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I Hated Kony Before He Was Cool

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Why Kony2012 should make us happy, and why it should make us sad.

"I hated Joseph Kony before he was cool." That's the thought I had to keep stifling on Wednesday, like some sort of humanitarian crisis hipster struggling with the fact his favourite band has 'gone mainstream'.

Kony is the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a cult/militia that has been responsible for the death, mutilation, rape and displacement of tens of thousands of people in and around Uganda. But, you probably knew that, because you've probably seen Kony2012, the campaign video by American charity Invisible Children which was designed to harness the power of social networking to bring him to justice.

I know that because I had read about him in a newspaper a few years ago and have interviewed people working in LRA areas. My adolescent reaction to the Kony phenomenon taking the internet by storm was, of course, missing the point somewhat. But, then, many people seemed to miss the point about Kony2012.

But that was to be expected.

The Kony2012 campaign essentially aims to "make Joseph Kony famous", so that people that people can no longer claim ignorance of his crimes as an excuse, essentially, for not caring enough to do something. And that, frankly, can not be a bad thing. Invisible Children, who work primarily with children abducted by Kony and his men and forced to become child soldiers, also want to maintain public support for a military mission sent to Uganda by the US last year to advise on how best to target the LRA. And they want supporters to write to key celebrities and government officials to pressure them into making Kony's capture a priority. So far, so admirable. The 30-minute video had, when I last checked, been watched 30 million times.

But the internet is a country, much like England, where no success remains unpunished long. Trolls, people who hated coming late to an internet phenomenon that had passed them by and those whose main aim is to say something original at all costs found it hard to support the video. They swayed the opinions of many genuinely concerned folk who perhaps found the level of instant hype suspect. They worried that Invisible Children was a dodgy organisation, that the video was a front for yet another Western military invasion of a sovereign state and that its attitude was paternalistic. Invisible Children's response answers most of those questions, but there are still problems with Kony2012.

My initial irritation at the entire internet seeming to discover Joseph Kony this week was not entirely misguided, you see. The fact is, the narrative of Kony as a powerful force in the Ugandan jungle is just old. The campaign is years late. At this point, Kony operates mostly in the East of D R Congo and his mad group is just one small participant in the ongoing bloodshed there. Whether Kony lives or dies, mass rapes, starvation due to displacement and brutal killings will continue. Because while Kony and the LRA are still very dangerous, they are far from being the central problem.

That problem is more complex than just one conflict, never mind just one man. Most of its roots lie in repeated invasions of the mineral-rich East of Congo on one pretext or another (some reasonable, some less so) by a large number neighbouring (and non-neighbouring) African countries, among them, Uganda. That is what troubles me, personally about the attitude of Kony2012. Track him down and bring him to justice, but do not 'stop at nothing', as the video suggests. Stop at arming and enabling an aggressive neighbour to go back into Congo when it has a history of leaving militias there doing much the same as Kony has been doing. Stop at treating the problem of violence in central Africa as if it can be solved militarily, rather than by strengthening central government's ability to fight rebel groups with the aid of unsexy means like roads, transparency and efficient taxes.

Kony2012 may be late, it may take rather too paternalist a tone and it may not fully understand how the history and politics of the region could bite those who take it seriously on the behind, but it is a good thing. Any campaign that can make middle-class Westerners care about Africans in countries they can't locate on a globe has to be. But the most interesting aspect of the whole story is how one video managed to engage millions of people with an issue that had been largely ignored.

It tells charities who think five minutes is the longest any human can pay attention to a worthy message that interesting videos can be as long as they like. It tells us all what tabloids have known for years: that people care more when you give them a simple bad-guy to hate. But, most of all, it tells us that social media are powerful and significant in breaking and spreading news, but that they are only as insightful and informed as their users.

Many are arguing that Kony2012 demonstrates that social media need to be taken more seriously, but really what it demonstrates is that real news journalism needs to be taken more seriously, if the dream of a bottom-up, democratic, information-led brighter future is to be realised. The information about Kony has been published in newspapers, on websites and on broadcast media for about a decade. That millions of people have been sharing it this week doesn't prove that one video can make the world care. It proves that the world doesn't care unless you've got a video and a Twitter trend.

A version of this post appeared on the Christianity magazine blog and The Narnian Socialist Review.