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Kony2012: new media success story or cautionary tale?

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If it isn’t the most viral social media effort in recent memory, the Kony2012 campaign — launched last week by Invisible Children to spotlight atrocities by Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony — has to be a close second: According to one estimate, a video created by the group and shared widely on Facebook and Twitter was viewed 80 million times in just five days. Some critics, however, say the Kony campaign is troubling for a number of reasons, including the fact that it is a glib and facile treatment of the systemic problems in Uganda and therefore encourages meaningless “slacktivism” instead of real action. Is Kony2012 a sign of how powerful social media can be as a news-distribution mechanism, a sign of how dangerous it can be or both?

For me, one sign of how different the Kony story was from a traditional news story was the way I found out about it: Much like journalism professor and author Jeff Jarvis, I heard about it first from my teenaged daughter, who not only shared and commented on the video on Facebook and Tumblr but also talked to us about the campaign and its message — the idea that Kony is “one of the world’s biggest criminals” (as she put it) and that he has been involved in abducting more than 30,000 children to serve as soldiers in his army. Both Jarvis and Emily Bell (the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University) commented on how this is becoming the way news works now:

Invisible Children clearly intended for news of the campaign to be spread by my daughter’s demographic group (she just turned 14). At almost 30 minutes in length, the video is much longer than the typical YouTube clip that goes viral on social networks, but as a writer at the Guardian noted, it is cleverly structured as a conversation between one of the group’s members and his five-year-old son about how bad a man Joseph Kony is and how he has to be stopped. It was also launched last week with a PR-heavy event involving top Hollywood talent agency Creative Artists and actress Kristen Bell (a personal friend of the filmmakers), and it was quickly picked up by Oprah and other celebrities such as Angelina Jolie.

Is some awareness of an important issue better than none at all?

But as millions of teenagers and others shared the video on Facebook and Twitter, clicked Like, or became a friend of the Invisible Children page on Facebook (which has close to 3 million fans), concerns were almost immediately raised about the validity of the campaign — and its long-term value. Among other things, several observers said the aid group had a questionable track record of spending the money it raised (Invisible Children later responded to some of the criticisms in a blog post). But on an even more serious note, others pointed out that many of the facts behind the campaign were questionable as well: For example, Joseph Kony is reportedly no longer active in Uganda, and his Lord’s Resistance Army is said to be a much smaller force than it used to be.

While there’s no question that Kony is a force for evil in the region — and has been for more than two decades — many have argued that the campaign could actually do more harm than good, by getting people to focus on a single individual (and one whose influence appears to be on the wane) instead of the much larger and more complicated issues involved in Uganda and other neighboring countries in Africa, as Ethan Zuckerman of Global Voices noted. Some who have been involved with the region criticized the campaign for encouraging a typical kind of racist agenda, in which Westerners are seen as the only source of solutions for African problems, and others such as Timothy Burke — a professor of African history at Swarthmore College — said the video encourages a simplistic view of the region’s issues that could ultimately be dangerous.

At the same time, however, others — including online veteran and former Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow — have argued that any awareness of the issues involved in Uganda is worthwhile and that even if they are flawed, campaigns such as the Invisible Children video can be a useful trigger for discussions about those topics, a point that sociologist Zeynep Tufekci also made in a New York Times op-ed. Unfortunately, this perspective assumes that some proportion of the people who saw or Liked the video or the Facebook page actually investigated the deeper issues and tried to figure out the real story or read the dozens of blog posts from people like Zuckerman and Tim Burke. But did they? Or was a click enough? Is this a triumph of emotion over facts?

Research seems to show that Twitter is much better at distributing errors than it is at distributing corrections to those errors, and even the creator of one of the most viral new-media entities in existence, Huffington Post creator Arianna Huffington, wrote recently about the dangers of digital media as a social force, saying it can encourage a focus on shallow or ephemeral topics instead of substance. In the end — as more than one person noted when I raised the topic in a discussion on Twitter — the Kony campaign may be both an example of how powerful social media can be and at the same time a cautionary tale about the benefits of such tools when it comes to complicated issues.

18 Responses to “Kony2012: new media success story or cautionary tale?”

  1. Susan Price

    It’s so, so easy to criticize. What’s worse than slactivism? Sitting back and criticizing others for doing something to make the world a better place. The response to criticism on the InvisibleChildren website is thoughtful. Of course there are other problems to solve, and other ways to solve this one. What’s your SOLUTION? Go promote and help the causes YOU find compelling.

