The non-profit group Invisible Children's Kony 2012 campaign about Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony reached 100 million views in just six days, making it, by some counts, the most viral video of all time. Kony 2012's meteoric rise has surely raised awareness, but it has also triggered intense skepticism about the project. In the group's first follow-up video since their historic hit, Invisible Children CEO Ben Keesey attempts to confront some criticism about the group, especially with regards to its finances. (That video has less than 100,000 views on YouTube.) They also launched a hashtag, #AskICAnything, and Keesey said, "I'll do my best to respond to a couple questions every day." But as of yet , there have been no answers about the group's monetary ties to anti-gay groups and creationists or yesterday's disastrous screening of the Kony documentary in Uganda.
Thousands showed up last night in the town of Lira, Uganda, to watch the film for the first time, reports Al Jazeera. "Having heard so many great things about the film, the crowd's expectations were high," but it wasn't pretty:
The audience was at first puzzled to see the narrative led by an American man – Jason Russell – and his young son.
Towards the end of the film, the mood turned more to anger at what many people saw as a foreign, inaccurate account that belittled and commercialised their suffering, as the film promotes Kony bracelets and other fundraising merchandise, with the aim of making Kony infamous.
One woman I spoke to made the comparison of selling Osama Bin Laden paraphernalia post 9/11 – likely to be highly offensive to many Americans, however well intentioned the campaign behind it.
The event ended with the angrier members of the audience throwing rocks and shouting abusive criticism, as the rest fled for safety, leaving an abandoned projector, with organisers and the press running for cover until the dust settled.
The African Youth Initiative Network, which hosted the screening, notes in a statement today about the intense reactions that the video "has succeeded in triggering worldwide awareness of LRA brutality," but the organization has suspended additional screenings so as "not to further harm victims or provoke any violent response."
Larger questions are also popping up about Invisible Children's backers. Earlier this week, AlterNet reported that some of the group's major donors are linked to anti-gay, evolution-doubting evangelical groups, as well as the author of Uganda's Anti Homosexuality Bill, who has said "even animals are wiser than homosexuals." In 2006, according to AlterNet, Invisible Children gave "special thanks" to the Caster Family Foundation, which happens to be "one of the biggest financial backers of the push for California’s anti-same sex marriage Proposition 8." Because Invisible Children is a non-profit, all of this information is publicly available with a little bit of digging; the spotlight just makes it easier, and more important, to find.
After suddenly earning a new position in the international conversation, Invisible Children is being inundated with questions and concerns, and is treading carefully with its responses. The group, for example, enthusiastically offered an interview to Jezebel, only to back off a few days later. (In the meantime, the blog posted about the group's donors.) Director of Idea Development and Ideology for Invisible Children Jedidiah Jenkins followed up with Jezebel in an e-mail yesterday:
...I guess we're currently focusing on producing just a few more pieces addressing criticisms from our own channels, and then moving on to implementation of specific steps of policy-related activism and on the ground work. There's been such a onslaught of discussion, it's overwhelming to tackle it all. I'll be in touch, and maybe we can follow up with a solid discussion in the near future. :)
Critical media outlets probably shouldn't hold their breath for an interview. But neither should Invisible Children in hopes that the barrage will stop. With new-found popularity comes power and, crucially, donations, but it rightfully invites heaps of scrutiny, too.
Update: In a statement to Daily Intel, Chris Sarette, VP of Business Operations at Invisible Children, comments on the organization's link to anti-gay donors. He writes:
"I have been a core member of the management staff at Invisible Children for five years. The fact that Invisible Children sees people as PEOPLE – whether they be family, neighbors, or children in Central Africa – is one of the reasons I finally came out as a gay man. Invisible Children’s work concerns a human rights issue, and has attracted supporters, employees, and board members who otherwise sit on different sides of the aisle on many other issues. Invisible Children is not an anti-gay organization, and has in fact publicly spoken out against acts of violence on members of the GLBT community in Uganda. Hate in any form is counterproductive to our mission."