Contextualizing #Kony2012: Invisible Children, Spreadable Media, and Transmedia Activism

By Henry Jenkins

A little under a week ago, the San Diego-based human rights group, Invisible Children, posted its Kony 2012 video through YouTube and encouraged its base of supporters to help spread the word. By midafternoon Sunday, the Youtube video had been watched more than 71 million times and the hashtag #Kony2012 has been a trending topic on Twitter throughout much of this time.

Invisible Children's goal was to make Joseph Kony a household name, not to celebrate his accomplishments, but rather to call him out so that pressure mounts world wide to hold this Ugandan guerilla leader, head of the Lord's Resistance Army, responsible for his acts of child abduction and genocide. According to estimates in a 2006 report produced for UNICEF Uganda by Jeannie Annan, Christopher Blattman and Roger Horton, the LRA since its beginnings has abducted and forced at least 66,000 youths (aged 14-30 years old; the traditional Acholi definition of youth) to fight and/or carry out other roles for them for various lengths of time (many never to return); with the UN estimating 22,000 to 25,000 children being abducted during this period. The LRA has also contributed to the internal displacement of nearly two million people, as well as untold thousands of deaths in its region since its rebellion began in 1986.

Invisible Children has been surprisingly successful in this social media-based campaign to call attention to issues in Africa which have long been neglected by mainstream media and which remained little known to most American citizens. The Kony 2012 campaign has drawn extensive coverage from traditional journalists and sparked heated debates across the blogosphere, with many experts on African politics weighing in to complicate or challenge the film's narrative of what is occurring on the ground in Uganda and its recommendations about what appropriate responses to Kony might look like. Alongside these discussions of African policy and politics, the video has also sparked heated debates about the nature and value of online activism.

For a basic narrative describing the release of the video and its immediate reception, see this blog post by Rhea Richot and Zhan Lee,

For a data base of materials, including both the original video and a range of different responses and critiques, see this archive which Zhan Li has assembled on Storify.

The Civic Paths Project

Much of this coverage has dealt with the video as a piece of content which suddenly went "viral" -- but in fact, the Civic Paths research group at the University of Southern California has had Invisible Children on its radar for almost three years. Our primary focus has been on the strategies behind the organization's success at recruiting, training, and mobilizing young activists in the United States. This research has been funded, in part, by the Spencer Foundation as part of their larger initiative to identify new forms of civic learning and is linked to our group's participation in the Youth and Participatory Politics research team, which has been recruited and funded by the MacArthur Foundation, though neither foundation is responsible for this series of blog posts.

As part of this research, we conducted in depth interviews with more than 30 young people who have become involved in IC's efforts, spent time at the organization's headquarters, audited their media output and strategies, and otherwise, sought to better understand why this group has been so successful at what it does.

The Kony 2012 video did not "go viral"; rather, its circulation depended on the hundreds of thousands of young people who already felt connected to the organization and to this cause through their participation in school based clubs and grassroots campaigns over almost a decade. These young people were among the first to receive the video, pass it along through their social networks to their friends and classmates, and thus, start a process which ultimately got the attention of millions around the world. Many of them have already given time, money, and other resources to this cause. Awareness of Kony 2012 remains highest among teens and young adults, suggesting how central these same groups were to circulating the video from the start.

Given the sudden visibility of the organization's most recent efforts, we felt as a research group that it was important to share some of the core insights from this research through this and the Civic Paths blog. We have little to contribute to the debates about what would be the best policy response to the problems which Invisible Children is calling to the public's attention, but we do feel, as communications scholars, that our work might shed some light into how the current effort fits within IC's larger history of using social media and participatory culture tactics to empower young people to see themselves as active political agents who can make a difference in the world.

Invisible Children: Storytelling-Based Activism

CIvic Paths was started as a project to better understand the links between participatory culture and civic engagement, specifically looking for examples of successful campaigns, organizations, or networks which had helped young people become more involved in campaigns for social justice and political change. During our initial phase, many team members shared groups that they were already researching. Melissa A. Brough brought Invisible Children to our team's attention; she had just completed a study of the visual culture and rhetoric shaping some of the group's earliest efforts, which has since become a chapter in the recently published book, Commodity Activism: Cultural Resistance in NeoLiberal Times, which was edited by Roopali Mukherjee and Sarah Banet-Weiser, for New York University Press. Here are some excerpts from her article:

Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey, and Lauren Poole founded Invisible Children in 2004 as recent University of Southern California graduates, after completing their documentary film Invisible Children: Rough Cut. Only four years later, IC had ninety staff running development programs in Uganda and thirty US staff who, significantly, were almost exclusively under the age of thirty. In 2005 they raised more than $300,000; by 2008 the revenue growth reached over $10 million. At the time of this writing 2,098 U.S. school clubs were registered to support IC projects in eleven Ugandan schools. And as is increasingly popular in the commercial sector, IC utilizes user-generated content from its supporters to help collectively envision and market its mission, through Web 2.0 sites like Myspace, YouTube and Facebook....

