A Brief Outline of Kony 2012 and Initial Reactions to the Campaign

by Rhea Vichot and Zhan Li

The Kony 2012 video campaign by Invisible Children

(IC) has been extraordinarily – even unprecedentedly successful – in

spreading its message. It has also attracted criticism, both concerning

the content and strategy of the video campaign and the general character

of the organization itself.

This post offers a brief overview of the debate over the campaign as it evolved in the period between the release of Kony 2012

on YouTube on March 5, 2012 and the subsequent official response to

critiques made by Invisible Children on March 7th. Of course, we

recognize that the debate continued to develop in important ways after

this time. This post simply offers an introduction to the early days of

the campaign.

The Kony 2012

video was released by Invisible Children at 12PM PST on March 5th, 2012

on popular video sharing platform YouTube (the video had been hosted on

Vimeo, another video sharing site, since February 20th, but may have been password protected until its public release).

KONY 2012 from INVISIBLE CHILDREN on Vimeo.

Narrated by Jason Russell,

one of the founders of Invisible Children, the film aims to spread

awareness about the crimes of Joseph Kony, head of the militant group

the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) which is operating in several countries

in Central Africa: Sudan, South Sudan, The Democratic Republic of

Congo, The Central African Republic, and Uganda. Kony was indicted for

war crimes by the International Criminal Court in 2005, and the campaign

calls for increased action and pressure to bring him to justice.

The

video quickly became an astonishing success in the scale and speed of

its spread. For instance, Invisible Children tweeted that the video had

already received 800,000 hits online in the first 24 hours. Indeed, the

scale and speed was so staggering that many people in the NGO and aid

world felt that they had to pay close attention to this campaign by a NGO

that many may have never heard of before (and some may have dismissed as an eccentric aid campaign organization aimed at an audience of high

school kids). The impact of the campaign also attracted much attention

from fields beyond the NGO and aid world – including the celebrity press

and social media and marketing consultants.

By March 7th, the videos

had attracted 40 million views on YouTube and almost 11 million views on

Vimeo. IC’s campaign planners had originally called for a target of a

mere 500,000 views of the video by the end of 2012 and had thought the video would mostly circulate within IC’s core audiences of (mainly

US) high school and college students.

Besides

raising awareness of the issues surrounding Kony and the LRA through

encouraging spread of the video online, the Kony 2012  campaign also

recommended to its supporters that they send communications (primarily

via Twitter) targeting 20 “culturemakers” and 12 “policymakers” as

selected by IC and identified on the Kony 2012 website

culture-policymakers.jpg

These

designated celebrities and political figures range in experience and

ideology. The “culturemakers” ranged from entertainment celebrities

(including some with reputations for involvement with NGO and

humanitarian causes such as Lady Gaga, Oprah Winfrey, and Bono – to

major technology and financial entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates, Mark

Zuckerberg, and Warren Buffet, as well as other leading shapers of

public opinion such as Rush Limbaugh and Rick Warren. The range of

policymakers focused on U.S. politicians such as former U.S. Presidents

George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Mitt Romney, and Harry Reid (President

Obama and his Cabinet are notably not included here), while also

including non-U.S. politicians Stephen Harper (Prime Minister of Canada)

and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Criticisms

as well as praise began to emerge online soon after the video’s launch

on Monday. These responses came via social networks (perhaps most

notably Twitter and Reddit)

as well as independent opinion blogs (for instance, a grassroots blog

post whose critique of Kony 2012 started spreading widely early on was

an opinion piece entitled  “We Got Trouble”  that was written by a Canadian college student) and mainstream media channels in the US and beyond (the UK Guardian for instance liveblogged early reactions to the campaign and quickly published multiple reports online about Kony 2012).

Key

critiques of the Kony 2012 campaign included arguments that it greatly

oversimplified the complexities of politics, conflict, and aid; that it

displayed neo-colonial or patronizing attitudes towards Africans; that

it distracted attention away from more pressing issues; that it was

arguing for humanitarian military intervention without recognizing the

immense difficulties and many unintended consequences of such policy;

that the organization has inefficiently misallocated funds towards

media/marketing and overhead at the expense of tangible on-the-ground

development and aid efforts; and that there is something distasteful and

counterproductive in the way that IC presents its message through

glossy, stylish, and youth-centered popular culture savvy content.

On March 7th, Invisible Children released an article on their site

which provided official responses that argued against key critiques

levelled at their campaign – for instance, regarding IC’s NGO

credibility and transparency and IC’s position in relation to human

rights based criticisms of the Ugandan government. IC also attempted to

deflect attacks on what some critics have seen as IC’s “white savior”

rhetoric by highlighting “that

over 95% of IC’s leadership and staff on the ground are Ugandans on the

forefront of program design and implementation.” They also addressed

the related controversy regarding the photo of the

founders posing with guns from 2008, with co-founder Jason Russell

stating “that photo was a bad idea. We were young and we got caught up

in the moment.”

Overall,

IC appears to have been both caught off-guard as well as feeling

exhilarated and energized by the spread of the campaign so far. In a video posted on March 8th, Jason Russell thanked IC’s supporters for the incredible success of the campaign’s spread.

Wow. Thank You. from INVISIBLE CHILDREN on Vimeo.

Jason

called the movement a revolution that will change the world and told

his audience: “I need you to know something. I am here representing youyour voice. This is a collective. It’s a We. And this story transcends borders. It is not about politics. It is not about

the economy. This is about human beings – human beings waking up to the

potential and the power that they have. That’s what KONY 2012 is about

and it’s just the beginning – because we are starting something which

cannot be stopped.” IC has also announced that it is translating the

Kony 2012 video into as many languages as possible.

Since

IC published its response to critics, the attention towards Kony 2012

has only increased, with tallies at time of writing (end of day, March

11th) showing around 91 million views in total for the original YouTube

and Vimeo versions (these figures do not count other versions that may

be in circulation, including non-English language editions that may

already have been released). Commentary critiquing and praising IC’s

Kony 2012 campaign continues to evolve and expand.

Zhan Li, a fellow member of the Civic Paths Project Research Group has created a Storify linklist , which presents a selection of these critiques and defenses.

Comments

  1. A great overview of Koney and a good summary of the backlash that Kony 2012 has received.

    I hadn't actually seen the 'Wow, Thank You' video and went to the website from there, its always interesting to see how an organisation deals with backlash for a campaign. I've still got too many mixed feelings to decide on how I actually feel about the whole thing.

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