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Kony 2012: Viral video tries to take down Uganda militia leader

March 8, 2012 | 10:18 am

A video gaining international attention is trying to use the power of the Internet to stop Joseph Kony, the head of a small but infamous militia that has terrorized northern Uganda with killings, kidnappings, mutilations and torture.

The unusual and controversial new campaign spotlights the horrors inflicted by the Lord's Resistance Army, a militia that for years has been notorious for abducting children to fight as soldiers and suffer as sex slaves, as well as for mutilating its victims.

But the campaign has also spurred a debate about whether the nonprofit behind the effort and its empowering tools of social media -- Twitter, YouTube and Facebook -- are dangerously oversimplifying the dilemma.

The video campaign was launched this week by Invisible Children Inc., a San Diego-based nonprofit that produced a half-hour documentary that aims to ramp up international pressure to arrest Kony. The militia leader is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of committing war crimes.

Kony has been pursued by the United States, which launched a military mission in Uganda last year to stop him and other Lord's Resistance Army leaders. U.S. officials said the brutal militia had pushed at least 400,000 people out of their homes. Yet Kony has so far remained on the loose.

The campaign argues that Kony must be made so famous that global pressure will stay on for the U.S. to continue its quest, helping governments in the region to track him down. It plans to paper cities with Kony posters on April 20, hoping to making the guerrilla leader a household name.

"If the world knows who Joseph Kony is, it will unite to stop him," says the Invisible Children website, which seeks donations and urges visitors to sign a petition calling for Kony to be brought to justice

The video quickly went viral; more than 32 million people had watched it on YouTube by Thursday morning. The phrase #stopkony is trending on Twitter as celebrities such as Rihanna and Zooey Deschanel urge their online followers to watch the video.

But the campaign also spurred sharp criticism of Invisible Children and its tactics. The group has been criticized for downplaying government abuses under Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, and accused of commercializing the conflict to profit from it. Its spending and overhead also have come under fire.

The film calls Kony "the bad guy," writer Musa Okwonga blogged in the Independent, but doesn't say "that when a bad guy like Kony is running riot for years on end, raping and slashing and seizing and shooting, then there is most likely another host of bad guys out there letting him get on with it."

The fear is that in the rush to capture Kony, the problems with Museveni could be overlooked or exacerbated. Opposition leaders have argued in the past that the threat from the militias has helped Museveni keep Western support. Uganda has been somewhat shielded from criticism of its human rights abuses because the U.S. relies on its army, Human Rights Watch recently wrote.  

"Stopping Kony won't change any of these things, and if more hardware and money flow to Museveni's military, Invisible Children's campaign may even worsen some problems," freelance journalist Michael Wilkerson blogged for Foreign Policy, calling the campaign simplistic and misleading.

Invisible Children has taken on the criticism in a statement on its website, laying out its financial statements and philosophy. The nonprofit says that although it has focused on Kony, it doesn't defend human rights abuses perpetrated by the Ugandan government and isn't seeking war.

However, "the only feasible and proper way to stop Kony and protect the civilians he targets is to coordinate efforts with regional governments," the organization wrote.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Video: The Kony 2012 campaign video. Credit: Invisible Children / YouTube

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