Jason Russell, the filmmaker responsible for the Kony 2012 video that recently went viral on YouTube, has received harsh criticism. Now in light of a recent breakdown, some have come forward and labeled him an "Atrocity Tourist." Some question, however, whether more focus should be placed on how the video has enabled and encouraged many previously idle people to take a stance on world issues.
After going on a mission trip to Africa, Jason Russell ventured to do what many never consider: he decided to dedicate his life to a cause. That cause was fueled by passion after Russell had a personal encounter with a boy, Jacob, whose life had been drastically altered by a man named Joseph Kony.
When Jacob told Russell that he would rather die than go on living his life, Russell made a promise that- for the past decade- he has continually kept.
As a result of that promise, Invisible Children was created. After years of work, the previously little-known organization became known worldwide because of a documentary bringing attention to the atrocities committed by Joseph Kony.
The positive outreach didn't last long, though, as many began to attack the "Stop at Nothing" cause, calling it dangerous and misguided.
"The film depends on a simplistic story line, which the filmmakers claim has been key to the video's success," blogger Mikaela Luttrell-Rowland wrote in the Huffington Post. "Most of the young fans of the Kony 2012 video have no idea of life on the ground in Uganda or the long history of mass violence in the region. And the video does nothing to fill in that blank spot."
Adam Branch, a senior research fellow at the Makerere Institute of Social Research in Uganda and Assistant Professor of Political Science at San Diego, USA, has accused Invisible Children of "irresponsible advocacy," which he described as costly and "sickening."
"They are now facing a backlash from people of conscience who refuse to abandon their capacity to think for themselves," he wrote on an Al Jazeera blog.
One thing Invisible Children has been clear about is their mission statement to "Stop at Nothing." The organization has never suggested that people settle for the information that has been provided without doing their own research, however.
"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," the organization website explained. "The film is a first entry point to this conflict for many, and the organization provides several ways for our supporters to go deeper in learning about the make-up of the LRA and the history of the conflict."
Chase Ferree, a student at Washington University, also admitted that although organizations have a responsibility to report the truth, viewers must also be held responsible.
"More importantly, as viewers and potential sharers of these future campaigns, it is on us to engage with them and assess their honesty and possibility for deception," he wrote for Student Life, the university's paper.
Quite the opposite of denying people knowledge, Invisible Children might pat themselves on the back for receiving such criticism in the first place. The organization has accomplished the very thing it set out to do: create awareness of the topic. The criticism has helped improve public knowledge of Kony with less bias, and enabled the organization to take a stance on an issue.
It could also enable others who were previously being unheard to find their own voice.
Celebrated Canadian author M.G. Vassanji also chimed into the debate, suggesting Africa's voice was lacking from the Kony video. While some African citizens appeared to have a negative opinion on the video, referring to it as a "white man's burden" message re-propagated, Vassanji countered that the project encouraged young African citizens to find their own voices too.
"Kony 2012 raised a faint hope," he stated. "The video may awaken the West to Kony and his like, but perhaps it will [also] awaken younger Africans to themselves."
Others also expressed hope that the video would eventually reach the heart of the issue.
"Having spent time in … the Congo affected by the LRA, we welcome the attention brought to ending LRA violence sparked by the Kony 2012 film," Lindsay Branham and Jocelyn Kelly wrote for the New York Times opinion page.
"Skeptics and supporters of the video alike need to recognize that the effects of the LRA are immediate and real. Communities are asking for assistance to deal with both the immediate and long-term consequences of this violence – this is where our collective focus should be," Branham and Kelly added.
Despite his organization's good intentions, many critics have been unkind. Russell recently suffered from a breakdown caused by brief reactive psychosis. His family later released a statement to explain his condition.
"Though new to us, the doctors say this is a common experience given the great mental, emotional and physical shock his body has gone through in these last two weeks," they said.
"Jason has dedicated his adult life to this cause, leading to the 'Kony 2012' video," the family continued. "Because of how personal the film is, many of the attacks against it were also very personal and Jason took them very hard."
One particularly harsh critic referred to Russell's video as "Atrocity Tourism."
"Jason Russell is the poster child for the worst kind of bleeding heart activist," contributor James Marshall Crotty wrote for Forbes."What I call the Atrocity Tourist (AT)." Crotty suggests that "outsized celebrity egos require larger-than-life problems to tackle," adding that Russell is an AT with "global media lust."
While some have supported such strong criticism of Russell, others have attempted to find a bigger picture.
"There are thousands of problems in the world. Kony is one we can all agree on," Forbes user Eric Chagnon said in response to Crotty's article. "Jason Russell allowed millions of people to get into the conversation. If we can all work together and get creative, we can solve this problem gracefully,"
"By succeeding, we build our confidence to tackle all kinds of local and global issues together. … We get to take the initiatives, we get to follow our hearts. That's huge."