Creative storytellling through visual media is at the core of the organization's dual mission to be 'both an innovative media-based organization' (i.e. a production company) and a humanitarian/development nongovernmental organization. Approximately 50 percent of its programming budget is therefore spent on media and event production, largely in the US with the stated goal of bringing 'awareness to the situation and promoting international support of the peace process taking place.' IC refers to these production activities as the 'Movement' component of the organization (as opposed to its direct aid and development work), which uses stories and images to connect to and mobilize US youth to support its project in Uganda. This in turn produces content for more stories, creating a circular process of humanitarian media production....

In IC's media, emphasis is placed on the American donor/activist as much as, if not more than, IC's beneficiaries. Invisible Children's videos unapologetically embrace the opportunity for personal growth offered by entrepreneurial participation in the humanitarian adventure. IC sends the winners of high school fundraising competitions, organized through an online social networking site, to Uganda to visit the schools and camps of internally displaced communities that their funds support....

Brough's essay goes on to discuss and critique the group's use of discourses of humanitarian aid as a means of mutual self-empowerment, its use of participatory spectacle, and its deployment of networked communication tactics, with a focus on the first few waves of media which the group produced. She concludes:

Invisible Children's media are bold, beautiful, and captivating the minds of tens of thousands of American youth. They are creating a space for idealism that works within the context of postmodernism and neoliberalism, which is precisely its promise and its peril. Radically reconfiguring humanitarianism will likely require the innovative vision of youth, from both the global North and South.

Brough's work can help to address several aspects of the current controversy, starting with the concern raised by some about what a high percentage of the IC's revenues get spent in North America rather than on the ground in Africa. Such critiques neglect the central role which movement building and civic learning play in IC's model for social change. At times, this focus on increasing young America's social awareness and political voice has come to be as important to their efforts as their specific goals of bring about change in Africa. We can debate the merits of this choice, but it needs to be understood as part of the larger picture of what the group has been doing.

Youth As Political Agents

Brough's essay also suggests that the steps which the group takes to give youth a sense of their own voice and power as political agents, what she describes in terms of "discourses of personal growth," may be problematic when read in relation to the historical relationship between the Global North and South, furthering discourses of dependency which disempower people in developing African nations, even as they give greater agency to those who already possess a high degree of privlidge. This critique has resurfaced often in more recent responses to Kony 2012.

Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, another member of the Civic Paths research team, has developed a blog post which shares what we learned through our interviews with Invisible Children's young activists, specifically focusing on the impact which their participation in these campaigns have had on their own developing civic and political consciousness. This blog post is based on an essay she wrote with Joshua McVeigh-Schultz, Christine Weitbrecht, and Chris Tokuhama for the Special "Fan Activism" issue of Transformative Works and Cultures, which will appear in June 2012.

Kligler-Vilenchik argues that the focus of the campaign on youth participation is one of the themes which has largely been lost in critical responses by African experts to the video campaign, as has the idea that the video was intended as part of a larger transmedia strategy to create multiple points of contact with its core messages and themes. You can read her reflections here.

Transmedia Mobilization

Lana Swartz, another member of the Civic Paths research team, has conducted an extensive overview of the media strategies deployed by Invisible children, resulting in a working paper written last year which describes the group's efforts in relation to my frameworks for thinking about transmedia storytelling. She argues:

The "Movement," as Invisible Children calls its US-facing work, includes visually-arresting films, spectacular event-oriented campaigns, provocative graphic t-shirts and other apparel, music mixes, print media, blogs and more. To be a member of Invisible Children means to be a viewer, participant, wearer, reader, listener, commenter of and in the various activities, many mediated, that make up the Movement. It is a massive, open-ended, evolving documentary "story" unfurling across an expanding number of media forms.

Her working paper can be accessed here.

