At the very least, any attempts to capture Kony would put child solders at risk—which is just one reason why some Ugandans support amnesty for LRA fighters. It’s also widely understood that the LRA’s power has diminished greatly in recent years and that Kony hasn’t been in Uganda since at least 2006. U.S. military intervention would also indirectly lead to support of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni—a man who’s been in power for 26 years, has been condemned by the International Criminal Court, and whose wife has been pushing a bill to punish homosexuality with the death penalty.
“Simplification can end up in some very dangerous water,” says Ethan Zuckerman, a researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard. “I understand the need to simplify so that people can make sense of what’s going on…but I think this is one of those cases where what seems like simplification to get this information to spread may actually have some really tough political implications.”
Critics claim that the film’s portrayal isn’t just inaccurate, but it also plays on entrenched racial stereotypes.
“When you don’t know anything about a situation, it’s easy to project a familiar scenario. People talk about the ‘white savior complex’ and it sounds like that’s a metaphor, but in fact there’s been a lot of literal right wing Christian evangelism in the region,” says Nyong’o “There’s this idea of rescuing the helpless African which goes back to 19th century missionary complex.”
Nyong’o says that it’s fine to be motivated by one’s religious beliefs, but that problems arise when those beliefs are manipulated to a point of obscuring the complexity of a problem. Indeed, the region’s anti-gay zealotry has been funded by influential U.S.-based right wing churches.
The white savior complex isn’t just a familiar narrative—it’s a lucrative one.
Since at least 2006, Invisible Children has received donations from a host of Christian evangelical groups with strong anti-gay platforms in both the United States and Uganda. B.E. Wilson at Alternet took a look at the group’s tax information and found that the National Christian Foundation donated $100,000 to Invisible Children in 2008—the same year that it gave similar amounts to rabidly anti-gay and anti-choice groups including Focus on the Family, the Discovery Institute and the Family Research Institute, which was labeled a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The National Christian Foundation says on its website that its primary goal is to “enable followers of Christ to give wisely to His Kingdom.”
In 2006, Invisible Children received a $30,000 cash donation from the Christian Community Foundation, Inc., a group who shares many of the same board members as the National Christian Foundation.
Invisible Children’s last financial statement shows that it received $10.3 million in donations during the 2010-2011 fiscal year. While the group says on its website that 100 percent of contributions go directly to advocacy, financial statements show that 32 percent of Invisible Children’s expenses go to salaries, travel expenses and film production.
It’s unclear how much money Invisible Children has raised so far through its Kony 2012 campaign, but the campaign’s notoriety brings up relevant questions for organizers working for social justice in the U.S.
“I think there are some big questions that a lot of people are still struggling with about what is the connection between making an idea go viral, and actually leveraging it for change,” says Reinsborough of Smartmeme.
So how can people in the U.S. get involved in meaningful ways? One place to start, says Nyong’o at NYU, is to learn more about the conflict from a variety of African voices who have been working in the region. He also warns that making Joseph Kony a celebrity isn’t a quick fix.