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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.

The Invisible Children group was founded in 2003 by three California film students moved by their experiences with the victims of war in Africa. It occupies a full floor in a San Diego high-rise where on Thursday about 30 college-age workers were answering phones in an office resembling a boiler room. The phones rang persistently with people asking how they could help.

Photos of child soldiers hung on the walls, along with signs that read "Remove Joseph Kony from the battlefield."

"We're at a place of deep emotion, humility and thankfulness that this is finally catching on," said Lauren Bailey, the movement coordinator.

Each semester, she said, the group sends out about 100 college interns to spread the word about Kony, whom she called "the worst living criminal in Central Africa."

The massive response to the video has stunned better-known humanitarian groups that have worked for years to draw attention to Kony's atrocities.

"We didn't get celebrities going onto Twitter," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, which produced its own video on the subject.

"In our video, we tried to get Africans to describe their experiences in their own words. . . . But often, people will pay less attention when an African person tells the story."

Last October, Obama sent a 100-man special forces team to Uganda with orders to train the central African country's military to pursue the Lord's Resistance Army and specifically to help them capture Kony.

Three other countries in the region -- Central African Republic, Congo and South Sudan -- are receiving U.S. aid for their help in the effort, and the U.S. troops also are now in those countries.

Next month, Invisible Children plans to hand out T-shirts, bracelets, bumper stickers and buttons in major cities to help maintain pressure on Washington to maintain its troop presence.

Mamood Mamdani, a Columbia University professor who has studied the region, said some Ugandans worry that the video could actually trigger further bloodshed.

"We all know that the inevitable result of military activity is that civilians get hurt," he said, cautioning against the influence of "millions of well-meaning and well-intentioned but ill-informed people."

Some, such as Joshua Keating on ForeignPolicy.com, stressed that Kony hasn't been in Uganda for six years, and is believed to be in the Central African Republic.

"Unfortunately, it looks like meddlesome details like where Kony actually is aren't important enough for Invisible Children to make sure its audience understands," he wrote.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, on the other hand, praised the video.

"Certainly we appreciate the efforts of the group Invisible Children to shine a light on the horrible atrocities of the LRA," she said.