Revisiting Kony 2012

Back in March of 2012, when I was a senior in high school, I remember logging onto Facebook one day and seeing that my Newsfeed was blowing up with something called “Kony 2012”. I honestly thought it was a political campaign for the upcoming presidential election at first, but I managed to dig a little deeper and uncover what this movement of sorts was all about. It was actually a campaign spearheaded by a charity called Invisible Children that called for the arrest of Joseph Kony, an international warlord based out of Uganda. As I discovered, Kony was the leader of a rebel militia group called the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which forcibly recruited child soldiers from regions like Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan. 

The entire campaign was built around a 30-minute YouTube video directed by Jason Russell of Invisible Children. The film sheds light on the heinous criminal actions of Joseph Kony, with specific emphasis paid to his forced recruitment of child soldiers. The film also documents Invisible Children’s efforts in trying to stop Joseph Kony, and also features a young Ugandan named Jacob Avaye who lost his brother to the LRA. The video went viral almost overnight, racking up over 100 million views on YouTube in less than one week. Some of the most popular and influential celebrities, including Justin Bieber, Oprah, and Angelina Jolie, were all using social media to express their support for the movement.

Stop_Kony_2012_poster

The Good

So, what were the positives of the Kony 2012 takeaway? The greatest takeaway, for me at least, is that this movement got tens of millions of Americans to care about an issue happening halfway across the globe with zero impact on their own lives. Through nothing more than a YouTube video and a social campaign, the Kony 2012 movement turned Joseph Kony from a little known war criminal into international public enemy #1. In the words of Luis Morena Ocampo, the chief Prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, the Kony 2012 movement had truly “mobilized the world”. 

The Kony 2012 campaign also stands as a testament to the power of social media. A survey by Pew Research Center indicated that 58% of all young adults in the US were familiar with the video within the first week it came out. To put that number into context, simply understand that all those Facebook shares had managed to hit over half of Americans, whether those in big cities with big networks or those living in small, rural towns. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, Time Magazine would go so far as to declare it “the most viral video of all time.” The campaign truly set a new benchmark for virality in America.

The Bad

I’ll move on to the negatives now – and believe me, there were a lot of negatives. Kony 2012 was a textbook example of “slacktivism”. Millions of people jumped on board, but they were doing little more than sharing the post on social media, hanging up posters, or donating to Invisible Children (I’ll talk more about this one later). Participants felt good about themselves for “raising awareness”, but in reality, they largely forgot about the campaign after making a single Facebook post. Need proof of this? Well, Invisible Children created an event to go along with the campaign entitled Cover the Night, in which followers were encouraged to put up Kony 2012 flyers in their cities on April 20th, 2012. The event was widely considered to be a complete flop, as those millions of Internet supporters had lost interest and failed to exert any effort other than clicking a computer mouse. 

Although the Kony 2012 campaign managed to put the international spotlight on Kony almost overnight, it never actually achieved its end goal of bringing about his arrest. The reason why Kony was never caught, and why it was such a pointless endeavor in the first place, is very obvious once you understand the context. The thing is, Kony and his few remaining LRA forces actually fled Uganda in 2006. Kony had been inactive ever since, and it was believed that Kony and his forces were dispersed throughout the jungles of Africa. In other words, the entire campaign was devoted to a war criminal who hadn’t had any significant impact whatsoever in six years. Out of the hundreds of warlords, drug cartels, and terrorists around the globe, it just seems both completely arbitrary and completely pointless to target one who had long been inactive.

As a result of their Kony 2012 video, the charity Invisible Children began receiving millions in donations from the movement’s followers. The problem with this? The so-called “charity” was undoubtedly sketchy, if not an outright scam. If any of the movement’s followers had actually looked into the organization behind the trend, they would have seen that only 32% of Invisible Children’s 2011 expenditures went to “direct services”. The remaining 68% of their expenditures went to things like staff salaries, travel, and film production. All that money could have gone to legitimate charities that actually could have made a difference, like the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, or East Meets West. Instead, about 2/3 of it went straight to the pockets Invisible Children execs like Jason Russell. Russell, who was instantly vaulted to celebrity status once the video took off, had a mental breakdown about a week after the video came out. He was arrested for stripping naked, disrupting traffic, and then publicly masturbating in San Diego. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the guy we made famous through blindly sharing his campaign on social media. 

