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'KONY 2012' viral video raises questions about filmmakers

By Nick Thompson, CNN
March 12, 2012 -- Updated 2228 GMT (0628 HKT)
  • "KONY 2012" racks up more than 70 million YouTube views
  • Film documents Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony's atrocities and plight of Ugandan children
  • Critics say film manipulates facts and distracts from more effective charity work in Uganda
  • Supporters say any publicity of the Lord's Resistance Army is welcome

(CNN) -- A controversial film about an African warlord and his army has spread to the far corners of the internet, racking up more than 70 million YouTube views and prompting a heated debate about the filmmakers and the effectiveness of their advocacy.

While its supporters say "KONY 2012" has raised much-needed awareness about Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, critics say the film is inaccurate, oversimplified, and distracting from more effective charity work in Uganda.

Questions have also been raised about the intentions and transparency of Invisible Children, the group behind the film, and its founders say they are releasing a new film to respond to the criticism.

What is "KONY 2012"?

"KONY 2012" is a half-hour video campaign about Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, the leader of the rebel Lord's Resistance Army, and alleged atrocities his army has committed since the 1980s, including the killing and disfiguring of villagers, forcing children to become soldiers, and forcing girls into sexual slavery.

The film features a former Ugandan child soldier and highlights the plight of children there, contrasting their lives with the director's own young child in America and pushing the notion that the Western world can stop Kony's reign of terror. Its makers say the film "aims to make Joseph Kony famous, not to celebrate him, but to raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice."

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LRA victim opposes 'Kony 2012'
Campaigning to stop warlord Joseph Kony
Raising awareness about the LRA

Who made "KONY 2012"?

The film was produced by Invisible Children, a San Diego-based nonprofit activist group founded by three filmmakers whose goal is to raise awareness about Kony's LRA and stop what it calls the longest-running armed conflict in Africa.

The group also made a film in 2005 about the LRA called "Invisible Children: Rough Cut," and has put pressure on both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations to take a side in the fight between the LRA and the Ugandan government, according to a 2011 story in Foreign Affairs.

The group says it has built schools in Uganda and operates a high-frequency radio station that broadcasts anti-LRA messages to fighters urging them to defect.

Invisible Children has been criticized for everything from how the group made "Kony 2012" to how it spends its money.

Is the film accurate?

Critics say "KONY 2012" manipulates the facts and ignores the Ugandan military's own rights abuses in its war with the LRA. A 2011 Foreign Affairs story accused Invisible Children of "exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders and emphasizing the LRA's use of innocent children as soldiers."

And in a Foreign Policy blog post, journalist Michael Wilkerson wrote: "But let's get two things straight: 1) Joseph Kony is not in Uganda and hasn't been for 6 years; 2) the LRA now numbers at most in the hundreds."

CNN's Christiane Amanpour says the constant pursuit of Kony, long the International Criminal Court's most wanted man, means he is now largely a "spent force" in Uganda.

"His crimes against these children were committed largely in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and because people have been going after him he's actually considered to be much more of a threat now in the Democratic Republic of Congo," she said.

The filmmakers have also drawn heavy fire for a 2008 photo showing the founders holding AK-47s and RPGs while posing with members of the Sudan People's Liberation Army, which has itself been accused of widespread human rights abuses during its decades-long conflict with the government of Sudan.

Is Invisible Children wasting donors' money?

While critics say that far too little of Invisible Children's money actually makes it to the Ugandans who need it the most, the group claims its mission is misunderstood.

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Only 32% of the money Invisible Children spent last year went to direct services, according to the group's financial statement, with much of the rest going toward the production of film, travel costs and staff salaries.

Co-founder and film narrator Jason Russell told CNN's Piers Morgan that the group is not a traditional on-the-ground development charity.

"We are not an organization that does amazing work on the ground -- if you want to fund a cow or help someone in a village ... that's only a third of what we do," said Russell.

"We work outside the traditional box of what you think about charity," he told CNN. "We have three Ms: the movie, which is going viral ... the movement, which is actual volunteers around the world ... and the mission -- to stop Kony and rehab the war-affected children through education, reintegration and building jobs for the community."

Independent charity evaluator Charity Navigator gave Invisible Children an overall rating of three out of four stars, but just two stars for "accountability and transparency" -- a fact the group attributes to not having five independent voting members on its board of directors.

In a statement, the group wrote: "We are in the process of interviewing potential board members, and we will add an additional independent member this year in order to regain our 4-star rating by 2013."

Is the film doing more harm than good?

Critics say "KONY 2012" will draw resources away from more effective charity organizations while reinforcing the idea that Africans are helpless and that Westerners must intervene to save them.

"Campaigns that focus on bracelets and social media absorb resources that could go toward more effective advocacy," write Amanda Taub and Kate Cronin-Furman in current affairs magazine, The Atlantic.

"Treating awareness as a goal in and of itself risks compassion fatigue -- most people only have so much time and energy to devote to far-away causes -- and ultimately squanders political momentum that could be used to push for effective solutions."

While some Ugandans appreciate the attention being put on Kony, CNN's David McKenzie says the group hasn't posed a real threat to Uganda for several years. "Nice message .... 15 years too late," one Ugandan military official told McKenzie.

Despite the negative attention heaped on Invisible Children, CNN's Amanpour says that any raised awareness of Kony and his crimes is a net positive.

"What's really important is that [the film] will not just sensitize people about war criminals like Kony, but try to get society onboard to pressure their government to do something about these atrocities."

CNN's Ashley Fantz contributed to this report.

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