Jason Russell, co-founder of non-profit Invisible Children and director of the now infamous "Kony 2012" viral video campaign, attempted to explain why his campaign is an easy solution to world peace, etc., in a number of interviews last night and this morning. His explanations are as overly simplistic as his mission, and his financial clarifications are contradictory.
On Today, Ann Curry asked Russell how he knew the Kony 2012 video wasn't an example of "slacktivism" — in other words, do 64 million views and counting necessarily transfer into direct aid to Ugandan Children? Russell responded by saying the over half a million action kits ordered — to the tune of $30 each — prove that people are "constantly demanding, asking, what are we doing now?"
"In math you don't start with calculus, or algebra. There's complicated issues in the world, we know that ... Kony's not. He's 1 plus 1. We can all agree with that. We can all agree, together, we're going to stop him."
So many action kits have been ordered, in fact, that the website now warns supporters who have ordered the propaganda that they might not receive anything until next month. Those new to the cause can download the printable content from the kit for free or "consider purchasing" another one of Invisible Children's products that, according to the website, will make people think "you're an advocate of awesome." (Maybe a $10 Kony bracelet, the "ultimate accessory"?)
So, let me get this straight. We know Kony 2012 is legit because so much money is rolling in. So then why did he tell Lawrence O'Donnell on The Last Word that it's not about the money at all? He said:
"It has been [lucrative], but that is not our intention. It's not about the money. Actually, our CEO and a couple others said, hey we have to have a fundraising component to this so we can garner some money. And I said no, that's not the intention of what we're doing. It's not about the money. It's about the awareness. That's it. So we have maxed out or limits. The store is now closed because we don't have enough merchandise to keep it going out. So everything is free now, it's free."
Hold up. His campaign isn't "slactivism" because the awareness translates into money, but the campaign isn't about the money, it's about awareness? It's misleading for Russell to imply the store is closed because it's not; you can still buy certain goods, and you can still donate. They just ran out of posters.
We've written about Invisible Children's dubious finances — and posted their infographic, which is almost laughably misleading — but the Guardian has a nice breakdown in case you need a reminder that Invisible Children is about the money:
Invisible Children's accounts show it is a cash rich operation, which more than tripled its income to $9m (£5.68m) in 2011, mainly from personal donations. Of this, nearly 25% was spent on travel and film-making. Most of the money raised has been spent in the US. The accounts show $1.7m went on US employee salaries, $850,000 in film production costs, $244,000 in "professional services" -– thought to be Washington lobbyists –- and $1.07m in travel expenses. Nearly $400,000 was spent on offices in San Diego.
How does Invisible Children plan on spending the money they've raised from the Kony 2012 video? Russell hasn't said (and oddly, no interviewer asked him). Because he's all about the cause, bro. Jedidiah Jenkins, Invisible Children's director of ideology, actually told GOOD magazine that his ultimate goal is to "disseminate" the Kony ideaology "to a hungry, millennial, global-minded youth" and that "Our films weren't made to be scrutinized by the Guardian."
"The truth about Invisible Children is that we are not an aid organization, and we don't intend to be. I think people think we're over there delivering shoes or food. But we are an advocacy and awareness organization."
He also told GOOD that he thinks the video went viral because, while most documentaries illustrate a problem without proposing a solution, his campaign strives to "paint moral clarity and provide direct action steps...We presented the problem and then ended the film with three steps to help people make a change. That resonates with people. The third step was as simple as sharing the film. People can do that."
The internet makes everything from shopping to socializing easier; there's no reason it shouldn't facilitate charity. But you can't "like" Uganda or "troll" Kony. It's more complicated than that. What happens after April 20th, the day Kony 2012 supporters are supposed to "take to the streets"? Hell, what's their Uganda exit strategy? The way Russell oversimplifies the issue — proselytizing dreamy visions of "world peace" instead of thoughtful fact-based solutions — is reminiscent of certain religious beliefs, so it's unsurprising to see some new discussion of Russell's evangelical roots. Last November at Liberty University, he told his audience:
"A lot of people fear Christians, they fear Liberty University, they fear Invisible Children –- because they feel like we have an agenda. They see us and they go, 'You want me to sign up for something, you want my money. You want, you want me to believe in your God.' And it freaks them out."
Yes, Russell. You freak me out. And you've convinced me that while Kony is indeed a very bad man and Uganda is worthy of attention, Invisible Children isn't a cause (sorry, awareness program) that I want to support.