Teaching about the “Stop Kony” Campaign: A Teachable Social Media Moment


At the beginning of the Humanities I in Action course, we teach a unit about the importance of understanding the concept of worldview.  We stress that it is critical to consider one’s beliefs and values, in light of an historical and contemporary understanding of issues, before deciding on taking action.  This is an important caution, for the students that I teach sincerely want to ‘make a difference’.

The global video phenomenon “Stop Kony,” produced by the advocacy group Invisible Children, has inadvertently raised this controversial question of taking well-informed action in a compelling manner. Respected commentators are lining up on both sides of the issue, making this a genuinely debatable topic.  Watching the film in class, many of my students liked its American style, a similar cultural approach that we use in Humanities I in Action: inspire students to take action through the use of emotive video clips and give them an opportunity to ‘make the world a better place’ through service-learning.

In the midst of the furor, this blog entry shares the lesson plans that I composed as part of a mini-unit on “Kony 2012.”  I hope that more educators will use this teachable moment to help students think about what constitutes proper use of social media.  In addition, this issue raise significant geopolitical concerns, such as the role of the American military, the “War on Terror” in Central Africa, the global search for oil, and the potential overtones of neocolonialism.  “Kony 2012” has much for students and teachers to consider.

[Since posting this entry, the Outreach Council of the African Studies Council has produced an excellent teacher’s guide, “The Phenomenon of Kony 2012,” for use in classrooms.]

Teaching about the “Stop Kony” Campaign

I decided on Tuesday to interrupt my curriculum to take a detour into this issue that students seemed highly interested in.  We began our mini-unit the next day.

Wednesday (Day 1):

  • I started the class asking my students who had heard about this issue while they and the teachers were away on their mostly out-of-Hong Kong trips the previous week.  Most of the students had heard about this issue through Facebook.
  • 5 of the 18 students had watched the half-hour video. I asked these students to go to an empty classroom and search online for pros and cons about the issue to share with us.  Then I showed the video to the rest of the class.
  • Initial student feedback was nearly all positive about the video.  They liked the style, the compelling personal narrative, and the cause.  They were ready to get involved.
  • Then the five students in the other room came in and shared a number of positive and negative responses, including an 8-minute defense of the Invisible Children’s budgets.
  • I asked students to write a blog comment for the following day. Before responding, I asked them to read an article by Professor Adam Branch, “Dangerous Ignorance: The Hysteria of Kony 2012” and to watch a video clip by Rosebell Kagumire, a Ugandan blogger, about her reaction.  Both views challenged the initial student reaction.

This is the assignment I gave to the students for Wednesday night:

“Stop Kony” Video Response

We started the year talking about Neville who really believed he was doing a good thing by taking the native Aborigines from their families.  We learned that good intentions aren’t enough.  The “Stop Kony” video makes us think, too, about what it is means to do the right thing, regardless of one’s good intentions.

  • Write a @15 line response tomorrow on our blog.  Read the following article by Adam Branch and watch the following video clip by Rosebell Kagumire.  Then answer this question:

Do you support the spread of the “Stop Kony” video and the movement it hopes to initiate? 

Follow these guidelines to get full credit.

  • Your first sentence should state your answer to the question.  (If you would like to create your own thesis that is somewhere between support or reject, you can certainly do that.)
  • Your entire piece should only include ideas and elements that relate to your thesis.
  • If you support “Stop Kony,” then you need to show that you have read ideas from Adam and/or Bell, and rejected them.
  • If up do not support “Stop Kony,” then you should use ideas from Adam and/or Bell to support your thesis

Here are two student comments:

From Tiana, whose reading moved her away from strong support of the cause:

“Before watching the video, I had heard so many positive things about it I was sure I was going to support this campaign, but instead I stand somewhere in between supporting and rejecting it. Like Rose Bell said, I wasn’t sure what the video’s aim was the first few minutes in, since everything seemed so nice and peachy: for example, the birth of Jason Russell (the film maker)’s son, Gavin, and him growing up over the span of about 5 years. But finally, the film started talking about Joseph Kony, the number 1 wanted man in the ICC, otherwise known as the “bad” guy.

Invisible Children candy-coated the video: Kony was bad, and they were good. This causes me to agree with Rose Bell: everything isn’t as simple as the video projected. Adam Branch pointed out a few arguments that I concur with. To start off with, there’s the war that Kony started with the Ugandan Army that Invisible Children neglected to show which played a big part in the beginning of Kony’s criminal record. Another argument being that the US government was just using Invisible Children to send more military aids into Africa. Invisible Children may have been fooled to think that they sent the advisors to Uganda to “help” find Kony, but as many pointed out, Kony’s not in Uganda anymore, and he hasn’t been for the past few years. So, will the advisors really be of much help?

