Can the Internet Catch Joseph Kony?

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A much-retweeted tweet today came from Blake Hounshell, Managing Editor of Foreign Policy: "Did the internet catch Joseph Kony yet?" It was a reference to the mega-viral video "Kony 2012," which in four days has drawn more than 50 million viewers along with praise, criticism, and scorn.

In case you suffered a four-day power outage and missed the story: Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, is a horrible African warlord whom the video's makers--an NGO called Invisible Children--have vowed to bring to justice by creating massive public awareness of his atrocities. Critics say the film oversimplifies his story to the point of distortion and ask whether ill-informed outrage is really constructive. And, leaving aside any distortion, there's the question of how much good public awareness by itself can do when it comes to tracking down and capturing an elusive and ruthless warlord. In other words: Can the internet catch Joseph Kony?

My own reaction to the video (which you can watch below) is as follows:

1) My hat is off to anyone who can make a 30-minute sexless video go viral. (Has a video this long ever gotten this many viewers this fast, or this many internet viewers, period?)

2) The part about the African kids victimized by Kony is very powerful.

3) The part about the filmmaker (a co-founder of the NGO) and his adorable child arguably took up too much of the film. I definitely could have done without the part where the filmmaker says, "What do I do for a job?" and his adorable child says "You stop the bad guys from being mean." That exchange simultaneously activated the parts of my brain labeled "cloyingness overdose" and "self-glorification alert." It wasn't a good feeling.

But never mind all this. I'll let others debate the pros and cons of the Kony 2012 project. What I think is most important is that something like this is even possible. If the project succeeds, then when you wake up on April 21, an army of newly aware activists will have plastered much of the known world with posters, stickers, and yard signs that say "Kony 2012," signifying their insistence that Kony be captured this year. This could bring that phrase into the consciousness of hundreds of millions of people and generate enough media attention to acquaint hundreds of millions more people with at least the rough outlines of Kony's story. Whether or not that does any good, it's pretty amazing, even given Invisible Children's non-dinky budget of $9 million per year.

Of course, it could be that the blowback Invisible Children gets will foil its mission. Still, even if the Kony 2012 project falters, this will be a temporary setback for this sort of activism. Other such efforts will follow, and maybe the negative feedback this project gets will give future versions more nuance, more solid linkage to actual policy solutions, and less onscreen time for the co-founder of the NGO.

Invisible Children has accomplished what may be the most potent demonstration to date of the ability of new technologies to stir citizen activism. If it has done so irresponsibly, and/or in an ultimately ineffectual way, it still will have been part of a dialectic that yields something worthwhile, and maybe very worthwhile, down the road. Maybe some day the Internet will catch a Joseph Kony.

OK, here's the video:

KONY 2012 from INVISIBLE CHILDREN on Vimeo.

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Robert Wright is the author of, most recently, the New York Times bestseller The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic. More

Wright is also a fellow at the New America Foundation and editor in chief of Bloggingheads.tv. His other books include Nonzero, which was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book in 2000 and included on Fortune magazine's list of the top 75 business books of all-time. Wright's best-selling book The Moral Animal was selected as one of the ten best books of 1994 by The New York Times Book Review.Wright has contributed to The Atlantic for more than 20 years. He has also contributed to a number of the country's other leading magazines and newspapers, including: The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Time, and Slate, and the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Financial Times. He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism and his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

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