Swartz and other members of the Civic Paths team briefed key leaders of the Invisible Children staff on these findings last summer; they were receptive to these insights and have made some efforts to improve their practice as a consequence, though, in some ways, her findings predict some of the current controversies surrounding the Kony 2012 video. While many are encountering Invisible Children for the first time thanks to the widespread circulation of this new video, the video itself may best be understood as part of this much wider array of new media tactics and practices.

It is important to understand the transmedia nature of Invisible Children. Swartz writes:

Jenkins (2007) defines transmedia storytelling as a process in which "integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience," and, "ideally, each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story." It involves an emphasis on "world building" rather than plot or character-driven narratives, multiple points of entry for differently engaged audiences, co-creation and collaboration across various professional and fan sites of production, and collective intelligence, as audiences become "hunters and gatherers," collecting and sharing information across media. Transmedia storytelling is not just about new media, although it often makes thorough use of it. In fact, in order to best understand the concept, it helps to have an expansive notion of the word "media" as any channel through which new meaning or information is added to the larger story-- be it a piece of clothing, an action figure, or a live in-person performance.

By just looking at one piece-- the Kony 2012 documentary, for example-- it is quite easy to miss the full complexity of group. However, it may be difficult for a newcomer to access the "rest of the story" as most of their web presence has been drafted into the Kony 2012 push and some of their earlier work seems to have been removed from the web.

Spreadability and Drillability

The rest of the paper uses elements of transmedia storytelling to understand the Invisible children in more detail. An important element is the section on Spreadability and Drillability:

Spreadability, the focus of Jenkins et al's (forthcoming, 2013) book, refers to the extent to which media can be engaged with and shared in a way that increases its economic value and social worth. They contrast spreadability to distribution, a model in which "movement of media content is heavily--or totally--controlled by the commercial interests that produce and sell it." Spreadability, instead, is "an emerging hybrid model of circulation, where a mix of top-down and bottom-up forces determine how material is shared across and among cultures in far more participatory (and messier) ways." Mittell (2009) offers "drillability" as a corrective but complementary characteristic. He writes, "Spreadable media encourages horizontal ripples, accumulating eyeballs without necessarily encouraging more long-term engagement. Drillable media typically engage far fewer people, but occupy more of their time and energies in a vertical descent into a text's complexities." By putting the two terms in conversation with each other, Jenkins (2009) suggests that transmedia storytelling will likely have both properties working dynamically to engage audiences.

In transmedia storytelling mobilization, both spreadability and drillability can refer to the way the movement structures access to information about the cause and the organization itself. The extent to which the group "raises awareness" is largely dependent on how spreadable their message is. Drillability, on the other hand, describes the learning opportunities that exist beyond initial contact with the message. Both features are necessary for newcomers to become advocates of the cause.

Invisible Children makes information about itself and its work in central Africa very easy to share while at the same time allowing groups and individuals to personalize its meaning, amplifying spreadability. One way it does this is through fairly open content distribution. Although screenings where roadies show Invisible Children films to school and church audiences play a big role in the Movement, DVDs of the 9 major films are available for purchase and have, at various times, also been available for free, streaming online or on YouTube. Each purchase of the Rough Cut comes with two DVDs, one to keep and one to share. Invisible Children does not explicitly use Creative Commons licensing, but it does practice and encourage the free exchange of its materials, stating on the FAQs section of its website:

We at IC make every effort to spread the word about the plight of those in northern Uganda, and we realize that having access to Invisible Children: Rough Cut is vital to helping this movement grow. As we pass the torch to you, we ask you use the documentary and Invisible Children logo responsibly--only to raise awareness and benefit Invisible Children, Inc.


We want everyone to have FREE access to Invisible Children: Rough Cut. Be creative and make your screening unique. The only thing we insist is that you don't charge for admission.

Similarly, Invisible Children takes pains to enable its staff, volunteers, roadies, and other representatives to give accurate information about central Africa and its work there. One intern was careful to correct herself when she said, "war torn," replacing it with, "impacted by war." Roadies in particular cite being equipped with information that would allow to them to speak confidently in any crowd as a particularly valuable part of their training. This information is often dispersed in short, quotable chunks, making it easier to spread in a way that seems particularly effective for the college and high school aged audiences who may have little, if any, prior exposure to the history of central Africa.

Providing drillable wells of knowledge does not seem to be as much of a priority for Invisible Children. Its blog does feature, at least monthly, a "Peace and Conflict Update" on current events in central Africa, but the official description of the history of the war in northern Uganda, a main tab on its website, is less than 1,200 words long, and this information tends to be repeated rather than augmented across media.