    What’s most exciting to me about the Kony2012 campaign is the learning experience it can be. A demonstration and lesson to young people that they can, in fact, affect outcomes in the world, that there really are people who wade into a bad situation and try to make it better – people pretty much like them. That’s phenomenal.

    • Some VERY accurate points.
      Unfortunatley, there are a number of aid organizations that simply do not understand that the most effective means by which to help, is to help native run relief organizations that are already on the ground. Help Ugandans to help thmeselves. This dynamic applies to anywhere, Haiti, etc. The one problem that is not mentioned with this strategy however, is the amount of endemic corruption and theft generaly found in many post war or developing nations.
      It is important to note that without exposure, neither kind of aid is likely to be delivered. If for nothing else.. exposure is what the Invisible Children has efectivley provided.

  2. So… besides typing words critical of the methodology of an organization that has been on the groud and in this fight for nearly 10 years on behalf of children, what have all of you done? My wife will be in Uganda for three weeks this August. It is her fifth trip. Perhaps you could tag along and help teach and microfinance the widowed mothers, the orphaned children, the physically, emotionally, and spiritually scarred generation left behind by 26 years of Kony’s “movement”. Go here… … peace.

    • Shakir Razak


      Robert, I agree with so much of your ideals, and when you have a wife directly involved on the ground, they are no doubt sincere, and well done for her doing that, but as a counterpoint, imagine if South Africa and Nelson Mandela had shared the same sentiments about the western biblical/evangelical/even modern liberal sense of Justice, and what that would have done to the society.

      In this sense, Justice is often a euphemism for vengeance.

      The world, and bad things are always greater than “one Bad/Evil Man”, but our western media keep forming these individual charismatic bogeymen that all crime can be hung on, but rarely does it bring peace – just go see what’s happening in Libya.

      The Kony 2012 campaign does at least have a tinge of colonial racism to it. and personally, I would simply seek guidance from the strategy that the Ugandan Govt. wants to pursue, rather than some self-starter westerner looking for a self-validating cause. Lets see where the people behind the campaign are in 12 years time…………

      Kind regards,

      Shakir Razak

  3. Richard

    This trendy backlash is disappointing to say the least… Yes, Kony 2012 is using clever marketing and video techniques to get its message across. However, the LRA and Joseph Kony remain a big problem despite having moved out of Uganda – they have abducated something like 100,000 women (as sex slaves) and children (as child soldiers) over 26 years, and they show no signs of stopping. He is the no.1 on the international criminal court’s list of war criminals.

    I was already aware of the activities of the LRA, but Kony 2012 has brought it into focus and I am signing up to the campaign. If this criminal is brought to justice, it will also create momentum to stop the use of child soldiers in other parts of Africa as well. Creating huge awareness via social media in order to lobby specific celebrities and politicians strikes me as a very smart and credible campaign strategy, and the cause they are fighing for cannot be criticised.

    • I don’t not agree with your assertion that “and the cause they are fighting for cannot be criticised.”

      Justice and Peace do conflict as time goes by… There is no way to Peace. Peace is the way.

      • Susan, that is a very quaint and convenient viewpoint, generally held by those too apathetic, lazy, or cowardly to get out of their comfy chair and actualy live in their world, as opposed to viewing it from arms lenth through their pretty 42″ OLED TV.
        Hold an eight year old Ugandan girl that has been gang raped, watched her mother and sister be hacked to death, and also bears deep scars from the same machete attack… and tell me there is no cause for justice. I can assure you that there are defective psychopaths all over this planet who desperately need a date with justice. Appeasement of animals like Kony only leads to an illusion of “peace” for the sake or moral expediancy. Truly, it merely quells the conscience of an ignorant few, while serving to encourage the next opressor.

  4. Shakir Razak


    We live in a world where many people actually believe that The Arab Spring happened because of Social media.

    We live in a world of idiocracy.

    I’m sorry, but I did know about Joseph Kony and the Lords Resistance Army. It was kind of big when it actually mattered.

    Unfortunately, the people who claim that a bit of awareness is better than none, get confused with not knowing anything, knowing something, and what you think you know, actually being lies and propaganda, lacking context at a minimum – if we go down that route, we can pick on the various beliefs of elements of the Republican and Democratic parties that have damaged society, to the cases where a multitude of consumer companies have paid to have scientific knowledge that would damage their profit denied by marketing initiatives, all the way up to the ignorant and superficial knowledge that enabled America to go to war in both Afghanistan and Iraq without foreseeing the inevitable consequences.

