Depressing Internet Argument Vortex (Kony 2012)

**WARNING: This is a long one. But it has pictures!**

So, there’s this guy called Joseph Kony. Early last week, not many people in the western world knew who he was. Today, if you haven’t heard of him, it probably means you found a nice, comfortable rock to live under.

In fact, you may have read his name so many times in the space of a few days that you’re currently considering abandoning this blog post. Sitting through the whole “Double Rainbow” video for the fourteenth time might look preferable to subjecting yourself to another half-baked opinion about a certain African warmonger.

I kind of feel the same way.

On Wednesday, when the whole KONY 2012 thing went nuts, I was drawn in pretty heavily. Here was this video by an organisation that had spent years working on a seemingly insurmountable problem, clearly outlining a way that a positive difference could be made, and pointing out how normal people like me could help. I started reading up about Kony and Invisible Children – the organisation behind the video (let’s call them IC from here on in). I showed my wife the video and confessed that I’d like to help out with the Cover the Night campaign. I stopped short of sharing the link with an “Omigod everyone must watch this video it is the most important thing you will ever see!!! ❤  : )” caption, but truthfully I felt like it was one of the best things I’d seen on Youtube for years.

I should have expected what happened the next day, but I was somehow unprepared. All the cynics, the critics, the 13 year old spotty teenagers that post “dis is so gay lol” on every Eminem video … they’d all come out to play. I’d gone to sleep feeling there was a little more hope in the world, only to wake up and find it full of more hate than ever before.

I was crushed.

The truth is, most of the bloggers etc. that criticised the video had something at least halfway resembling a good point, and I had been too quick to overlook certain things. But mostly it felt like the world’s entire population of smart-assed, spiteful, miserable sods had been waiting for a chance to tear apart anyone who dared show a little hope and optimism – and they’d been presented with such a feast they’d all descended at once.

My first instinct was to comment on everything, and point out how wrong everyone was, but I knew from experience that that was a fool’s game. Not that I managed to hold back entirely. I’ve always found internet arguments to be like dangerous, swirling vortexes – they have an amazing attractive power but as you’re drawn in further and further, you have less and less chance of escaping unscathed. Each comment you make pushes you further down the spiral, and by the time you realise you’re drowning in a whirlpool of pointless bullshit, it’s too late. At that point you can’t just let it go. That’d be giving up. That’d be letting the other person win.

Don’t get me wrong. In theory, I love that the internet has provided an easy way for people of all different creeds and backgrounds to engage in lively debate with one another. In practice however – being a flawed human being – part of me just wants everyone to see things my way. So although I enter a discussion willingly, I get depressed by it quickly if it doesn’t go the way I was hoping. And it’s not just because of ill-feelings I might be harbouring toward the other person (the whole“What the f%*& am I doing wasting so much of my time arguing with such a hateful moronic asshole?” thing) because often the other person is actually intelligent and well-intentioned (even if I can’t see it at the time). The other aspect is that I become disheartened by my own inability to articulate my point of view effectively. When I’m responding I will no doubt picture myself as a lone voice of reason – calm, eloquent and succinct – only to re-read the next day and realise that I sounded like a livid, long-winded, pompous jerk.

So, I’m kind of sick of the KONY 2012 thing. Not because I’ve turned against the campaign, but because the hyperbole and backlash is doing my head in. I think I need it to die down a little before I can look at it calmly and properly assess what kind of commitment I’m willing to make.

Hmmm … that all sounded like it was building up to me not giving my opinion, didn’t it?

Sorry if I mislead you.

As much as I think it’d make sense to leave it there, I promised someone I’d properly address my thoughts on the campaign this week. Also, seeing as I have been trying to hold back from commenting on Facebook posts etc. I have a backlog of things to say. If you’re thinking “Man, this post is already way too long. I’m out of here,” I’ll forgive you – but if you ‘re here to criticise, please at least read the official response to the backlash on Invisible Children’s website, if you haven’t already.

For those with the reading stamina, I give you my bullshit rating on complaints I’ve heard this week regarding KONY 2012 …

 

1. It’s misleading and pointless because Kony isn’t even in Uganda

AGREED: Kony is not in Uganda. Some people may have missed this point and accidentally spread false information, and yes it probably would be easier to put a stop to his army’s activities (the LRA) if they were confined to one country.

DISAGREE: I don’t think it’s fair to say IC has misled anyone on this. The video makes it quite clear that the LRA has moved on to other African countries, namely the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic. Not only does the voice over tell you so in plain English, it then shows you with a big map featuring moving, coloured graphics. Of course, if someone did have a little nap at that point in the video, they would only have to head to the Invisible Children’s website (the web address is given in the video) to find the facts. There’s even an interactive map that shows you the location and date of the LRA’s activities in the past 2+ years (none of it is in Uganda).

