This week my Facebook feed was littered with postings about KONY, the latest viral “activist” movement to sweep the web.

A brief recap: a charity called “Invisible Children” launched a video campaign to bring about awareness of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. The #stopkony campaign has been trending on Twitter and aims to promote action through  awareness of the atrocities he commits in Uganda.

Reuters covered the launch of the popular video:

The group behind the video, Invisible Children, has been extremely savvy and organized in its use of social media, grabbing the power of the Internet by the tail to force its agenda onto the public stage.

The group carefully planned the launch of the video, targeted high-profile, highly social-networked celebrities to spread the word, and had a website that didn’t crash when their strategy worked.

The 30-minute video is entertaining, adorable in its use of movement founder Jason Russell’s own baby at the start of the story and dramatic in its turn toward the tragic plight of Ugandan children like Russell’s now-grown friend Jacob.

Invisible Children showed a lot of tact in their video production. They looped in celebrities and take a stand against rape and child exploitation. One would be hard pressed to disagree with them at face value and, certainly, their viral success attests to the seemingly innocuous sentiment behind their agenda.

Alas, part of their success seems to be laden in the fact that most people who are now “anti-Kony” don’t know much about the movement aside from the video. A less heartwarming article in The Atlantic should, in theory, have reversed this trend:

According to Visible Children, an anti Invisible Children blog, the company spent only 33 percent of its $8 million-plus in spending on “direct services.” Some critics also point to Charity Navigator, which grades the transparency and financial earnings of charities, and Invisible Children’s 2-star rating when it comes to “accountability and “transparency” (out of four).

And The Guardianreports that Invisible Children supports the Ugandan Army. That isn’t good, because they also do plenty of bad things (arrests, torture, killings, etc.), says an expert at Human Rights Watch Africa.

Invisible Children also been accused of tampering with the stats they reported, inflating them.Foreign Affairs called it, “manipulated facts for strategic purposes.”

So, there, now people know about what a wreck Uganda is, but they are – generally – getting their information through a pretty miserable filter. Some 26 million people have viewed the KONY video on YouTube and, judging by my Facebook feed, many have had their heartstrings tugged.

I wouldn’t fault anyone for “liking” this; I certainly don’t want warlords to prosper and I suspect any decent human being shares that sentiment. Unfortunately, the truth about Invisible Children underpins a deeper problem with how people take their positions on many political issues: since time is scarce, it is oftentimes difficult for people to take informed positions on issues that don’t directly apply to them. Emotional appeals are a type of political shorthand for propagating poorly designed policies – both foreign and domestic – because they don’t require much else than the coaxing of the audiences ego. (“If you believe everyone deserves life, vote for universal coverage!” “Look, a warlord is doing terrible things, don’t you want to stop him?”) Once issues take a purely emotional tone, the debate becomes then an act in “out-compassioning” the other side.

One must bear in mind, though, that all that glitters is not gold – or that all who do a very well-produced criticism of Ugandan warlords are necessarily worth supporting.


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