Update: Last evening, Jason Russell was apparently arrested for allegedly being blind drunk while jerking off on a beach in San Diego. You win some, you lose some.
Following the resounding success of its YouTube launch, the KONY 2012 video and movement saw a barrage of criticism from the darker corners of the internet. As someone who has worked in propaganda for a long time, I’m concerned that people all over the world are sending money to an organization that is fundamentally different to what they imagine it is. And even as interest wanes across the web, there are still lots of unanswered questions. Like the ones I came up with to ask Invisible Children representatives after Kenny Laubbacher, head of "artist relations" for IC, invited VICE to interview members of IC at the organization's offices in San Diego immediately following our original KONY post. Laubbacher claimed that our post was "pretty massively misinformed and quotes a lot of bogus sources."
Naturally, we wanted to set the record straight, but since then we have been punted to their PR people, had our meeting pushed back a week, and given the runaround when asked if someone at IC would be willing to participate in a quick interview over the phone. A last ditch attempt to get some answers dissipated today – Jedidiah Jenkins, the ‘Director of Ideology’ (or in the words of IC, "essentially the brand manager") contacted us by email saying he was willing to give ten minutes while he and CEO Ben Keesey waited to get on a plane to a film festival. But in the time it took to receive the email and get the line set up, it was too late – they had boarded. ‘JJ’ was totally bummed. Hopefully he’ll have a chance to answer questions at a later date, but for now we’ve been forced to run this piece, which now amounts to what will hopefully be our final overview on KONY 2012 and IC, without quotes from the film's creators.
Like lots of people, my biggest problem with KONY 2012 is that their now synonymous film makes no mention of IC cofounder Jason Russell's Christian beliefs. This is especially troubling given that he's not just a regular church-goer but an active evangelist. All signs point to this being an intentional omission that could even be interpreted as being part of a larger overarching media strategy.
“The trick is to not go into the world and say ‘I’m going to baptize you, I have an agenda to win you over’," Russell said to a group of Christian students last November. "Your agenda is to look into their eyes, as Jesus did, and say ‘who are you, and will you be my friend?’ Like he did to the prostitutes, the tax collectors and the fishermen.”
IC’s financial statements show substantial donations from the National Christian Foundation—an anti-gay, anti-abortion grant-making fund that helped Ugandan politicians put together legislation making homosexuality subject to the death penalty. Invisible Children’s supporters include other right-wing, anti-gay heavyweights like the Caster Family, who funded the campaign for Proposition 8 in California.
The following is a quick rundown of how KONY 2012 plays around with facts and figures to support its agenda:
Russell claims that Joseph Kony is the world’s worst warlord. The list compiled by the International Criminal Court lists the indicted in order of the dates of indictment for their alleged atrocities, not "badness." In defining “badness,” many experts regard genocide as more serious than crimes against humanity and war crimes. If you take this view, the "worst" person on the ICC’s list is Omar Al-Bashir, president of Sudan. If you don’t take that view and think that genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes are equally bad, the "baddest" person on the list is Ali Kushayb, with Ahmed Haroun a close second. Both are indicted on the basis of their actions in Darfur. Ahmed Haroun is the governor of South Kordofan State in Sudan, and therefore not all that difficult to find. Omar Al Bashir travels internationally, with impunity.
The ICC list is not a list of all the bad people in the world, just those who have been subject to investigations of "situations." Only "situations" in Uganda, Darfur, Kenya, DR Congo, Libya, Cote D’Ivoire, and Central African Republic have been investigated by the ICC. Atrocities committed elsewhere in the world don’t count. The men on the ICC list are not the worst people in the world, they are the worst people in some parts of the seven places listed.
UNHCR has attributed one death this year to the LRA. Invisible Children has recorded three, but gives that information a credibility rating of 3 out of 5. Far, far fewer than the 16 killed by a single American soldier last Sunday.
In terms of numbers, more people die on Uganda’s roads every year than have been killed by the LRA since 2006.
