A Visible Debate

by: Blaine Skrainka

March 8, 2012

I admit, I had been swept up by the Invisible Children bandwagon. But it didn’t happen yesterday. In fact, my first ever post in The WILD Magazine highlighted IC’s work with the African music group, The Very Best. I admired Invisible Children’s creative, albeit at times unbearably cheesy, way of producing compelling narratives that a Web 2.0 audience could relate to.

Earlier this week when I posted this Picture of the Day that included a link to Invisible Children, I had no idea that we were on the precipice of a social media barrage. I was happy to see tweets trickling in with the hashtag #StopKony. When other ‘Kony 2012’-related tags were trending for the entire day, it was clear that there was a concerted social media push to promote the now much debated 30-minute advocacy/fundraising film. Then, the inevitable backlash came with accusations of Invisible Children’s shady nature, and the usual critiques of youth culture being centered around short-lived trends. Let’s address these separately.

Many a commenter were quick to assail the millions of shares and tweets urging friends to watch ‘Kony 2012.’ The general sentiment was that kids shouldn’t be advocating for something they know nothing about, and that their efforts were hollow. Invisible Children has always been very clear that they believe in the power of spreading awareness to influence change. One can disagree with this strategy, but it seems unfair to question the sincerity of those who shared. Preaching (if you consider sharing a video on Facebook preaching) without understanding the nuances of an issue is a valid criticism, but what comes first – the chicken or the egg? It is hard to imagine thoughtful analysis and debate occurring in the public discourse if no one knows of the problem in the first place.

I hope that the people that are similarly posting anti-Invisible Children sentiments on social media are as informed of the complexities of the situation in central Africa and of the infrastructure of Invisible Children as they demand from the those that shared the ‘Kony 2012’ video.

Critics point to the 30-minute film’s lack of detail.

A very thoughtful blog post in Foreign Policy magazine notes:

“The LRA now numbers at most in the hundreds, and while it is still causing immense suffering, it is unclear how milions of well-meaning but misinformed people are going to help deal with the more complicated reality.”

The repeatedly quoted blog, “Visible Children”**:

“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.”

Let’s not overlook that Invisible Children has been working for seven years to raise awareness. Their first film was produced in 2006 when Kony was being pushed out of Uganda into DR Congo, Sudan, and the Central African Republic – where he likely hides today. IC applies multiple strategies on a handful of different web platforms to tell a provocative narrative, and also provides online tools for the people of the region. Accusing their entire organization of producing little more than a 30-minute heart-string-jerker is simply uninformed.

The World Bank reports that Joseph Kony has forced an estimated 66,000 children into his cult army, but Invisible Children arguably does not make clear that this number has been spread over two decades. Very arguably in my opinion. They do however fail to tell viewers that the army stands today with numbers estimated at only around 250, and that Ugandans are living under relatively peaceful conditions compared to recent years. The question remains, how harmful is the selective editing of facts given the nature of the atrocities of the LRA? That is for you to decide.

Invisible Children:

“In a 30-minute film, many nuances of the 26-year conflict are admittedly lost or overlooked. The film is a first entry point to this conflict for many, and the organization provides several ways for our supporters to go deeper in learning about the make-up of the LRA and the history of the conflict.”

More important than Invisible Children’s methods, is their accountability. “Only 32 percent of revenue goes to direct services,” continues to pop up as a sort of ‘gotcha’ number. IC counters that,

“The organization spent 80.46% on our programs that further our three fold mission, 16.24% on administration and management costs and 3.22% on direct fundraising in FY2011. Invisible Children is independently audited every year and in full compliance with our 501 c 3 status.”

The discord between the 80 and 30 numbers speaks to the basic argument at the heart of the Invisible Children debate – their strategy of promoting awareness. See, while the schools and early warning radio systems that IC helps to fund are considered direct services, making documentaries are not.

Claims that Invisible Children’s finances are not independently audited are unsubstantiated, and their records are made public online.

Charity Navigator, the oft-cited accountability arbiters, give Invisible Children four stars (out of four) for their financial records. Charity Navigator agrees that 80.5 percent of money goes to ‘Program Expenses.’ IC only receives two stars for ‘Accountability & Transparency.’ In a press release, executives explain that this is “due to the fact that Invisible Children does not have 5 independent voting members on our board of directors–we currently have 4. We are in the process of interviewing potential board members, and we will add an additional independent member this year in order to regain our 4-star rating by 2013.”

Charity Navigator’s overall score for Invisible Children stands at three stars out of four.

The most poignant critique that I have come across is the questioning of whether it is a good idea for Invisible Children, or the US government, to encourage and finance armed intervention against what is left of Kony’s forces. Global policing has not exactly worked out well for anyone in the last century, and we have an atrocious history of arming the enemies of our enemies, who in turn, end up becoming our new enemies. The State Department is weary of the Ugandan government warning that they “have failed to respect freedoms of expression, assembly, and the media, as well as its commitment to protect the human rights of all Ugandans.” Invisible Children contends that they give no money to the government, but consider it necessary to work with regional authorities to bring Kony to justice.

Does social media advocacy work? Perhaps it is too soon to know. We have though seen popular uprisings across the world fueled by social media, so I hesitate to write off sharing videos that catalyze conversation as just empty gestures that do nothing more than placate our western, white guilt.

**A final side note – the “Visible Children” blog has been heavily quoted, but there is one huge caveat – there are two different blogs under that name, and critical articles often fail to distinguish the difference. The first is written by Chris Blattman, an Assistant Professor of Political Science & Economics at Yale. However, the first Google result for ‘visible children’ yields a Tumblr page maintained by a sociology and political science student at Acadia University. The latter has been referenced by anyone and everyone from YouTube commenters to Jezebel to NPR to the Washington Post. In fact, Asst. Professor Blattman’s blog does not even show on the first page of Google search results. The only reason I bring this up is that the same critics confusing these two very different sources are often the same people who deride those sharing the ‘Kony 2012’ video  – for failing to exercise due diligence. Perhaps we are all a bit hasty to tell/share first, research second.

In the end, I don’t have any convincing answers. But I do believe that cynicism is always easier than activism. If you find yourself uneasy with supporting Invisible Children, here are some other ways to help:

AMREF USADoctors Without Borders, and Water.org. (All rated 4-star by Charity Navigator)

Update: Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell has apparently suffered a psychological breakdown following the enormous public debate.

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