The Invisible Facts

Media outlets have long tended to oversimplify the news and serve the public an easily digestible mix of shocking sound bites. Even storied traditional news organizations have fallen victim to sensationalism, caught by incentives to distort and dramatize, though such a “business model” may seem in outright conflict with their stated purpose to provide truthful and objective reporting. “Facts” created by such media practices, and even by NGO activists, congeal to form paradigms that, once established, prove very difficult to overcome. Not only do those paradigms come to shape public perception, they also affect foreign policy without any semblance of factual or democratic legitimacy. Prevarications and embellishments to increase sales or donations are one thing, but engineered facts become a much more serious concern when they disrupt or destroy the lives of indigenous people. Politicians, unsurprisingly, find in such “initiatives” a low-cost opportunity for populist activism. No express collusion exists between these media players; there is no need for it because their interests are naturally aligned.

In March 2012, the Kony 2012 video campaign quickly became the most viral phenomenon in the history of social media. The video, produced by a little-known California charity, Invisible Children, caused a sudden spark of interest in political strife in Uganda and a massive following among the youth and celebrities of the West. It has surpassed 90 million views on YouTube. Invisible Children stated that the purpose of its video is “to end the use of child soldiers in Joseph Kony’s rebel war” and to restore peace and prosperity to the affected areas of Africa. But soliciting humanitarian aid is not its main objective. Kony 2012  is not a quasi-documentary like the group’s first title, “Invisible Children.” It is instead an impressive propaganda piece created by its co-founder, filmmaker Jason Russell, specifically targeting American sensitivities and calling on the world to employ all necessary means to eliminate Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony. Objections to the film ranged from the unclear use of the revenue it generated to its crass oversimplification of the Ugandan conflict for Western consumption, and even to irresponsible advocacy. Invisible Children spends a mere 37 percent of its revenues in Africa. Aside from their overhead, their main identifiable product is propaganda.

Joseph Kony is, of course, a war criminal justly indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Indeed, stopping war criminals while saving children is a noble cause few would oppose. Yet when Kony 2012 aired in Uganda, it caused a flood of spontaneous protests. Various NGOs, with the exception of Invisible Children, reacted with similar anger. Kony 2012 is a phenomenon that merits a closer look at the creation of facts by mass media and NGOs, and at the consequences of “fact engineering” for ethical standards in the low-cost, short-lifespan Internet-based era of new media.

To truly understand Uganda and, consequently, the trouble with Invisible Children’s message, one must look at the country’s long history of violent power grabs and tribal conflicts between the country’s north and south, as well as how the Western media has covered the strife. The last two dictatorial presidents both hailed from the Acholi tribe in the north and marked their reign with bloodshed and atrocities. When southern Museveni militants seized power in 1986, a policy of systematic disenfranchisement of the Acholi began, accompanied by atrocities against the civilian population. In response, militant resistance groups sprang up across northern Uganda. The Lord Resistance’s Army (LRA) was only one of the last to emerge and survives today with less than 500 rebels. Soon it turned against its own Acholi people, first to punish them for occasional cooperation with government forces, and later to spread the terror gripping the region to the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic. Because of this and his early receipt of support from the Sudanese government for fighting its South Sudanese minority and their SPLA rebel forces, Kony lost popular support in northern Uganda.

The LRA, however, does not irrationally conduct its war. Not only has it regularly advanced peace proposals (usually dismissed by the Museveni government as a pretext for regaining military strength), but it has repeatedly issued manifestos with consistent and gradually expanding political and economic objectives that include ending Acholi disenfranchisement. Western media rarely mention that, during peace talks between the LRA and Museveni’s government, the LRA was partly represented by prominent Ugandans who are not members of the organization, but who are respected opposition figures. Their implied support for the LRA’s cause, or at least its political and economic demands, explains the unusually well formed manifestos that surface regularly but do not fit with the oversimplified vision of the conflict presented in the Western media. Hence, if LRA manifestos are mentioned at all in foreign media, they are dismissed as “diaspora forgeries.” After all, Joseph Kony, a semi-literate village healer and practitioner of witchcraft, could not be expected to advance reform proposals and constructive criticism of the Museveni government, could he? Research additionally shows that the LRA kills villagers not randomly or irrationally but based on prohibitions and warnings from their distributed manifestos.

Following 9/11, the Bush administration labeled “evildoer” Kony and his 500 jungle fighters as “global terrorists,” to hardly any media attention. Both fizzled since Kony and the LRA have no assets and receive no support from outside the region. But Kony – and his ties to Khartoum – did pose a risk to U.S. oil interests in Uganda and in South Sudan – enough to qualify as a “global threat.”