The video is truly troubling in its disregard for fact, so much so that people who bought the bracelet have a right to feel kind of cheated.
Hollywood actor and celebrity activist George Clooney’s comments on the video are taken out of context and refer to Sudan, not the LRA. He wasn’t interviewed for the KONY 2012 video. It was lifted from an NBC interview with Brian Williams. Still, Clooney recently confirmed that he wants to make Bashir famous.
The comments from Shepard Fairey were lifted from the Henry Rollins Show, and refer not to the KONY 2012 movement but to the Occupy movement that he is involved with. Fairey says that while he was not consulted regarding the use of his quote in the video and cannot vouch for IC as an organization, he does support the end goal of their campaign.
Angelina Jolie does not support the movement—it says so on her picture, in the film—but it’s in very small print (followed by a paragraph of “blind text”- e.g., “lorem impsum, etc.”).
The footage of Gulu used in the film is from a previous trip. It’s presented as though the crisis is still going on in Northern Uganda. Anyone who lives in Gulu will tell you the "army" of well-meaning white kids in Ali Baba pants, Birkenstocks, and headbands arrived long ago, and with it the shiny Chinese hotels (which are usually booked out for development conferences), restaurants, nightclubs, yoga classes, and tour operators to support their needs. Showing archival footage is fine, but it needs to be put in context, otherwise people might get the wrong idea. Which, I suppose, is the idea.
The Ugandan politician interviewed first in KONY 2012 is Lt. Santo Okot Lapolo, a major Museveni supporter who is said to have once wrapped a bomb in paper and ribbons and had it delivered to Vincent Otti, a now-dead deputy of Joseph Kony. He’s also known for embezzling public funds and defaming a local magistrate.
The American politician featured in the film—Senator Jim Inhofe—is most famous for supporting big oil companies 100 percent of the time (and accepting some of the largest donations from them), and saying the Abu Ghraib prisoners should feel grateful for their treatment at the hands of American torturers.
On the other side, the filmmakers interview two of the most liberal politicians in Uganda and the US, Norbert Mao and former Senator Russ Feingold. In a rare moment of heavily edited commiseration, it seems both sides of politics agree on something.
The filmmakers congratulate themselves when Obama decides to ‘listen to them’ and send military advisors to Central Africa. Yet this is something that the Ugandan government asked for, not IC. The bill was authored by former Senator Feingold, not IC. The letter Jason Russell reads out to his volunteers is not addressed to Invisible Children but to the Congress. Apart from Invisible Children and their friends, no one gives credit to Invisible Children for the bill, the letter, or the policy decision.
Jacob, the reported former child soldier featured in the film, is pretty obviously suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that occurs after one experiences things that are so horrible his or her brain can’t process them. Being reminded of those things leads to an inability to control your emotions. Qualified therapists use techniques to gradually get PTSD patients to talk about their memories and help them process them. Russell shoves a camera in Jacob’s face and continuously asks him to tell his story, essentially forcing him to confront a memory that is too awful for his brain to process—hence the hysterical (but cinematically haunting) wail he lets out just as the screen turns black. Magically, his voice echoes into the black, ‘I saw… saw… saw…’
Russell’s treatment of his own child warrants questioning as well. Trying to explain to a child that the "invisible children" are not just the victims but also the perpetrators leaves even adults flummoxed. Gavin: “They’re not going to do what he says because they’re nice guys right?” Russell: Pause. “He will force them to do bad things.” Russell: “He turned girls into sex slaves and boys into child soldiers.” The video goes on to say the LRA mutilates peoples’ faces. It becomes very difficult for the viewer, let alone Russell’s 5-year-old, to work out who are the victims and who are the perpetrators. Did the little girls in the picture mutilate? Did Jacob? To avoid this confusing truth, Kony is framed, just like Hitler and bin Laden, as the sole perpetrator. If the problem is simplified in this way, the solution becomes simple: “Stop him.” Then, the film implies, the invisible children will be able to return home.
