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Nonprofit's 'Kony 2012' viral video stirs emotion, controversy

YouTube video produced by Invisible Children sparks awareness and criticism over activism in Africa.

If you're on Facebook, chances are a link titled "Kony 2012" has appeared on your news feed this week.

The video, which was uploaded to YouTube on March 5, tells the story of filmmaker Jason Russell's personal mission to take down Joseph Kony, the Ugandan leader of the guerrilla group Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).

Produced by the nonprofit group Invisible Children, it has all of the elements of a powerful viral video: heroes and villains, heart, purpose and a call to action (the filmmakers also make good use of Facebook Timeline as storytelling tool). In less than a week, the video has garnered more than 26.6 million views, but it's also sparked controversy.

Invisible Children has been criticized for spending more of its resources on advocacy and filmmaking rather than on-the-ground humanitarian work. According to Charity Navigator, Invisible Children's accountability and transparency score is at 45 out of 100. In comparison, similar organizations Africare and AMREF USA have scores of 70 and 67, respectively. Invisible Children's explanation of the score is that it only has four independent voting members on their board of directors. Charities with fewer than five independent voting members get 15 points deducted from their accountability and transparency score.

In response to critics, Invisible Children released this statement on its Web site:

"Invisible Children's financial statements are online for everyone to see. Financial statements from the last 5 years, including our 990, are available at The organization spent 80.46 percent on our programs that further our three fold mission, 16.24 percent on administration and management costs and 3.22 percent on direct fundraising in FY2011. Invisible Children is independently audited every year and in full compliance with our 501 c 3 status."

Critics also say that Invisible Children's video simplifies an issue that is more complex than just eliminating Kony from Uganda.

Along with organizations like the Resolve campaign and GuluWalk, Invisible Children has been accused of manipulating facts. Foreign Affairs magazine wrote in November 2011:

"In their campaigns, such organizations have manipulated facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders and emphasizing the LRA's use of innocent children as soldiers, and portraying Kony--a brutal man, to be sure--as uniquely awful, a Kurtz-like embodiment of evil. They rarely refer to the Ugandan atrocities or those of Sudan's People's Liberation Army, such as attacks against civilians or looting of civilian homes and businesses, or the complicated regional politics fueling the conflict."

Critics don't appear to doubt the altruism of Invisible Children's mission, they are more concerned with what happens after people watch the video.

"One consequence, whether it's [Invisible Children] or Save Darfur, is a lot of dangerously ill-prepared young people embarking on missions to save the children of this or that war zone," said Chris Blattman, professor of political science and economics at Yale University. "At best it's hubris and egocentric. More often, though, it leads to bad programs, misallocated resources, or ill-conceived military adventures."

Invisible Children recognized the critique that they oversimplified the issue and admitted that the film was meant to serve as an entry point to the topic.

"In our quest to garner wide public support of nuanced policy, Invisible Children has sought to explain the conflict in an easily understandable format, focusing on the core attributes of LRA leadership that infringe upon the most basic of human rights. In a 30-minute film, however, many nuances of the 26-year conflict are admittedly lost or overlooked," the group said in a statement.

Ultimately, Invisible Children want to shift the conversation so that critics and allies, alike, continue to raise awareness about Kony and the LRA.

"Let's focus on what matters, and what we DO agree on: Joseph Kony needs to be stopped. And when that happens, peace is the limit," the organizers stated.

This story was first published to's Tech Talk.