously reported, "has been terrorizing Uganda and surrounding nations for decades ... [and] has specialized in kidnapping children and forcing them to fight." Last October, President Obama announced he was sending 100 U.S. troops to central Africa to train and advise militaries that are trying to track down Kony and his fighters.
According to The Daily Dot, on Tuesday night Invisible Children's video "exploded across multiple Web communities," with millions of views on Vimeo and YouTube, and hundreds of thousands of "likes" on Facebook.
"Invisible Children has been canny about marketing the film through social media via the use of Twitter hashtags (#kony2012) and celebrities. Rihanna, Stephen Fry, and The Onion's Baratunde Thurston have all tweeted about the film. In addition, Invisible Children is organizing a celebrity pressure campaign to get, among others, Oprah Winfrey, Mark Zuckerberg, and Lady Gaga to publicize #kony2012."
Now, there is some needed context, according to the Council on Foreign Relations' Foreign Affairs magazine. It reported last November that Invisible Children and some other organizations involved in the KONY 2012 campaign:
"Have manipulated facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders and emphasizing the LRA's use of innocent children as soldiers, and portraying Kony — a brutal man, to be sure — as uniquely awful, a Kurtz-like embodiment of evil. They rarely refer to the Ugandan atrocities or those of Sudan's People's Liberation Army, such as attacks against civilians or looting of civilian homes and businesses, or the complicated regional politics fueling the conflict."
The activists have rejected such charges, saying "we've done our utmost to stick to the facts" and have tried to highlight "atrocities by the Ugandan government."
It also adds that while awareness is good, "these problems are highly complex, not one-dimensional and, frankly, aren't of the nature that can be solved by postering, film-making and changing your Facebook profile picture, as hard as that is to swallow."
But no one seems to dispute that Kony is evil. And Invisible Children's Jason Russell, who made the video, tells AllAfrica.com that the point of the video and the campaign is to get viewers to:
"Make a commitment to stop at nothing by making sure Kony is known in their circle of influence, whether it's their family or office or school. The dream would be for Kony to be captured, not killed, and brought to the International Criminal Court to face trial. The world would know about his crimes and they would watch the trial play out on an international level, seeing a man face justice who got away with abducting children, raping little girls, and mutilating people's faces for 26 years."
Correction at 5:10 p.m. ET: Earlier, we mistakenly referred to Foreign Affairs magazine as Foreign Policy.
Update at 9 a.m. ET, March 8. Foreign Policy has weighed in with a story headlined "Joseph Kony Is Not In Uganda (And Other Complicated Things)." Among its points:
"It would be great to get rid of Kony. He and his forces have left a path of abductions and mass murder in their wake for over 20 years. But let's get two things straight: 1) Joseph Kony is not in Uganda and hasn't been for 6 years; 2) the LRA now numbers at most in the hundreds, and while it is still causing immense suffering, it is unclear how millions of well-meaning but misinformed people are going to help deal with the more complicated reality."
"Analysts agree that after concerted campaigns against the LRA, its numbers at this point have diminished, perhaps amounting to 250 to 300 fighters at most. Kony, shadowy and illusive, is a faded warlord on the run, with no allies or foreign friends."
Update at noon, ET, March 8. A Detailed Response From Invisible Children:
The organization has now posted a point-by-point response to the criticisms it has received. The full statement is here. It says, in part:
-- "Invisible Children's financial statements are online for everyone to see. Financial statements from the last 5 years, including our 990, are available at www.invisiblechildren.com/financials."
-- "We do not defend any of the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Ugandan government or the Ugandan army (UPDF). None of the money donated through Invisible Children ever goes to the government of Uganda. Yet the only feasible and proper way to stop Kony and protect the civilians he targets is to coordinate efforts with regional governments."
-- "A story told by Jason Russell: The photo of Bobby, Laren and I with the guns was taken in an LRA camp in DRC during the 2008 Juba Peace Talks. We were there to see Joseph Kony come to the table to sign the Final Peace Agreement. The Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) was surrounding our camp for protection since Sudan was mediating the peace talks. We wanted to talk to them and film them and get their perspective. And because Bobby, Laren and I are friends and had been doing this for 5 years, we thought it would be funny to bring back to our friends and family a joke photo. You know, "Haha - they have bazookas in their hands but they're actually fighting for peace." The ironic thing about this photo is that I HATE guns. I always have. Back in 2008 I wanted this war to end, like we all did, peacefully, through peace talks. But Kony was not interested in that; he kept killing. And we still don't want war. We don't want him killed and we don't want bombs dropped. We want him alive and captured and brought to justice."
Related note: The Washington Post has more about that photo. Glenna Gordon, who was on assignment for The Associated Press, took the picture. She tells the Post that "we were all sort of stuck at this small camp, in the same space, to wait for the talks to resume. There was nothing to do. I saw that the Invisible Children guys were [posing with guns], and I thought I should take some pictures. ... I think I felt a lot of discomfort, but I didn't say to stop it, which maybe I should have because if we were attacked by LRA then, the SPLA should have had guns in their hands."