    The logic of awareness over understanding, which can be substantially gained by life experience, is also why businesses and ideologies so often also try to “entrap” the inexperienced, who lack the developed skills of critical thinking and comparative analysis, so that whatever they are told is taken at face-value and benefits the instigator. When cigarette/food companies do this, most public policy limits it, for a reason. The young who are so proudly pointed at by these so-called expert commentators, are the the most ignorant, but if they are our new news cycle, than they would be the perfect medium to continue the devolution from 24-hour cable-news channels.

    In this superficial naval-gazing self-involved distracted, but fleetingly-sentimental future, where people can so easily be lead to what to think, It’s good to know that instruments that provide knowledge[/analysis/context] continue to exist, like for example, The Economist.

    Yours kindly,

    Shakir Razz

  5. I think that another aspect to consider regarding the Kony2012 campaign and the responses on the internet is that the chatter doesn’t lead us to conclusions or resolution it just occupies us for a time and then seems to drift away. Jaron Lainer points out in “You are not a Gadget,” (though in a different context) that the various sides of an issue sort of wash each other out in the blogsphere. A campaign went viral, and then met resistance. After that, the discussion began to move farther and farther away from Uganda and moved towards a discussion on social media and its uses/dangers. The conversation about the conversation overwhelmed it. __Clay Shirky wrote in “Here Comes Everybody” that on social media, “conversation is king. Content is just something to talk about.” With that kind of prevailing idea, people are free to talk about the modes of transmission as much as the issue being raised—it gets lost in a sea of swirling conversation. People attack or support it from their various positions, but the majority of those positions seemed to care more about social media, tech, et. al. then about Uganda. __I haven’t found any of the criticisms of the campaign to be that compelling, even when they are valid. I don’t subscribe to a hyperbolic binary system of: “if it isn’t perfect, it’s bad” A small group wants to accomplish a limited end – they’ve worked on it for 9 years or so and came across an idea that got the world talking – too bad it really didn’t get them listening—even to each other!__Patrick__P.S. I don’t think I scored a bingo on your post (Struggling to write a #Kony2012 blog post? Use the Kony Blogger Bingo Card:…good job!

  6. The more I read about this, it feels as if we have been fooled. What percentage of the money actually goes to help children? approximately 37% while 43% goes to awareness and 20% to admin expenses/overhead.

  7. Steven Beauchem

    I had a very similar experience to the author, being aware of Invisible Children but being drawn into it by my 12-yr old son. I think it’s important to realize that this is how millenials and younger experience engagement. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle re: tactics such as these. Instead, we need to help build the downstream capabilities that enable the funneling process (e.g., awareness, interest, choice). More on my experience here:

  8. Mathew, I like the point you made about how many people might not have watched more than a few minutes of the video. I have watched the whole thing once. I listened to audio only for a second trial and listened to about 80% of it again. It’s interesting what you pick up in the absence of images, including the strategic use of music and how the people in the video talk.

    I can honestly say I’d never heard of Kony before the video came out, so that seems to reflect a win on the part of the film makers. But the almost endless stream of criticism (and at least some of it warranted, I think) and my own background reading still leaves me partially disgusted with the methods used in the video as well as the overall simplification of the problem. It’s marketing at its purest, really. The cause, overall, is certainly worthy but who knows if the solutions being presented are really the best course of action for all involved? Unfortunately, I have my doubts.

    Still, one gets the feeling that the filmmakers spent their time studying Made To Stick (by Chip and Dan Heath) and applied their lessons to make a memorable video. Well, that and the high profiled Tweeting, too.

  9. Shawn Roberts

    Another consideration is keeping awareness going once the story peaks. That’s where the real work begins and change is actually attained. Dropping the movie and getting the tweets is just the beginning. The real test is the ability to convert people to action and donations from the ‘meme funnel.’

    Here’s an update on the number of tweets with keyword ‘Kony’ over the last few days:

    March 5 – 712
    March 6 – 56,845
    March 7 – 2,006,282
    March 8 – 1,235,214
    March 9 – 595,732
    March 10 – 279,421
    March 11 – 177,761

  10. Jeff DeChambeau

    I’m especially concerned with how the situation is designed to, almost no matter what, generate the appearance of legitimacy for slacktivism. In any scenario where Kony is captured or killed, social media users will give themselves credit for making it happen, even if there’s absolutely no causal link.

    The other scary possibility is that this populist, knee-jerk reaction will actually cause political movement, which is especially concerning given how misinformed people are.

    More here: