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SALT LAKE CITY — A viral campaign to eradicate a man responsible for countless atrocities in northern Africa has brought to the forefront of a nation's consciousness both the plight of northern Africans and the readiness of young Americans to throw their weight behind a cause. Some have seen personally the destruction Joseph Kony leaves in his wake; others have been labeled "slacktivists." Their intentions, though, are united: they just want to change the world.
Some critics of the Kony 2012 movement contend that it is simply a convenient, "slacktivist" alternative to effecting real change. "Slacktivists," they contend, will take action that requires little effort and produces negligible change — posting a video on Facebook, for instance — for the reward of feeling as if they have done good in the world.
Many of the campaign's participants will do nothing more than post a touching video on a social network and call it good. Others are defending their involvement in the movement, saying a Facebook post is just the beginning of their efforts.
Brigham Young University student Courtney Cottrell organized Utah's Kony 2012 group. She said sharing the video is a start, but real change will take more effort.
"I think just sharing the video by itself doesn't do much, but it has been effective because it has been a catalyst," Cottrell said. "It's not just a video but a call to change that people are responding to."
As of Thursday evening, nearly 10,500 people had declared on Facebook their intent to participate in a "Cover the Night" event held April 21. Event organizers are hoping to "cover the town" with posters advertising the Kony 2012 movement in an effort to educate the community about Kony's activities.
The group, and similar groups nationwide, has been criticized for participating in what some claim is a "well- meaning but misinformed" campaign, launched by non-profit Invisible Children, against Kony.
"What are the consequences of unleashing so many exuberant activists armed with so few facts?" asked Michael Wilkerson in Foreign Policy magazine.
Wilkerson was referring to the facts about Joseph Kony, the LRA and Invisible Children that are either not included on not prominently displayed in the half-hour film:
- Kony, the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army and the man responsible for the abduction and forced servitude of at least 30,000 children over the past three decades, has not been in Uganda for at least six years
- Invisible Children is known to spend only one-third of donations on the ground in Africa
- Invisible Children supports direct military intervention in Uganda.
Additionally, Wilkerson worried "that it's unclear what exactly Invisible Children wants to do, other than raise a lot of money and attention."
The organizers of Utah's Kony 2012 group are fighting the "slacktivist" label by promoting education, saying the only clear path to change is by raising awareness for the cause. For them, the end goal — change in Africa — justifies the current means, and they say sharing a Facebook post is only the beginning of their educational efforts.
"Posting a video can have a lot of effects, even if the person posting it decides in the end to do nothing," said Suzanne Whitehead, a BYU student and one of the organizers. "There are a lot of different ways that people get motivated to make a difference in someone else's life — if only a handful of people see the video and decide to get more involved in the situation then it's worth it."
I think just sharing the video by itself doesn't do much, but it has been effective because it has been a catalyst.
Whitehead said the Utah group is not promoting Invisible Children; rather, it is about "Kony, Uganda and the stories of people I love and miss there."
All of the event's organizers have been to Uganda and have seen firsthand the way of life in the developing country.
"Doing real work in the developing world takes a lot of time and a lot of sacrifice," Whitehead said. "You cant just show up in a country and except to save everyone. The first thing anyone who wants to help needs to do is get educated about what is actually going on."
The group is spurred on by messages from the Ugandans they left behind upon their return to the developed world.
"I must say i personally appreciate your initiative of trying to let da world know of the deadly atrocities done on Ugandan n Congolese people by the L R A ," Ongaria Zake wrote in an email to Whitehead. "I pray to my God and call upon the entire world out their to help see dat some day He's brought to Justice so dat he's penalized for the crimes he committed."
Rosebell Kagumire, a Ugandan journalist, is worried, though, that the Kony 2012 campaign oversimplifies the complex issues plaguing many African countries — issues such as poverty and corruption that cannot be attributed to only one man.
"It simplifies the lives of millions of people in northern Uganda," she said in a video reaction posted on YouTube.
They are people whose lives would not likely be any more simple with the capture of one man. Since the LRA vacated northern Uganda in 2006, pervasive corruption and a high rate of population growth have continued to threaten the relative stability the country's citizens have experienced in recent years. It is a complicated set of problems, not Kony, that need to be addressed, according to critics of the movement.
Cottrell agreed there is danger in oversimplification of both the country's problems and possible solutions.
"Sharing a video on Facebook isn't the way to end famine, poverty or war, but it's the initial step to get people to care, which is the most important part," she said. "If we don't care about each other as human beings, we won't make a difference. It's important that we support what we believe in, even if people think it's dumb or useless or doesn't matter."
"I believe the combined efforts of many can make a difference."