The problem with this logic, however, is that following conflicts of this nature, child soldiers aren’t very often welcomed back home. Some NGOs have run viable programs to help them reintegrate, but the reality is, these children have committed crimes like rape and murder, and aren’t welcomed back with hugs and parties.
It’s a complicated thing, but complexity is something Invisible Children steers clear of. Kony’s bad stuff is bad, but it’s worth putting it in context. As Republican Senator Jim Inhofe imparts in the video, there’s nothing worse than the mutilation of little children. According to the World Health Organization, across the world more than 140 million women and girls have been intentionally mutilated as children. The people who did it? Mostly other women, mothers and grandmothers, and occasionally doctors. The only difference is that their mutilation is hidden under their clothes. In one way the mutilation suffered by FGM victims is less shocking to the world because it goes unseen. On another level, it’s simply too shocking for a Western audience to see, process, or relate to when compared to the removal of what we value most—a beautiful face.
Not only are Invisible Children willing to work with far-right religious groups like the National Christian Foundation, they are willing to work with the Ugandan government and the Ugandan military. The Ugandan government is known for insidious things like the oppression of minorities, lack of electoral transparency, and overly enthusiastic police (several opposition leaders were arrested last year for trying to walk to work, for example). President Museveni spent $50 million in aid money last year to buy himself a Gulfstream jet. I’m worried that young people around the world are giving their money and support to an organization which shares its values with the National Christian Foundation and the Ugandan government.
To be clear: I have no problem with the fact that Jason Russell is a Christian, but I do have a problem with the fact that he failed to disclose this in the video. His method seems to be to keep his beliefs secret, or at the very least not comment on them, perhaps because he knows young people are cynical about religion for a range of reasons. It’s not just young people who have been deceived. Oprah Winfrey (an advocate for gay rights) reportedly donated $2 million to the cause. How does she feel now that she knows that money could be supporting an anti-gay agenda? How do Susan Davis and Russ Feingold, both liberals who are on record as supporting same-sex marriage, feel about it? Would they have supported IC had they known about its ties to anti-gay movements? If Russell agrees with the NCF and the Ugandan government that homosexuality is wrong, should he have said so earlier? If it was just an autonomous, privately funded movement, then maybe this would be OK. But Invisible Children asked supporters to give up money.
What about those people who were so moved by the film that they bought a fundraising bracelet and then tried to enter the numbers on a website as instructed? IC says the bracelets have sold out. There are a number of posts online by people asking where to "register" their bracelets. Apparently this feature has yet to be implemented. IC also doesn’t clarify what sort of data is collected from the user when they type in the number, and more importantly, how that data will be used.
One website calls the KONY 2012 campaign "reverse propaganda," and I think that’s pretty accurate. But, being fair and comparing it to my own personal experiences with reverse propaganda, maybe these guys deserve a bit of a break.
I worked on a political campaign for Australia’s Labor Party in 2004, in a regional coastal town. The seat was held by the National Party (conservative farmer types) by a small margin, but the area had undergone demographic changes with an influx of retirees from Sydney and Melbourne. The Labor Party (center-left) saw it as a winnable seat, and they instilled a belief in myself and the other kids working on the campaign just how important this was. We couldn’t lose. We went about our task with single-minded determination. There were a couple of things driving us: One was belief in the supremacy of our political party, but overriding that was the desire to please our higher-up masters—the Labor Party HQ bosses. If we won this campaign, it would mean recognition from the most important political figures in the country and a highly paid job in the new government.
It would all be glorious—we just had to convince around 5000 voters to switch their support to the Labor Party for the first time. We worked our asses off, pumping out semi-factual press releases about the candidate’s achievements in the local area.
In the end we won. But we did two things I’m not proud of. We accused the other guy of being a pedophile, based on a shabbily put together internet link manipulation with a vague allusion to his party. We didn’t want to do this—we thought it was sick—but our bosses told us to, and after all, our goal was to impress them and get their candidates elected. The stunt, however, backfired, and we were accused of being dirty and the other guy received a bunch of sympathy from the media.
