NU students respond to KONY controversy

Lauren Caruba

The Northwestern community has joined the debate surrounding the release of the viral video “KONY 2012,” which has been promoted and contested online for several weeks.

“KONY 2012,” a 30-minute documentary made by advocacy organization Invisible Children, has drawn more than 85 million views on YouTube since its March 5 release. The video aims to expose warlord Joseph Kony’s capture of thousands of Ugandan children, which he later turned into child soldiers and sex slaves.

The campaign has even gained the attention of American celebrities and the Ugandan prime minister, who released his own video in response to Invisible Children’s documentary.

Due to the increasing popularity of the video, NU student groups, including the Northwestern University Conference on Human Rights and the African Students Association, are teaming up to host a discussion panel April 9 when Invisible Children comes to campus.

NUCHR President Noeli Sernasaid Invisible Children contacted the University prior to the online release of “Kony 2012″ to set up a screening of the film. However, after the video went viral in early March, NUCHR chose to expand the event.

“We decided that with all the controversies and all the backlash against it that we needed to have a discussion about it,” the Weinberg junior said. “We want every perspective.”

NUCHR plans to bring NU professors who specialize in African politics and social activism, an expert on media and an Invisible Children representative to participate in the panel.

In addition to Invisible Children’s upcoming appearance at NU, some students plan to participate in NU’s April 20 “Cover the Night,” one of the many nationwide postings of “Kony 2012” flyers in public places.

Medill sophomore Rebecca Oken, creator of the Facebook event “Cover the Night Northwestern,” said she wanted to take action immediately after viewing the video for the first time.

“The video is really beautifully done and it’s really well-produced,” Oken said. “It was a great way to get people inspired.”

Despite the video’s wild popularity among many social media users, some have criticized the Kony campaign for misrepresenting the citizens of Uganda and the country’s key conflicts.

“The viral aspect of (the video) demonstrates how a message can be heard and how it can reach vast numbers of people nearly simultaneously,” history Prof. Jeff Rice said. Since there is no standard regulation of what is dispersed through social media, he added, it “can result in very weak material with massive distribution.”

Ahabwe Mugerwa Michael, the founder of the Centre for Human Rights and Policy Studies, a nonprofit based in Uganda, said the video’s Western perspective underestimates the abilities of the Ugandan population.

“The video presents these people (Ugandans) as not being able to help themselves at all,” Michael said.

Michael said the video also fails to acknowledge the Ugandan military’s hand in the slaughter of its own people and contributes to the commercialization of the nonprofit sector.

NU ASA President Michelle Byamugisha,who is of Ugandan descent, said she agrees with Michael.

“It wasn’t very holistic in its presentation of the crisis,” the Communication sophomore said. “It doesn’t offer the perspective of Ugandans as much as the perspective of what Americans can do.”

Many also have a problem with the overall relevance and timing of Invisible Children’s anti-Kony campaign, because Kony is no longer in Uganda.

“He’s much less a significant problem today than he was in the early 2000s when he was terrorizing northern Uganda,” said Rice, an executive board member of the Program of African Studies. “If you were to ask me what are the top 10 problems in Africa, Joseph Kony would not make my list. Not by a long shot.”

Rice taught his students about Joseph Kony long before the release of the Invisible Children video, he said. This quarter, he will show the Kony documentary to his students as an example of Africa’s misrepresentation in Western culture, he added.

Byamugisha said despite its flaws, the Kony video has still positively impacted the NU community.

“Having this video become so popular has opened our campus to contemporary African politics, modes of activism, global perspectives, the power of social media,” she said. “There are so many facets of this campaign that have made it as powerful as it is today. It’s an opportunity for us to have bigger discussions on campus.”

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