Some have said, “But of course they glossed over the fact he’s not in Uganda. If he’s not there, it makes their whole campaign pointless!” but here (in IC’s own words) is their mission statement …

“[We] support the deployment of U.S. advisers and the provision of intelligence and other support that can help locate and bring Kony to justice, but also increased diplomacy to hold regional governments accountable to their basic responsibilities to protect civilians from this kind of brutal violence. Importantly, the campaign also advocates for broader measures to help communities being affected by LRA attacks, such as increased funding for programs to help Kony’s abductees escape and return to their homes and families.”

Notice there is no mention of a particular country. Uganda is only focused on in the video because that’s where the majority of the LRA’s atrocities were committed. It is the justified starting point for the story of how the IC came to be. Also, the organisation clearly feels it is important to continue work in the now (mostly) peaceful Uganda – to help the people get back on their feet after years of violence.

BULLSHIT RATING: 80%

2. IC are sneaky bastards who hoard most of the money for themselves and have no transparency

AGREED: This kind of criticism has encouraged people to research the organisation using independent sources like Charity Navigator (CN) rather than donating blindly. It has pointed out that IC’s score on the website is less than perfect, and so if people feel more comfortable supporting an organisation with a higher rating, that’s fair enough. Also it has hammered home the point that IC spend a lot of money on merchandise, films etc., so if you believe that raising awareness is unimportant when compared to direct aid, IC is not for you.

DISAGREE: Again, IC has not been misleading about this. They are upfront about their finances and it is obvious that the organisation values raising awareness, so it should be no surprise that their spending reflects that. For example, the video mentions aid programs in Central Africa (which IC spend around one third of their money on) but much more time is spent telling us they want to make Kony and the LRA famous for their crimes.

Charity Navigator were very happy with how much cash IC put back into their programs (giving them a financial rating of 4/4 stars) so the idea that the organisation’s head honchos are just lining their pockets is pretty ridiculous. It’s also worth pointing out that CN were pleased overall, giving a combined rating of 3/4 stars, which means IC “exceeds or meets industry standards and performs as well as or better than most charities in its Cause.”

Where it falls short is the Accountability and Transparency rating of 2 stars (“meets or nearly meets industry standards but underperforms most charities in its cause”). The organisation was marked down because it only had an “opt-out” donor privacy policy on its website and because the independent accountant who audits their finances was not selected and overseen by an internal committee. Which would still give them 4/4 stars. As IC have claimed, what knocked them down to 2 stars is the fact they have less than 5 independent voting members on their board of directors (all of this can be verified by looking closely at the information on CN’s website). They also claimed that they have 4 voting members and are currently interviewing for a fifth.

 Honestly, it was really just this one blog post that got my blood boiling. I’ve since found a far better written post by Visible Children with many similar accusations published on the same day. I haven’t been able to find out which one was published first, but my feeling is the Daily What blogger (the first guy) read Visible Children’s post, then managed to twist the facts around to give a final product laced with hyperbolic and misleading statements (“only 31% of IC’s funds go toward helping anyone”) and bold faced lies (“IC has a low 2 star rating because they won’t allow their financials to be independently audited”). The Daily What’s follow up post is a big improvement because that’s what happens when you avoid giving a knee-jerk reaction and properly research what you’re criticising.

And that’s my main point here – telling people to research a charity before they support it with their time and money is fine. In fact, if you do it right (ie. don’t be a jerk about it) it’s quite noble. But making sure the public criticism you give is based on well researched fact is even more important – especially when you’re attacking an organisation that, by almost everyone’s admission, has good intentions.

BULLSHIT RATING: 70%

3. The situation is complicated so IC will just make things worse

AGREED: Yes, the problems of Africa are complex. And yes, there’s a possibility that attempts to oust Kony (or actually achieving it) could make things worse. History has provided us with enough examples of warlords being overthrown only to be replaced by someone even more oppressive to know this. History has also shown us that intervention by western countries can have unintended consequences that are arguably worse than the initial problem (eg. the USA’s support of the Taliban in the mid 90’s). Admittedly there is even a degree of hypocrisy in left-wing westerners supporting intervention when many of the same people would have spoke against the hunt for Osama Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein. The point that the hunt for Kony could result in many child deaths because his own bodyguards are children is also worth reflecting on.

DISAGREE: Probably my main problem with all of the criticism is that much of it has been presented like everyone who reacted positively to the video has the mental capacity of a 6-year old. So the problems of Africa are complex? Really? You don’t say. For the appropriate response I think we need to look to Eric Bana.