The second thing we did was start a new political party. Most of the retirees in Australia vote liberal (which in Australia is the Conservative Party). They moved to the country because they like the outdoors—beaches, mountains, trees, and all that stuff. So we started the Liberals for Forests Party. At the time I thought it was brilliant, we were tricking these unsuspecting geriatrics into doing what I thought was the right thing: voting for my candidate and the Labor Party via manipulative word-association. This stunt was probably what got us over the line. We were one of three campaigns to take a seat away from the incumbent. I was offered a highly paid job as a press secretary, which I took and used to continued the game of manipulation through the media, which is what that job is all about.
We did the wrong thing, but our belief carried us through. I can see how the KONY 2012 filmmakers saw George Clooney and the others making statements that referred vaguely to war crimes or action and cut it all together into a fancy video that united the disenchanted "millennial" masses. But I don’t believe it’s all about these kids and their video cameras. It's clear they’re trying really hard to impress someone, whether it’s the church, or the Republicans, God, or big business. Who it is doesn't matter much, but it very much matters that they have not been forthcoming with their agenda.
The deception that was required to make this video work makes cynical viewers like myself think that there has to be an ulterior motive. If the truth speaks for itself, then why not be truthful? Why choose a conflict that has been mostly over for five years? Why Uganda, when the LRA is now in Congo, Sudan, or CAR? Why support Museveni, who is responsible for thousands of deaths himself? Why hide your religious and financial ties?
Possible business motives are numerous. Given the Right’s propensity to be involved in big business, and Inhofe's starring role in the video, the most obvious answer would be oil. South Sudan has oil reserves but no way to ship the black stuff out. Uganda is the main transport route out of Sudan and over to the Kenyan coast. Ugandan businesses are already set up throughout South Sudan, ready to take advantage; there’s no reason why Americans wouldn’t want a piece of that.
Chinese influence is all over East Africa (contrary to what Russell claims, Uganda is not in Central Africa). Chinese companies aren’t burdened with domestic regulation, and can take risks Western companies can’t. Their influence is growing rapidly, and their economy continues to hunger for the resources found in abundance in DRC.
It could be as simple as the fact that the right has found in Uganda a place where opinions that are marginal in the US are mainstream, and even legislated. As the evangelical churches seek to spread the word of God throughout the world, it makes sense to have a hub in the country that’s the most godly in the region.
I wanted to get a sense for this, and as stated above VICE was invited to visit and interview IC representatives in San Diego. Since then we’ve attempted to contact IC by phone, email, and carrier pigeon to elicit the response they promised in their first email. Julie Halpin, from their PR agency has replied with:
“Got your message earlier. It doesn’t look like we can make an interview happen this week with the IC folks. Can we touch base early next week and go from there? More likely next Wednesday.”
“Thanks for reaching out. Unfortunately, we aren’t going to be able to get this done next week, but I will be sure to keep you updated on any news involving the campaign.”
So I’ll pose my questions here, in hopes that Halpin, or another representative from IC, will relay them to a person who can provide answers:
- Jason Russell, you are a Christian—your religious conviction is well documented. Do you think that if you had disclosed your religion in the video you would have had so many people supporting you?
- You’ve received money from organizations that support anti-gay movements in the US and Uganda. Do you agree with them that homosexuality is wrong?
- Do you think you would have gotten the same level of support if the public was aware of your organization's ties to anti-gay movements?
- Oprah Winfrey is an advocate for gay rights. Was she aware of your organization's links to the National Christian Foundation? Do you think she would have given you millions of dollars if she'd been aware of these links?
- Do you agree that using their quotes out of context gives the viewer the impression that George Clooney and Shepard Fairey are talking about Joseph Kony?
In the end Invisible Children have not lied, they haven’t committed to anything more than putting up posters and wearing bracelets, so you can’t fault them unequivocally. But the fact is thousands of young people thought these guys were like them. They thought George Clooney and Angelina and Shepard were like them. So they gave their money to an organization that they thought represented them. They were deceived, and it’s time Jason Russell and his crew admit it.
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