Yes, catching Kony will change history, but how will it affect the Ugandan’s lives? Won’t they just keep on living like they have the past few years since he left Uganda? That was another point Branch made, as the Ugandans are now facing problems that don’t exactly relate to Kony: land being taken away by foreign investors, land speculators who collaborate with the Ugandan government and military, and the nodding disease, which thousands of children have to rely on relief aid.

The video was made with good intentions towards the capturing of Joseph Kony, and I do support that. But the video not only alluded that the Africans (Ugandans) were incapable of fighting their own problems which Rose Bell felt, it also showed that Kony was their biggest problem when it’s not anymore in 2012. People try to become heroes by helping out, but that’s the problem. They don’t really know what’s going on, they’ve watched the video and now they think they know everything about the struggles Ugandans have been through. And due to our incredibly intelligent planning, Kony has ran and hidden away.”

From Nick, who defended Invisible Children:

“After watching the Kony 2012 video, it inspired me, and I support spreading the “Stop Kony 2012” video and the movement they are trying to initiate. I believe the video was made with good intentions to bring Joseph Kony to justice and reduce LRA’s movement. Even though the video may be slightly over simplified, its points are still valid and stopping Kony will have mach more pros then con. Even though many people would argue Kony is currently not very active, what’s stopping this murderer, abductor, and killer from committing more crimes? Adam Branch said “ the US government has gladly adopted in order to help justify the expansion of their military presence in central Africa.” Yes this could be true, however even though the United States government could go into central Africa using “Kony 2012” as an excuse and take their resources, their main cause could be for the sake of taking Kony down. This could be a genius cover-up, however either way would result in Kony being taken stopped and would result in lives saved and justice served. Do we really want to sit around and do nothing like in pervious situations or do we want to take action and help them out? As citizens of the international community, we must take action as soon as possible. The world is quite new to putting major leaders on trial and Kony is a place to start. Even though it may not significantly reduce the amount of crimes committed in central Africa it still will slightly help the situation they are currently in, and is a place to something great. Kony 2012 will also help the world see what the international community is capable of achieving.

The video could do a better job explaining the complex situation, and even though it only scratches the surface of the situation in Uganda and its neighboring countries, there is only a certain amount of information you can fit in a thirty-minute video. It amuses me how 78 million people has seen this movie just in one week. The film also shows what the global community can do. Just through the Internet, an extremely large movement was born, causing the US government to initiate some action.”

Thursday (Day 2):

The student comments were generally of quite high quality, and the majority of the students found that Branch’s and Kagumire’s arguments had affected their original reaction to the video.  I felt that the most important next step was to have students try to understand the Ugandan and Central African situation better to determine if these two opinions appear credible.  I asked students in groups to research a related topic of two or three to choose and to present what they had found for Friday.  Here are the project choices I gave them:

1)   Is the US in the process of militarizing Central Africa, including South Sudan?  What do you think was Obama’s motive in putting 100 advisors in Uganda?  Can the Ugandan military be trusted to enter into foreign countries’ territories to find Kony?  The film alleges that there are reasons to believe Obama is wavering in his support for the placement of US military personnel, citing this as one of the reasons for the April 20th demonstration.

2)   What is the oil situation in Uganda?  When did Uganda start producing oil?  What oil companies are involved?  Is there any connection between oil and US interest in sending in military advisors?

3)   What is the land grab issue in Uganda that Adam Branch refers to in his op-ed?  Respond to his question: “How are we, as consumers, contributing to land grabbing and to the wars ravaging this region?”

4)   What is “Nodding Disease” and how does its importance compare to catching Joseph Kony?  Who are the Acholi people and what is relevant about their situation to the disease and to this situation?

5)   Do you agree with Rosebell Kagumire’s charge that Invisible Children has misrepresented Ugandans as helpless, and America as “sole saviors” in this situation?  (You may want to use excerpts from “White Man’s Burden” and “White Man, Where are your Sacred Places?” from our first unit.)  Does the film undermine Africans’ sense of self-efficacy about their  ability to solve problems?  See her blog.

Also see this blog response, “African Critics of Kony Campaign Hear Echoes of the White Man’s Burden.”  (You may also Adam Branch’s comment at the bottom of this blog entry in response to this question.)

6)   Why does Ocampo of the ICC support this campaign?  Is he a trustworthy source?  Read Adam Branch’s article in “Dissent” magazine on the ICC: “International Justice, Local Injustice.” Who is Adam Branch? Take a look at his website for his course. Do you see him as a reliable and credible source?

