How a Ugandan warlord went viral in 24 hours

The Globe and Mail

Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, speaking to journalists after a meeting with the UN humanitarian chief Ri-Kwamba in southern Sudan November 12, 2006. (Pool/Reuters/Pool/Reuters)

He is a Ugandan warlord whose army is accused of being responsible for more than 30,000 deaths. His use of child soldiers has earned him worldwide condemnation. And, there has been an International Criminal Court arrest warrant in his name since 2005.

But Joseph Kony – the head of the Lord’s Resistance Army – has managed to elude capture, and his name is little-recognized outside of Africa, except among those who follow the pursuit of war criminals.

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So how did Mr. Kony become a trending topic on Twitter in the United States, Europe, Canada and Australia in 24 hours?

The answer: A U.S. based charity; A compelling video; And a savvy social media campaign that sought to influence key cultural personalities to propel its cause and engage new audiences.

The group Invisible Children’s aim is to make Joseph Kony famous, so that in 2012 he can be finally brought to justice. The group asks supporters to join a pledge that reads “Joseph Kony is one of the world’s worst war criminals and I support the international effort to arrest him, disarm the LRA and bring the child soldiers home.”

It also invites people to buy an advocacy kit for $30. “People will think you’re an advocate of awesome,” the Invisible Children web site explains. The kit includes: t-shirt, KONY bracelet, stickers, button, and posters. “You can decorate yourself and the town with this one-stop shop.”

The video that has gone viral was posted Monday on YouTube and as of Wednesday afternoon, there were more than 7,300,000 views – most popular in the United States, then followed by Canada. In Africa, YouTube users in South Africa and Uganda were also clicking on the 30-minute film.



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According to YouTube’s own statistics, the video is most popular with girls and young women aged 13 to 24.

Musicians and celebrities were among the first to tweet about campaign to their followers, including Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian, and Taylor Swift.

In Canada, politicians such as Tony Clement and Justin Trudeau were tweeting about the campaign.

But there has been some criticism of the social media campaign and the group behind it, including the depiction of Joseph Kony in a poster along with images of Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden.

“It is ridiculous to compare Joseph Kony with the worst mass murderer in history (only Joseph Stalin could come close to challenging Hitler for that title) and America’s now defunct public enemy number one,” writes one blogger.

The Lord’s Resistance Army has waged war for more than 20 years against the Ugandan government and is accused of more than 30,000 deaths and displacing millions of people.

The film begins with moving scenes of ordinary people empowered by social media and new communication technologies.

“The next 27 minutes are an experiment. But in order for it to work, you have to pay attention,” the narrator in the video.

The film then moves to a hospital scene and the birth of Gavin, the son of Jason Russell, who is the head of the Invisible Children team.

“Years before Gavin was born, the course of my life was changed by another boy,” Mr. Russell continues. That other boy is Jacob, whom Mr. Russell met nearly 10 years ago in Uganda.

At the time, Jacob lived in fear of abduction, a common practice of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Abducted children were forced to fight as child soldiers. Jacob’s brother had tried to escape the LRA, but was captured and killed, the film explains.

“We are also going to do everything we can to stop them [Joseph Kony and the LRA] Do you hear my words? Do you know what I mean? We are, we are going to stop them,” the filmmaker tells Jacob in an emotional scene in which Jacob describes how he does not want to live any more.

The film and the movement it seeks to launch, Mr. Russell explains, is an attempt to fulfill a promise he made to Jacob nine years ago.

In a scene involving his son Gavin, Mr. Russell tries to explain his “job in Africa” and who the “bad guys” are. He puts it to his son, who cannot be more than 5 years old, “Yeah, they [the abducted children]don’t want to do what he [Joseph Kony]says but he forces them to do bad things. What do you think of that?”

“Sad,” his son replies.

Mr. Kony is accused of seeking to have Uganda ruled according the Bible’s 10 commandments. His followers see him as a prophet.

In October 2005, he was indicted by the ICC on war crimes and crimes against humanity. He is also accused of abducting children, turning young girls into sex slaves and using child soldiers. A peace deal in 2008 fell apart because the Ugandan government would not give Kony any guarantees over the ICC withdrawing its arrest warrant against him and key LRA commanders.

So what has happened to the indictment against Mr. Kony? The indictment still stands, and the Ugandan army continues its hunt for the LRA leader. Mr. Kony is believed to be in the jungles of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it has been reported that LRA has burned villages and forced people to join his army.

In October, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that he would be sending 100 U.S. soldiers to Uganda to help countries in the region hunt for Kony.

Follow on Twitter: @affanchowdhry

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