The Dark Side of Kony 2012: Look in the Mirror

The Dark Side of Kony 2012: Look in the Mirror March 20, 2012

Most folks are at least somewhat familiar with the “Kony 2012” phenomenon by now. Millions have become captivated by the story. But by and large, no one knew a thing about Joseph Kony, Invisible Children or Jason Russell a couple of weeks ago.

It’s a new world.

Joseph Kony of the Ugandan Lord's Resistance Army
For those still catching their breath in the 24-hour news cycle and viral media reality we’re in, Joseph Kony is a member of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. He’s also a wanted war criminal, accused of having a hand in more than 30,000 children being abducted and forced into fighting for the LRA in the past few decades. He’s a fugitive, and the folks at Invisible Children decided to do something about it.

Earlier this month, the organization released a 30-minute video that not only laid bare the crimes of which Kony and the LRA have been accused; it also employed what is called “an experiment” in the video. The idea was to turn all the ammunition of social media on rooting out this man. The results were amazing.

But not in the way everyone might have hoped, and certainly not how the creators expected.

The video went viral. Celebrities jumped on board, helping spread the word. Hashtags on Twitter like “StopKony” and “Kony2012” trended upward at dizzying rates. After millions of hits, the Invisible Children site crashed under the weight of such unforeseen attention. Jason Russell, the narrator of the video and spokesperson for Invisible Children, became an instant celebrity, invited onto every talk show and news segment his schedule could handle.

I can only imagine what the effects of such literal overnight stardom have on a person. But if Jason Russell is any example, it’s not good.

Jason Russell, spokesperson for Invisible Children
After a breakneck media tour, Russell snapped. He was discovered nearly naked, wandering the streets, babbling incoherently. It was also reported he was pulling his underwear off and masturbating in public. Though the official press release from Invisible Children is that Russell’s theatrics were a result of exhaustion, dehydration and malnutrition, speculation is that he was under the influence of controlled substances.

What’s remarkable and exciting is that a small group like Invisible Children with a limited budget and a compelling story can rock the media world on its heels. They can command the public’s attention and focus millions of people on a common goal of calling an injustice out into the light.

The problem is that, to date, Kony is still at large, and the story has devolved into tabloid fodder over Jason Russell. He is humiliated, the organization risks the loss of all credibility. Children are still at risk of abduction, abuse and murder in Uganda, but we’re more fascinated with a guy making a fool of himself when he withers under the intense glare of an unexpected spotlight.

Ugandan Child Soldiers
How much did we, or do we, care about child soldiers in Uganda? How motivated are we to see Joseph Kony brought to justice? Enough to repost a video or tweet a trending hashtag perhaps. But we’re so easily distracted. There’s so much else scrambling for our attention. so many wrongs in the world that it can be overwhelming. And though we like a quick, sanitary, low-demand way to feel like we’re doing something good, we’d actually much rather be reading about a drugged-up white guy running around town in his underwear.

Yes, Jason Russell Screwed up, and his timing could hardly be worse. But the breakdown itself, though it tells us something about the culture of instant celebrity we live in, tells us more about ourselves if we pay attention.

We want to feel good about ourselves, but more than that, we’re hopeless voyeurs. Given the choice between digging deeper into the problem of child soldiers in Uganda and a clicking on a headline about a schmuck in his underwear, we’ll take the latter.

Some might say the ugly side of this story is what happened to Jason Russell. I say its the fact that we made what happened to him a story at all. Call me a hypocrite or say I’m adding to the problem by talking about it further, but you won’t find links here to stories about Jason Russell. This isn’t about Jason; it never was.

It all reminds me of a now-famous sermon given by Tony Campolo in which he said, “I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said ‘shit’ than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.”

Tony’s right. We don’t really give a shit. And it’s too bad, because 30,000 child soldiers in Uganda wish we did.

READ HERE about the UN’s report on Ugandan child soldiers.

Learn more about Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army HERE.

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  • Anniemcu

    Which is more important – the facts of Kony’s crimes and the need to bring him to a halt AND justice, or the sad snapping of the many who worked so hard to bring Kony’s crimes to the world’s attention? I think even a moment’s hesitation will bring the right one back into focus. Get help for Russell, yes, but GET KONY!

  • Erin

    I’ve known about Kony and about IC for some time now… I appreciate some of the criticisms (the well thought out ones) from the Ugandan people, and how the issue of Kony and the LRA could have been handled. That said, might I address the issue of Jason Russell’s instant celeb? I agree fully that he’s not the focus, but if his circumstance is any indication of what happens to a person through viral social media, is this not a dialogue we ought to have? Are other leaders around the world setting themselves up for public breakdowns? I’m asking out of sincere interest of the Russell family, not really wanting Jason to be a “case study”; but I also have some honest concern about this viral age we’re in. If anyone thinks s/he is above what happened to Jason (and as fast), we’re delusional. What kind of people are we being to those who experience such instant fame? What are we demanding of them? Are we that harsh? Are families placed in such vulnerability all because of overwhelming global reaction? What do we need to be aware of if we are considering such measures in our own ministries?

    •  completely and totally agree. and in cases where his downfall is simply an object lesson for a meaningful discussion, great. But the predominant attention is simply voyeuristic distraction.

      And though it does no good to talk about what I planned to write, I had intended to delve into this part of the story too, but I hit 1,000 words and figured I’d better stop 🙂

      • Erin

        Dang word limits. 🙂

        Agreed about voyeurism. Says more about us than the issue at hand 9.99/10. Support the Russells at this time, leave them in peace to be a family, and take this opportunity to examine ourselves and how we’re creating a culture of climactic cataclysm.

  • LauraJean Torgerson
  • Powerful words, Christian. Thanks for rattling my cage today.

  • deb arca

    Great post, Christian.  Thank you.

  • Jennifer Wattskl


  • Thanks for saying that.