7)   What contextual factors allowed Joseph Kony to come to power?  Bring the story up-to-date.  Where is Joseph Kony now and what impact is he still having?

8)   Summary presentation: What key facts should be presented in the video in order to have a better understanding of challenges facing modern-day Uganda and ways to help?

9)   Summary presentation: Despite these criticisms, defend Invisible Children’s attempt to solve a major global justice issue through their advocacy campaign.

Useful Articles for your Research

Overview and Background

  1. ‘Stop Kony’ Campaign Ignites Firestorm,” Hanford Sentinel, Brandon Santiago, March 12
  2. Kong 2012 Video Draws Criticism in Uganda,” Huffington Post, Rodney Muhumuza, March 10
  3. A Video Campaign and the Power of Simplicity,” NY Times, Noah Cohen, March 11
  4. The Lord’s Resistance Army,” Richard Downie, Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 18, 2011.
  5. African Viewpoint: All Hype, No Justice?” BBC, Farai Sevenzo, March 21
  6. Making Sense of Kony” website by professors and researchers to provide more background about this situation.

Pro-Kony Campaign articles/responses

  1. Viral Video, Vicious Warloard.” NY Times, Nicholas Kristof, March 14
  2. #StopKONY Now!!!” NY Times, Roger Cohen, March 12
  3. Invisible Children CEO Defends Use of Finances video
  4. Invisible Children Addresses Critiques from Invisible Children website
  5. How Obama Should Stop Kony,” CNN, John C. Bradshaw and Ashley Benner, March 12
  6. Invisible Children’s Kony Campaign gets Support of ICC Prosecutor,” BBC, Anna Holligan, March 8
  7. Ugandan War Journalist Frank Nyakairu defends “Kony 2012”

 Critiques of the Kony Campaign

  1. Dangerous Ignorance: The Hysteria of Kony 2012,” Aljazeera, Adam Branch, researcher in Uganda (response to first Invisible Children video on Kony 2012)
  2. Kony Part II: Accountability, not Awareness,” Aljazeera, Adam Branch (response to second Invisible Children video on Kony 2012)
  3. Kony 2012″ Video Screening Met with Anger in Northern Uganda,” Guardian, Rosebell Kagumire and David Smith
  4. Joseph Kony is not in Uganda (and Other Complicated Things),” Foreign Policy blog by Michael Wilkerson (friend of Rose Bell Kagumire)
  5. Stop Kony 2012 – Ugandan Viewpoint,” March 8, analysis of Rosebell Kagumire’s video clip with comments by Michael Wilkerson.  Kagumire is an Internet Freedom Fellow.
  6. ‘Stop Kony’ Campaign Approach Will Cause More Harm than Good,” Oklahoma Daily, March 14.
  7. International Justice, Local Injustice” on Northern Uganda and the International Criminal Court, “Dissent” Magazine,  Adam Branch, Summer, 2004
  8. Kony 2012 Campaign Will Scare Away Investors video clip
  9. Solving War Crimes with Wristbands: The Arrogance of ‘Kony 2012‘”, The Atlantic, March 8
  10. The Problem with Invisible Children’s ‘Kony 2012‘, by Michael Deibert, Huffington Post, March 7 (useful historical background makes up most of the piece)
  11. Kony 2012 Sequel Video – Does it Answer the Questions,” The Guardian news blog – see Craig Valters critique
  12. Don’t Elevate Kony,” by Alex DeWaal, March 10, 2012.
  13. To Help Africa, First Understand It,” International Herald Tribune, Mort Rosenblum, May 21, 2012

Current Issues in Uganda:

1.  “In Scramble for Africa, Oxfam Says, Company Pushed Ugandans Out,” by Josh Kron, New York Times, September 21, 2012
2.  “UPDF in Kony Hunt Accused of Rape, Looting,” The Observer, March 2, 2012
3.  “Obama Takes on the LRA: Why Washington Sent Troops to Central Africa” by Mareike Schomerus, Tim Allen, and Koen Vlassenroot, Foreign Affairs, November 15, 2011

Friday (Day 3):

Since student comments had shifted so dramatically from the previous day, I decided to read to them Nicholas Kristof’s op-ed of support for the “Stop Kony” cause.  Kristof’s writings appear occasionally in our Humanities I in Action course, especially when we studied the Darfur genocide. He is a trusted voice in our classroom.

Then students prepped and presented their projects.

Monday (Day 4):

On Monday we finished the remaining projects, and then students wrote an in-class essay about their learning from this mini-unit.  I decided to make the essay quite open-ended, giving them a choice of one of these two questions:

1) What is the biggest lesson you have drawn from studying the ‘Kony 2012’ issue?
2) Do you support or oppose the ‘Kony 2012’ campaign?

