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‘Kony 2012’: Two sides to being a digital media sensation

Los Angeles Times

Published: Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, March 14, 2012 12:03

LOS ANGELES - In the voice-over introducing “Kony 2012,” Jason Russell tells a worldwide audience, “The game has new rules.” The human rights activist’s words seem fulfilled by the phenomenal response to his video about the African warlord Joseph Kony.

But the response to the video also confirmed that every digital media sensation also invites a large reaction, with the Kony production provoking hundreds of video retorts, uncounted Tumblr posts, countless journalism critiques and millions of comments on Facebook and Twitter.

The deluge included a dissection of the finances of San Diego-based Invisible Children, the creator of the video.

Russell and his fellow activists said they created the video determined to end the reign of Kony, whose Lord’s Resistance Army has abducted thousands of children for exploitation as soldiers and sex slaves. Russell and his companions have employed social media and celebrities including pop stars Bono, Justin Bieber and Rihanna to promote a video that they said helps “the people of the world see each other and ... protect each other.”

The fevered, multi-channel response seemed to flow into two major streams. One credited the video with drawing attention to the people of Uganda and neighboring countries. The second attacked the slickly produced presentation for glossing over complications, overstating the current threat from Kony and diverting attention from.

“It certainly hits at the strength and the weakness of new media,” said communications professor Barbie Zelizer, a fellow with the Stanford Center for Advanced Study who studies news images in the world’s crisis regions. “They are undeniably faster, but they are also undeniably less reliable. It’s great when things go fast and they are correct. It’s not great when they go fast and they are not correct.”

Last November, an article in Foreign Affairs magazine said San Diego-based Invisible Children had “manipulated facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders and emphasizing the LRA’s use of innocent children as soldiers.”

Writing for The Huffington Post, Michael Deibert, author of “Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair,” also slammed the video makers, saying they had depicted military intervention as a panacea.

Deibert wrote that, after a failed attempt to get Kony not long ago (supported by U.S. advisors), the warlord’s army counterattacked against villages in the People’s Republic of Congo, resulting in the death of hundreds of people and the kidnapping of 100 children. “What is the system of protection that Invisible Children advocates for communities such as these, put in the line of fire by the military operations the group advocates?” Deibert asked.

Responding on the group’s website, the video makers conceded they “sought to explain the conflict in an easily understandable format, focusing on the core attributes of LRA leadership that infringe upon the most basic of human rights. In a 30-minute film, however, many nuances of the 26-year conflict are admittedly lost or overlooked.”

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(c)2012 the Los Angeles Times

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