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Passion for catching Joseph Kony only caught fire with YouTube video release

Even after decades of well-documented murder and plunder, even after the International Criminal Court indicted him and a U.S. president dispatched special forces to help catch him, African warlord Joseph Kony remained largely obscure to the West.

That changed this week, with the viral proliferation of a smoothly produced 29-minute video, "Kony 2012," that calculatedly taps the power of social media to target the fugitive leader of the Lord's Resistance Army.

By Thursday, three days after its release on YouTube, the video had been viewed 40 million times, fueled by Tweets from celebrities including Rihanna, Oprah Winfrey and P. Diddy.

"Can I tell you the bad guy's name?" Jason Russell, co-founder of the San Diego-based nonprofit Invisible Children, asks his young son in the video.

Russell then shows him Kony's photo and explains to viewers that the LRA abducts children like him for use as sex slaves and child soldiers. Then he inveighs against the possible withdrawal of U.S. troops sent by President Barack Obama last year to help African troops catch Kony.

The video marks the latest example of how social media have transformed political activism. The video's popularity reflects the power of Facebook and Twitter to galvanize a generation moved by vivid, instantly downloadable images and the entreaties of celebrities.

But also it reflects how quickly the same online universe can erupt with countermessages. No sooner had "Kony 2012" gone wildly viral than critics on the blogosphere were attacking it for a host of perceived sins, from sentimentality to Western arrogance to dangerous oversimplification.

"The war is much more complex than just one man called Joseph Kony," Ugandan journalist Rosebell Kagumire argued in a YouTube video, describing the Invisible Children video as the work of "an outsider trying to be a hero, rescuing African children."

Ugandan blogger Musa Okwonga wrote he was stunned to find people tweeting furiously about his country. His mother's family is from Gulu in Northern Uganda, which became infamous as a target of Kony's violence, although the warlord fled the country years ago.

"All of a sudden, my family's region was famous -- or, at least, trending on Twitter. What was all this about?" he wrote.


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