Present your thesis in your first paragraph, and then build your paragraphs around this thesis.  Time: 40 minutes.

Before students began writing their essays, I also shared with them my correspondence over the weekend with Adam Branch.  You may see my questions and his responses below:

1. The “Stop Kony” campaign seems to take sole credit for Obama’s decision to send in military advisors.  How can one sort out what is the result of advocacy work and what is realpolitik in Washington?

That’s tough, it’s something that political scientists spend their careers arguing over. I guess I would look at it this way: Invisible Children would have never gotten where they have if it weren’t for the significant support they’ve gotten from all quarters in Washington. There may be some congresspeople who jumped on board because they, like many young people around the world, were convinced by the movie, but the kind of support they have gotten cannot be explained by way of the idea that IC’s message is just so much stronger than the message by anyone else out there. Therefore, like I said in the piece, although the Kony 2012 campaign might have made it easier, those troops would have been sent without the campaign…and will be withdrawn or redeployed or beefed-up according to the exigencies of the defense department, not according to the number of Facebook “likes” IC gets (or whatever happens on facebook!).

2. You didn’t comment on the “White Man’s Burden” aspect of the approach, and I’m wondering if you have an opinion.  While the video is very American-centric and does seem to support the neo-colonist narrative arc (as Rosebell Kagumire said in her video), as an educator I’m trying to get privileged students excited and empowered about issues that are outside of their place or origin/residence.  Are Kagumire’s comments representative of what other Ugandans feel?

I didn’t comment on the White Man’s Burden aspect mostly because others had used that comparison, and I thought it was too obvious for me to have to use as well. So I agree with her entirely. As to what other Ugandans feel…there is a significant diversity of opinion, as you might imagine. But the violent reaction against the film in Lira a few days ago, and the fact that they can’t even show the film here because people are getting so angry about it, is testament to just how offensive it is to many people in Uganda. When the “victims” throw rocks at their “saviors”, you know something is deeply wrong.

Essay Results

I was quite pleased with the essays.  On the whole, students were able to explain how their initial enthusiasm for the video was tempered by additional research into the complexity of introducing US military personnel into the Central African region.  Many students were also concerned that catching Kony actually does nothing to deal with, and could possibly even make worse, the larger issues facing Uganda: government corruption, post-conflict victim rehabilitation,  the Acholi internment camps, and Nodding Disease.

An introduction and conclusion to this essay by one of my students, Ivy, represents the growth many students experienced through this mini-unit:

At first glance, all advocacy campaigns work towards a noble cause. But after probing into the issues involved, its hard to say whether the campaigns are good-intentioned, credible, and effective. US NGO Invisible Children’s recent campaign is no exception. Arresting Joseph Kony appears to be a noble cause, but many suspect ulterior motives and/or claim that the proposed tactics are ineffectual, or even counterproductive. Thus, learning about Kony 2012 taught me to view seemingly innocent charity action plans with a critical eye, instead of blindly undertaking their strategy. 

Although my personal standing on the Kony issue has yet to be established, I’m working towards absorbing the arguments of both supporters and critics as well as forming my own evaluation of Invisible Children’s viral video. The point remains I can only truly grasp the complexities involved through this kind of critical thinking.

As a class, I was pleased that students were able to engage in a complex topic with a sophisticated and even-handed approach to taking right action.


I hope that the “Kony 2012” issue will help students think more critically about actions taken in the world as well as their own projects that all of them are involved in during the second semester of our course.  However, I need to carefully monitor their responses; the last thing I would want to do is to turn 15-year olds, who are looking for idealism and inspiration, into die-hard skeptics.  Hopefully, through research and dialogue we can find a constructive balance between ignorance and cynicism.

Finally, this mini-unit has been successful in helping students consider the larger set of beliefs and understandings that need to accompany action.  Because of its relevance to student interest, I will consider using this as a case study when I again take up our worldview unit at the beginning of next year’s course.

About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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4 Responses to Teaching about the “Stop Kony” Campaign: A Teachable Social Media Moment

  1. Pingback: COMMENT: KONY 2012 | INFLUENCE with Jesse Parent

  2. Jesse Parent says:

    Wow, this is a really great resource. I’m glad you put it together, and I’m always glad to see education and deliberative discussions like this take place. Presenting the different aspects of something so complicated, political, and often uncomfortable is tough work. Keep it up!

  3. Pingback: The Victim’s View: Teaching about Violence in Humanities I in Action | Social Conscience Education

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