The kid in the Kony video may have been naive enough to think that we’re fighting Star Wars villains. Perhaps in his mind, if Kony is arrested there will be some kind of Death-Star-like explosion, and we’ll all be presented with medals before John Williams busts out some kick-ass victory music.

But funnily enough, most people realise that capturing Kony won’t solve all of Africa’s problems. They probably even realise that it won’t solve all the problems of any given village in South Sudan.

The important questions are; will it make any difference, will that difference be positive, and will that difference be significant enough to warrant the effort? I’ve already conceded that we don’t know for sure, but can’t we agree that the chances of bringing one of the world’s worst war criminals to justice has a good chance of satisfying all three criteria?

The problem with much of criticism about the methods IC want to employ is it paints the organisation as white-boy idiots with no capacity to show sensitivity for the situation. Really, they deserve more credit than that. For starters, “over 95% of [their] leadership and staff on the ground are Ugandans on the forefront of program design and implementation” so the “white man’s burden” arguments don’t ring true. And here’s another good quote from their website …

“Though we would no longer consider ourselves naive, we have always sought counsel from those who know much more. We have never claimed a desire to “save Africa,” but, instead, an intent to inspire Western youth to “do more than just watch.” And in Central Africa, focus on locally-led long-term development programs that enable children to take responsibility for their own futures and the futures of their countries. Our programs are carefully researched and developed initiatives by incredible members of the local community that address the need for quality education, mentorship, the redevelopment of schools, resettlement from IDP camps, and rehabilitation from war.”

Also, though critics have implied that IC’s meddling will force the USA to give unimaginable power to the Ugandan army so they can invade neighbouring countries on a whim, everyone seems to have ignored that part of the USA strategy is to“encourage cooperation between the governments and armies of the 4 LRA-affected countries”.

BULLSHIT RATING: 60%

4. It’s just slacktivism / You can’t make a difference

AGREED: When someone watches the video, clicks “like”, then sits back thinking “I’ve done my part” that’s a problem, because if everyone did that nothing would be achieved.

DISAGREE: Except that there are plenty of people who are now looking into the issue more deeply and doing much more to support the cause. Most of those people wouldn’t know about the campaign at all if one of their friends hadn’t re-posted. So, even a “slack” click of the like button isn’t a total waste of time. No, what’s truly counter-productive is needlessly and lazily tearing down others for trying.

BULLSHIT RATING: 70%

5. The video is manipulative so the whole thing is bogus

AGREED: I get it. No one likes to feel manipulated. I’ve watched enough movies to know the techniques, and received enough stupid emails from my Mum with things that’ve been debunked by Snopes three separate times to get pretty sick of it. And let’s not kid ourselves – the video is highly manipulative. It basically ticks every box available for inciting an emotional response. Some of the techniques worked on me (eg. explaining the LRA’s actions to his son) and others made me wish they’d left footage on the cutting room floor (eg. the young people chanting “We have seen these kids” like they’ve just been recruited into a cult).

DISAGREE: Every charity campaign, current affairs story and episode of Masterchef uses manipulative techniques, so IC is hardly doing anything unique. But more importantly, the use of these techniques in a film etc. isn’t enough to invalidate the message behind it. It gives a good reason to check things out for yourself using other sources of information, but  it doesn’t give you the right to slam something out of hand. Disregarding something only because it plays to your emotions isn’t much better than blindly following something for the same reason.

BULLSHIT RATING: 70%

6. The LRA has little power / is not active any more

AGREED: Kony and his guerrilla group are less powerful and active then they once were. This isn’t stressed in the video.

DISAGREE: They haven’t disappeared though. The violent acts currently being committed by the LRA still warrant action. According to IC’s LRA crisis tracker there have been 1014 civilian deaths and 2239 abductions since December 2009, and 3 deaths/43 abductions just last month. The organisation admits there is doubt over the accuracy of these figures, but in the interest of transparency each individual incident has been given a verification rating from 1 to 5.

BULLSHIT RATING: 70%

 

I feel like there’s more to be said, but that’s enough from me. Despite what I said about the depressing argument vortex, I’m happy to continue the discussion in the comments. If you want to know more about the anti-campaign side of the argument, I recommend starting with the Visible Children blog. I have a real problem with some of the content of his first post, but he’s proved himself to be very reasonable since – even encouraging people to check out IC’s official response page and asking them to never give up caring.

PS. For making it all the way through such a lengthy diatribe (or skipping straight to the end) I want to reward you with another silly drawing. I drew this one as a response to a Facebook discussion. It was meant as a light-hearted way of saying “this is how stupid they think we are”, but however you want to interpret it is fine.

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One Response to Depressing Internet Argument Vortex (Kony 2012)

  1. Pingback: Bombs Over Israel: Share the Truth with the World | A Hole in the Head

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