Invisible Children, the group behind the viral video phenomenon Kony 2012, has been vilified for its "white savior complex," evangelical donor base, financial record, particularly $1 million on travel expenses, over-simplified message and hipster do-nothing-ism. But it will be increasingly difficult for the advocacy group's critics to make the case for its inefficacy following the Senate Armed Service Committee's approval of a defense authorization bill allocating money to bring down African warlord Joseph Kony Thursday.
Until now, congressional support for the Kony 2012 movement has been mostly talk, embodied by a non-binding resolution introduced by 33 senators in March condemning Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army and a House resolution introduced around the same time. But now, Invisible Children has something to latch onto as a little-noticed portion of the $631 billion defense authorization bill will go to "funding the military's efforts to support Central African troops who are trying to put an end to Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army," Politico's Austin Wright reports. The amount is $50 million and the Pentagon's name for the mission is Operation Observant Compass.
Invisible Children has been somewhat off the media radar as of late, following a bizarre incident involving its co-founder Jason Russell, who was detained by police in San Diego after screaming and jumping around in the nude in March. But last month, The Guardian's Polly Curtis, one of the Kony 2012 movement's earliest skeptics, called for an accounting of the group's impact: "Has Kony 2012 Changed Anything?" read the headline. Her account features a timeline of events since the video went viral and accounts of NGO workers criticizing the group's efficacy. "I don't think anything has changed," said Arthur Larok, director of the NGO Action Aid in Uganda. He noted that Ugandans were furious because they felt their country was depicted as war torn, even though Kony and his army don't operate there anymore. "The public reaction here was quite negative. The government said they felt betrayed by this."
Curtis also noted that "viral" interest in Kony had fallen off the map online. "This shows the initial spike from the publicity around the first film being released, but that falling away," she wrote. "The second much smaller spike is around the time that footage emerged of Jason Russell ... naked in the street after which he was hospitalised."
But the Senate committee's moves to allocate funds to the military effort to capture Kony mark a significant achievement for Invisible Children, especially considering the powerful competing interests such as missile shield funding, alternative energy projects and defense contractors—which all took substantial hits this time around as the Pentagon belt-tightening continues. Following the video's release, members of the Armed Services Committee, such as Sen. John McCain, said they were impressed by the group. “It’s very powerful,” said McCain, speaking of the Kony 2012 video. Fellow Armed Services Committee member Lindsey Graham called the video a "breakthrough on the foreign policy front." "You’re seeing at home through the Internet cyberpolitics, how the Arab Spring began,” he added. “This is an example for how domestic purposes, you can have a movement that leads to change.” It also goes without saying that SASC member James Inhofe is a fan, as he was featured in the Kony 2012 video. At the moment, the bill still has to go Senate floor, where it's expected to be considered in June or July, but influencing the Armed Services Committee is a major first step, that already makes Invisible Children the envy of a wide swath of advocacy groups.
It also shows how quickly things have changed since March, when New York Times columnist Nick Kristof said he had no idea if Invisible Children would have any actual influence but strongly questioned the validity of attacks on the group. "I don’t know if this initiative will make a difference. But if I were a Congolese villager, I would welcome these uncertain efforts over the sneering scorn of do-nothing armchair cynics." At least for now, it's become substantially less "uncertain" that Invisible Children is having a real-world impact.