Commentary: Social media forces killers to go deep underground

In a recent visit to Uganda, I saw that most of the skepticism that surrounded the release of the #Kony2012 viral video a few years ago by a group of American activists that tried to bring to justice the leader of a vicious cult-like Ugandan rebel group has largely dissipated. The campaign tried to raise the profile of the leader, Joseph Kony, a self-proclaimed prophet in order to get him arrested and tried by an international tribunal.

When the 30-minute video was released six years ago, it attracted more than 100 million mostly young viewers in a little over a week, creating a great deal of sensation worldwide and received the endorsement of many celebrities including Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates and Taylor Swift. Winfrey’s endorsement alone boosted viewership by about 10 million, according to the Pew Research Center.

The American human rights group behind the “Stop Kony” campaign, Invisible Children, was also successful in using the video to raise millions of dollars to expand its operations in the region to help children.

Asgede Hagos

However, the reaction to the release of the video from Uganda was decidedly negative; the government was particularly worried about its potential adverse impact of the film on the regime’s carefully cultivated pro-business, pro-investment image.

At the root of their criticism was the producer’s failure to verify the veracity of some of the key elements of the story line. For example, to add drama to the story plot, the producers left the impression that the notorious leader and his militant group of killers were still in the country though the group had moved to the neighboring countries of Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan.

The government took to social media to reach some of the thousands of people, but especially celebrities, who were supportive of the campaign. In a YouTube video, the government emphasized the point that the rebel group was no longer in Uganda. “The Kony2012 campaign fails to make one crucial point clear: Joseph Kony is not in Uganda,” the Ugandan counter campaign stressed.

The negative reaction to the video in Northern Uganda, the part of the country that was most brutalized by the rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), was even more intense; it included stone throwing at the activists who had come to hold public showing of the video. In an earlier trip to the region, I saw evidence of the effect of the group’s brutal activities in two Northern Uganda counties.

I talked to young boys and teenage girls who had managed to escape from the group while it was still operating in Uganda. Because the community refused to embrace the LRA, the group resorted to kidnapping as its primary means of recruiting fighters. Female kidnapping victims were abused as sex slaves.

However, today, the LRA is not viewed as a relevant factor in Uganda’s national life; the nation seems to have moved on.

Some Ugandans, ranging from college instructors to taxi drivers, in formal interviews as well as general discussions. see the anti-Kony campaign as a success., despite some of the still lingering, unresolved issues, including the campaign’s failure to have Joseph Kony apprehended and tried. Part of the credit goes to the security forces from Uganda and neighboring nations who have been hunting down Kony and his group the last few years; also involved in this effort was a small U.S. special operations team that was deployed from 2011 to 2017 to help as trainers and advisers in the effort to “catch or kill” Kony, who was designated in 2008 as “a global terrorist” by the George W. Bush administration.

However, those interviewed gave a great deal of the credit to social media for forcing the rebels to go deep underground, badly weakened and fighting for its own survival outside of Uganda. Many people across the world initially saw the campaign as a test of the influence of social media in bringing about justice where armies of at least four neighboring nations had failed to do so.

Many had doubted that even such a massive social media-driven campaign, with hundreds of millions of supporters, would have the leader of the LRA, an illusive and extremely brutal group, arrested and tried.

There are still signs of the group’s activities in the neighboring countries, though there is very little sign of its presence or activities in Uganda where it started its operations in the mid 1980s to overthrow the government in the name of Jesus.

The scars the group left in Uganda are still visible — in the child soldiers and sex slaves who managed to return home with the help of security forces who are still hunting down the rebels in the neighboring nations.

There is no question that the campaign was successful in discovering a reservoir of global goodwill in the fight against extremism in the region, creating unprecedented level of awareness about a little-known conflict in a region that rarely draws international media attention, and exposing the brutality of the militant group and its leader.

However, the campaign also showed the limitations of this new digital muscle as an innovative tool in the fight for justice. Joseph Kony is still at large, though on the run; his band of killers is still around, though no longer the menace it was.

Asgede Hagos is professor of communications at Delaware State University and the author of “Hardened Images: The Western Media and the Marginalization of Africa”.

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