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Joseph Kony Is No Joke

Caitlin Plummer |
March 26, 2014 | 1:55 p.m. PDT


Before long, Invisible Children’s good intentions had transformed into the web's favorite mockery. (KonyWorldFamous/Twitter)
Before long, Invisible Children’s good intentions had transformed into the web's favorite mockery. (KonyWorldFamous/Twitter)
On Monday, March 24, the U.S. Department of Defense announced that it is increasing its efforts in the manhunt for Joseph Kony, the infamous leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group that originated in northern Uganda but has since spread into Central Africa. The Pentagon plans to send 150 Air Force special operations troops and four tilt-rotor transport planes manned with 20 soldiers each to Uganda to help with the search.

While clearly a noble cause, the news of increased U.S. involvement may come as a surprise to the millennials who fanaticized, and then discredited, the search for Kony in 2012.

The LRA leader is no stranger to the American public, as almost anyone with access to the Internet came across Kony after the nonprofit Invisible Children launched its “Kony 2012” campaign in March 2012. The campaign was based on a 30-minute YouTube video intended to raise awareness about Kony and the LRA in hopes of gathering enough public support to entice the help of international governments in catching Kony. The campaign reached its goal of going viral, but it also set the cause back a few steps by turning Kony and the movement to stop him into one of pop culture’s favorite jokes. Famous memes from Condescending Wonka to Success Kid weighed in on the irony of American teenagers proudly pledging their support to fix the monumental problem with merely a like on Facebook. Before long, Invisible Children’s good intentions had transformed into the web's favorite mockery.

SEE ALSO: Kony 2012: My Generation Only Cares About Human Rights When It's Trending On Twitter

When Bobby Bailey, Laren Poole and Jason Russell founded Invisible Children in 2004, their story and documentary immediately turned the nonprofit into a charming and touching organization to support. The three men traveled to Africa in 2003 with the intention of shooting a documentary on the war and famine in Darfur, but instead stumbled upon the story of the LRA after watching gunmen shoot at a truck in front of them one day. This encounter inspired them to shift the focus of their documentary to Uganda’s civil war and Kony’s LRA; more specifically, the abduction of local children to use as soldiers in his army. They made "Invisible Children: The Rough Cut," a 55-minute documentary that became the basis of spreading word and inspiring activism for Invisible Children.

Yet before long, Invisible Children began showing up in the news for reasons outside of their cause. Many may vaguely recall the irony when co-founder Jason Russell was arrested within one month of releasing "Kony 2012" on YouTube for allegedly vandalizing cars and masturbating in public. He was then hospitalized for “exhaustion, dehydration, and malnutrition,” in the words of Invisible Children CEO Ben Keesey, successfully reframing the episode as a public breakdown of mental health.

More worrisome, however, were the questions that arose concerning the methods with which Invisible Children was spending its funds. In March 2012, The Guardian reported that nearly 25 percent of Invisible Children’s $9 million income in 2011 was spent on travel and filmmaking. Worse, most of the money raised was spent in the United States. Many began to question why Invisible Children wasn’t using its money to directly aid the war raging in Central Africa. To battle the public disapproval, the nonprofit’s Director of Ideology, Jedidiah Jenkins, announced in 2012 that 37 percent of Invisible Children’s budget went directly to programs relating to Central Africa, 20 percent went to salaries and overhead costs and 43 percent went to awareness programs. In its 2012 financial report, the nonprofit took the public’s social cues from the previous year and instead stated that 81.48 percent of its expenses went to programs; these programs just happened to include media as well as mobilization, protection and recovery.

A comparison of the way Invisible Children recorded its budget spending in 2011 and 2012. (Caitlin Plummer)
A comparison of the way Invisible Children recorded its budget spending in 2011 and 2012. (Caitlin Plummer)


However, before they made this small change in wording, Jenkins gave true insight into the nonprofit’s intentions in a March 2012 interview:

"The truth about Invisible Children is that we are not an aid organization, and we don’t intend to be. I think people think we’re over there delivering shoes or food. But we are an advocacy and awareness organization,” Jenkins said.

SEE ALSO: "Kony 2012" Video: To Support Or Not?

That’s correct: Jenkins is essentially saying that Invisible Children is a nonprofit with the sole goal of drawing attention to the atrocities of Kony and the LRA with no obligation to actually change things. Instead, the nonprofit uses heartfelt and inspiring documentaries to entice the public into making personal donations; donations that are most likely believed to be going toward catching Kony and helping the escaped child soldiers, but instead are actually going toward making even more heartfelt documentaries. Russell, the only co-founder still involved in the organization, graduated from USC with a degree in film production, making it arguable that Russell has set up a nonprofit where he can continually make documentaries for little to no expense of his own. Invisible Children is a nonprofit that wishes to draw attention to the cause and then bow out, so other people can step in and actually do the work of changing something.

But it seems that the organization has not even fully succeeded in that small goal; while the "Kony 2012" video did go viral, it also made the search for Kony and the LRA comical over internet platforms far and wide. Though most memes focused on the ridiculous pseudo-activism sweeping the nation’s teenagers, some make fun of Kony’s kidnappings through references to Pokemon, wordplays off of the word “Uganda,” or worst of all, pictures of happy African kids. Some even mock Russell himself. The fact that the U.S. is increasing involvement in the search for Kony honestly should be shocking to anyone who watched Invisible Children and "Kony 2012" turn Kony and his terrible actions into the Internet’s favorite ironic joke.

Although two years have passed since the public controversies surrounding Invisible Children were front page news, the negative effects of hypocritical Facebook activism, Russell’s breakdown and the nonprofit’s true spending tendencies persist. Invisible Children intended "Kony 2012" to inspire support, but it ultimately made Kony a joke instead of a true villain whose crimes are some of the most gruesome and terrible in the world. America’s involvement is just one step toward reminding America that nothing about Joseph Kony is funny.


Reach Contributor Caitlin Plummer here. Follow her on Twitter here.



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