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To Kony or not to Kony

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

If you haven’t been hiding under a rock recently, you probably have heard of the viral video campaign by aid organization Invisible Children, called Kony 2012. Certainly your students already have – it went viral on Facebook and Twitter within 72 hours of being posted.

With slick production and unavoidable emotional appeals, the video compels sympathy for the child soldiers of Northern Uganda and outrage at the apparent ignorance about uncaptured war criminal and head of the Lord’s Resistance Army, Joseph Kony. It has spurred a flurry of online activity – not only by the millions of people around the world sharing the video with their Facebook friends and Twitter followers, but also by those criticizing the organization that created it and the implications of the video, both for those who are inspired by it and for those whom it purports to be helping.

It’s a brilliant teachable moment for an AP® Language and Media Studies teacher like myself.

Unfortunately (fortunately?) my school just broke for March vacation, so I had about 40 minutes to spend in my Media Studies class on the last day, discussing the video’s constructions and examining some of the responses online. But I wanted to share with you some of those ideas, and a few others that you might consider using for a more lengthy examination of the topic.

In my Grade 11 Media Studies class, we had just finished a unit on examining the ways in which documentary films construct reality in order to underscore and enhance the filmmakers’ arguments. (For this unit, I used the excellent book Reading in the Reel World, by fellow High School Bits contributor John Golden – thanks, John, for this awesome resource!) So we spent a few minutes examining the video’s opening for clues about the argument and the ways in which the conventions used established it.

The video is really a masterful work of visual rhetoric. In the first few scenes, the audience is drawn in through a powerful mix of emotional montage, personal storytelling, and stark contrasts.The opening segments quickly and efficiently portray the power of social media to connect people in their happy, nostalgic, and supportive moments, showing images of famous viral feel-good videos such as the one of the woman hearing for the first time, punctuated with simple clicks of “Share” buttons.


From there we escalate to the significance of using similar social-media methods to share news of world events and so motivate entire movements that have been changing the face of politics and international relations, as we saw recently in the Arab Spring.

Cut quickly to scenes that at first seem oddly juxtaposed against this background of human interconnectedness and historic activism: home video of a baby being born and growing up, with a voiceover by the filmmaker about his son’s birth and his desire to show him a better world. The little boy, Gavin, grows through Viewmaster-style scrolling snapshots into a gorgeous towheaded toddler with a penchant for making iPhone videos of things spectacularly exploding to many giggles. He’s irresistibly adorable, he’s happy, he’s lucky to have every advantage in life that his father can give him.


When we cut again, then, to the story of Jacob, a former child soldier in Uganda who has escaped his brutal life to land in another kind of post-traumatic hopelessness, the viewer cannot help but be shocked by the contrast that underlies the already heart wrenching images of these ragged, sad shells of boys huddling together for comfort and talking nonchalantly about how they would rather be dead than continue without a future.


And that’s just the first seven minutes.

After we watched these first scenes, I asked the students about their own reactions when they had first seen the video (all but two had seen it before that day). They had been justifiably moved, and many were ready to join its cause. We made a list on the board of the benefits of activism via social media. Their conclusions: it’s a fast, easy, and inexpensive way to disseminate a message; you can use all the technological tools that make a message interesting and catchy; it appeals to a large range of people, particularly to youth; it can bring a large group of people together and inspire them; it can expose you to ideas and issues that might have been outside your earlier frame of reference.

Then I had the students read and discuss these websites:

We then had a brief discussion about the drawbacks of activism via social media: rumour and unsubstantiated information spread just as easily – if not more easily – than substantive fact; trending topics can peak quickly but disappear just as quickly as people move on; it can create awareness but rarely does that lead to action; it’s designed for and promotes short-attention-span thinking that privileges acceptance of a message's face value over more difficult critical thinking requiring careful weighing of information and further investigation; people develop “awareness fatigue” and stop paying attention.

With more time, I might have explored this moment more with my Media Studies class and with my AP® Language group as well. With the latter, some great argument and/or synthesis topics might have arisen, such as:

  • Examine the extent to which “awareness” helps a cause.
  • Argue the value of activism via social media in inspiring civic involvement or activism.
  • Identify and evaluate the key considerations in sending aid (monetary, military, resources, etc.) to developing or strife-damaged nations.

We might also have had a discussion about evaluating sources (especially as the APs® are currently working on Annotated Bibliography skills), weighing the significance of competing voices in a controversy, and synthesizing those voices to develop one’s own perspective on an issue.

Moments like these are golden opportunities for teachers of our courses, taking advantage of our students’ heightened interest to reinforce the value of critical, inquiring citizenship and purposeful involvement in worthwhile causes.

[Images from KONY 2012 on YouTube]

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