But by 2005 – about the time of Facebook’s launch, and years before the Kony 2012 social media campaign – traditional media outlets were beginning to show interest in the conflict. At that time, the LRA reached out to Mareike Schomerus, a journalist who had interviewed former LRA combatants, wanting her to facilitate peace talks. Schomerus, in cooperation with Sam Farmar, conducted a video interview with Kony that was subsequently sold to BBC’s Newsnight and became an overnight success. However, it never entered the Royal Television Society Awards because Schomerus refused to grant BBC consent. She contended that the story aired by BBC had turned out so differently from what she had sold to the station that it had lost any resemblance to factual truth and objective journalism; the substantive content of the interview itself was altered by BBC beyond recognition. Massive editing of Joseph Kony’s statements and their juxtaposition with questions other than those originally asked by Schomerus deprived his answers of any appearance of rationality. Instead, the interview had come to portray him as an irrational, half-insane murderer obsessed with religious fanaticism.

The Times later published a piece based on the interview, titled “I Will Use the Ten Commandments to Liberate Uganda.” But Kony had never made such a statement; quite the contrary, in the original interview, he explicitly distanced himself from any religious agenda including allegations of his association with fundamentalist Christian groups. Instead, he explained the political objectives of the LRA, something entirely missing from both the BBC and The Times versions. Lack of veracity did not prevent popular perception from being shaped substantially by that very statement, repeated ad infinitum in headlines and quotes by the international media. A new global paradigm had been established: After the BBC program was shown, an airing of Schomerus’ original material by German news station ARD was cancelled.  After Schomerus refused to adapt her material to the view presented by the BBC, her original interview hit a virtual wall of universal disinterest among world media. The original material has not been aired by any major news organization to date.

The lockstep “business judgments” of news organizations, hardly coincidental, would appear to merit further in-depth anti-collusion review – the only aspect with a realistic chance of overcoming their mantra invoking free speech rights of news media. The BBC, a globally respected, highly reliable news source for millions of people, has been corrupted by pressures for sensationalism in light of its compelling need to stand out from the information overload created by contemporary mass media. This demonstrates how older news forms find it increasingly difficult to forgo activist, attention-grabbing tactics and characteristics of new media, to the same socio-political detrimental effect.

Since the time of the Schomerus interview, the situation in east-central Africa has become worse, not better. In 2008, the Bush administration insisted on, and provided support for, an all-out attack on the LRA by the Uganda People’s Defense Force in flagrant breach of a two-year truce between the LRA and the UPDF. The pretext was Kony’s delay of signing the negotiated peace agreement.  He was concerned over the ICC indictment of him and his commanders because it required withdrawal of a blanket amnesty for surrendering LRA fighters. Under considerable media attention, the Museveni government, one of Africa’s most corrupt, had referred Kony’s case to the ICC. U.S. intervention ushered in an anti-Kony operation by four powers – Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo – which ended up executed by the UPDF alone, and badly botched: Kony and all his top aides escaped. The scattered LRA exacted bloody revenge against the civilian population. Peace talks stalled and LRA atrocities increased. When president Obama sent combat-ready advisors in 2011, it was predictably interpreted in Africa as U.S. support for Museveni. So, continuing calls to sustain if not increase U.S. military intervention in Uganda (as Invisible Children advocated by encouraging young Americans to write to their legislators) must be viewed as outright irresponsible.

Kony 2012 did not deliver any peace message to the war-torn region. Rather, it called on the United States to step up military intervention in Uganda and grant the Ugandan military an international mandate to invade neighboring countries in their chase for Kony, the elusive fugitive rebel. The idea of a more proportional response received scant consideration. The campaign has had an impact: A recent legislative proposal even lobbies for the inclusion of Joseph Kony in the Department of State Rewards Program, which would authorize the use of U.S. taxpayer money for bounties offered for the warlord’s capture.

Besides the producers’ obvious marketing skill – Invisible Children proved capable of rallying massive popular support for a completely obscure humanitarian cause, not to mention selling a commensurate number of $225 “promotional kits” as an innovative way of fundraising and advertising their cause – the vision presented by Kony 2012 can attribute its success to the exploitation of a superficial stereotype developed by Western media throughout postcolonial history. It takes shape as the image of yet another senseless and brutal African conflict involving yet another half-mad and sadistic warlord, reducing a regional humanitarian crisis of several decades to an easily digestible dichotomy between “the good guys’ (the Ugandan government) and “the bad guy” (Joseph Kony).

The bottom line is that Kony 2012 generated an incredible number of mouse clicks, unprecedented attention, awareness, and streams of revenues for Invisible Children. A new political football and conversation topic was created by and for the media. In other words, it created a distraction from anything resembling a real issue in this case: Tribal conflicts, warlordism, the victimization of indigenous civilians, government corruption, and control of mining and drilling rights. It is a phenomenon that builds off of changes to traditional media. Older news forms are finding it increasingly difficult to forgo activist, attention-grabbing tactics. The only remedy to such egregious and intentional twists of facts made to create commercial and political realities through news reporting can only be achieved through what one may feel tempted to call the Al-Jazeera Phenomenon: The emergence of alternative, well-funded, professional news reporting that provides a platform for fact-based pluralism. This has become anathema to the de-facto cartel of Western news media, both new and old. Real reporting is needed today for real problems.