While many Americans were too busy feeling good about themselves for simply sharing one Facebook post, they completely failed to notice that the Ugandans, the very people that the film sought to help, actually hated the film. They hated it so much, in fact, that when a mass showing of the film occurred in Lira, Uganda, the Ugandan people literally pelted the screen with rocks until the organizers had to pull the plug on the video and suspend all future showings. Why did the Ugandans hate the film so much, you ask? They felt that the film was “more about whites than Ugandans” and focused more on celebrating the filmmakers while largely neglecting the victims of Kony’s actions. Some even felt that the film had unjustly turned Kony into a celebrity of sorts, and they were highly displeased with the film’s advocacy for foreign armies to intervene in their country to capture a warlord who wasn’t even active.

phony 2012

Final Thoughts

As much as I’d like to, I simply can’t knock the positives of the Kony 2012 campaign. It truly did get people completely invested (if only for a few days) in an issue occurring halfway across the globe that had no effect on their lives whatsoever. It brought international attention to the sickening actions of a largely unknown war criminal, which otherwise would have remained completely unnoticed by the general public. Despite these positives, Kony 2012 exposed many of the vulnerabilities of social media and virality in this country. The campaign’s success showed how quick people can be to jump on the bandwagon without ever taking the time to check the facts and educate themselves. If people had spent only five minutes looking into both the history of Kony in Uganda or the reputation of Invisible Children, they would have realized that Kony had been inactive for six years and that Invisible Children was spending more on staff salaries and travel costs than its direct services. The campaign continues to stand as one of the strongest examples of slacktivism we’ve ever seen on social media, as those 100 million YouTube views never yielded anything other than the belief that one was “raising awareness” by spreading the campaign. While we were too busy feeling good about ourselves, we failed to notice that the Uganda people actually loathed the film because, well, the filmmakers were too busy feeling good about themselves. We then saw how social media championed a guy like Jason Russell, who quickly proved to be utterly unfit for the celebrity status he never really deserved in the first place. Well over three years after the Kony craze came and went, all I can hope for is this: the next time a social media bandwagon is taking shape, people will take a few minutes out of their days to educate themselves on the issues rather than blindly following.

5 comments

  1. Couldn’t agree with you more Pat, when I saw that this came out a few years ago I just took a breath and sighed because I knew this was another classic example of people jumping on the bandwagon of social activism for as long as their attention span would last. We saw it again with Cecil the Lion, and an extended version of it with Deflategate this year, and it really just annoys me that this happens again and again because of social media. And while it’s good that sites like Change.org and Facebook deliver this content to people so they become aware of it, I wish there was another social media platform that actually enabled people to work some sort of change in the world. I’m not sure how it could be done, but where there is a will there is a way.

  2. acoulombe13 · ·

    “slacktivism” is something I will always be extremely interested in. Of course there is always good and bad in every situation and I think you went in depth of both very well. You brought another dynamic into the issue as well, the idea of blindly following an idea without actually educating oneself about it. Very good points and overall great post!

  3. I was actually interviewed for this topic at the time (by the AP, I think). What make it particularly interesting, to me, is that it was the first time I could remember when both sides went viral. The Kony 2012 and the people arguing the Kony2012 video had it all wrong. It was interesting to watch.

  4. ariellebudney · ·

    Great post! This is one of the best examples of slacktivism we’ve ever seen. I personally remember watching the video, tearing up, and then doing absolutely nothing about it. Just because we are aware of something doesn’t mean we’re making a difference. I also loved that you mentioned the fundraising for the video. There are tons of these campaigns, and we think it’s okay to throw money at the problem and walk away. But when the money isn’t going to the right places the campaign’s effectiveness is lessened. If people truly want to help, they need to do research on the issue beyond whatever post they see on social media. More than that, we need to follow up with these issues and not let them die out. Just because nobody’s talking about it anymore, doesn’t mean the issue was resolved. Great job!

  5. Strictly about the film itself, it was very much a white savior complex that wasn’t about how we can proactively help the situation but rather how we must rescue the “helpless Ugandan people”. It reminds me of the people who go on service trips and post photos of them smiling surrounded by 20 underprivileged kids around them. Social media allows people to feel like they’re activists if they post some sort of validation of it (either a profile picture with the kids or sharing a video like Kony 2012).

    PS this isn’t to invalidate the efforts of those who go on service trips, but this is a pretty good article about the white savior complex of service trips: http://www.psmag.com/business-economics/instagrammingafrica-narcissism-global-voluntourism-83838

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