Sat, Mar 10, 2012 - Page 16 News List

Online, a Ugandan conflict soars to topic No. 1

An activist group based in California is getting worldwide attention for a video that targets Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity

By Josh Kron and J. David Goodman  /  NY Times News Service, Kampala, Uganda

Jason Russell said he never knew he was driving into a war zone. At 23, he had just graduated from the University of Southern California after studying film, he said, and was out looking for a story to tell.

Suddenly, he said, gunmen shot at the truck in front of him, and that is how he discovered Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army. He would dedicate the next nine years of his life, often in obscurity, to making them a household name.

This week, in a testament to the explosive power of social media, he managed to do so in a matter of days, baffling diplomats, academics and Ugandans who have been working assiduously on the issue for decades without anything close to the blitz of attention that Russell and his tight-knit group of activists have generated.

Since being posted Monday, their video, KONY 2012, has attracted more than 50 million views on YouTube and Vimeo, generating hundreds of thousands of US dollars in donations on the first day alone and rocketing across Twitter and Facebook at a pace rarely seen for any video, let alone a half-hour film about a distant conflict in central Africa.

Although Russell, 32, is at a loss to fully explain it, he has clearly tapped into a vein of youthful idealism that the authorities the world over have been struggling — and failing — to comprehend and keep up with. YouTube said the popularity was driven by US viewers and those younger than 25. Many parents, including at least one in the US State Department, discovered the video only after their teenage children showed it to them.

“Mark had it brought to his attention by his 13-year-old, I think, earlier this morning,” Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, said at a news briefing Thursday, referring to her colleague, Mark Toner.

The surge of awareness is even more remarkable considering that US President Barack Obama, under pressure from Congress, announced in October that he had authorized the deployment of about 100 US military advisers to help African nations working toward “the removal of Joseph Kony from the battlefield,” a major step in US foreign policy in Africa.

Yet many viewers had never heard of Kony or his murderous band of fighters until seeing the video by Russell’s group, Invisible Children, pop up in their Facebook feeds. Tuesday, views on YouTube, already climbing steadily, exploded at a vertiginous rate after celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey, with her nearly 10 million Twitter followers, began posting messages. Soon other celebrities like Rihanna and Ryan Seacrest, who were similarly bombarded with messages from the campaign’s supporters, began posting about it, too.

“Was going to sleep last night and saw ur tweets about #StopKony ... watched in bed, was blown away,” Seacrest posted to Twitter on Wednesday.

Gripping and evocative though it is, the video has alarmed many veteran observers of the devastation that Kony and his fighters have left in their wake. Many specifically take issue with the video and the organization for how they present the fight against the rebels, as well as how the organization spends its money behind the scenes.

Only halfway through the film does Russell mention that “the war” he describes is no longer happening in Uganda, where he sets the documentary. The Lord’s Resistance Army left the country years ago, migrating to more fragile nations like the Democratic Republic of Congo.

This story has been viewed 3644 times.

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