In some circumstances, inadequate drillability can undermine Invisible Children's otherwise powerful transmedia story. This is true, for example, when a critic, claiming to be Ugandan, makes comments in multiple Invisible Children blog posts suggesting that Jolly Okot, now the director of Invisible Children's direct aid programs and featured heavily in many of the films, has compromising political ties to the Ugandan government and the LRA. A curious Invisible Children supporter, wanting to drill deeper into these claims, is thwarted from enacting questions across media because the link to the profiles of the Uganda-based staff is broken and has been "Coming Soon" for many months. Because Invisible Children is more focused on enabling spreadability than drillability, it relinquishes opportunities to more thoroughly and credibly describe the good work it is no doubt doing.

This lack of intentional drillability is further exacerbated by cultural and technological asymmetries between the way the Ugandan and American representatives of Invisible Children share data about themselves in unofficial ways across the Internet. For example, even for the most savvy transmedia navigators, finding any information online one way or the other about Jolly Okot's actual political history is very difficult. However, simply by clicking through a series of links or performing a quick search, any interested party can find a personal blog in which a high-ranking member of the American Invisible Children staff makes a joke that, especially in a low-context medium, might be seen as racially insensitive. The lack of drillable information about the leaders in Uganda and the excess of it about those in America equally undermine the credibility of the organization.

This tension between spreadable and drillable communication practices may well be at the heart of the current debate around Invisible Children. Few can debate the group's success at spreading its content and in the process, sparking many more conversations about what's happening in Uganda than would have occured otherwise. Yet, many have argued that the lack of depth in the group's presentation of the issues can come across as naive and misguided.

Provocation and Process

In a very thoughtful blog post, Ethan Zuckerman, a fellow member of the MacArthur Youth and Participatory Politics research hub, shares his own critiques of what Invisible Children has and has not achieved in its current campaign, opening up questions which should be addressed by those of us who see spreadability as a productive model for thinking about new forms of political activism:

The campaign Invisible Children is running is so compelling because it offers an extremely simple narrative: Kony is a uniquely bad actor, a horrific human being, whose capture will end suffering for the people of Northern Uganda. If each of us does our part, influences powerful people, the world's most powerful military force will take action and Kony will be captured....

The problem, of course, is that this narrative is too simple. The theory of change it advocates is unlikely to work, and it's unclear if the goal of eliminating Kony should still be a top priority in stabilizing and rebuilding northern Uganda. By offering support to Museveni, the campaign may end up strengthening a leader with a terrible track record.

A more complex narrative of northern Uganda would look at the odd, codependent relationship between Museveni and Kony, Uganda's systematic failure to protect the Acholi people of northern Uganda. It would look at the numerous community efforts, often led by women, to mediate conflicts and increase stability. It would focus on the efforts to rebuild the economy of northern Uganda, and would recognize the economic consequences of portraying northern Uganda as a war zone. It would feature projects like Women of Kireka, working to build economic independence for women displaced from their homes in Northern Uganda.

Such a narrative would be lots harder to share, much harder to get to "go viral".

I'm starting to wonder if this is a fundamental limit to attention-based advocacy. If we need simple narratives so people can amplify and spread them, are we forced to engage only with the simplest of problems? Or to propose only the simplest of solutions?

One way out of this bind is to see the Kony 2012 video not as a stand-alone text, but rather as one element of a much more diverse set of communication practices, as, going back to Swartz, one extension of a larger transmedia mobilization. A while ago, I suggested that Occupy might be better understood as a "provocation," an attempt to shift the discursive frame and spark new conversations, than as a movement, which is pursuing a single cause. At first glance, Invisible Children might seem to be doing the opposite -- too narrowly defining its cause so that it can be easily grasped by -- and potentially achieved through the efforts of -- its young supporters.

Yet, in practice, the effect has been the same. People are talking about Kony, including many who had remained silent and unaware before. The blunt force of the video has created a space where more nuanced readings of the situation are being produced, circulated, read, and debated. Some of the other bloggers might see themselves as correcting the "damages" the group has caused through its simplification, but blog posts such as Zuckerman's can also be seen as continuing the discursive process which the release of the video set into motion.

Zuckerman offers a similar perspective in his blog post's conclusion:

As someone who believes that the ability to create and share media is an important form of power, the Invisible Children story presents a difficult paradox. If we want people to pay attention to the issues we care about, do we need to oversimplify them? And if we do, do our simplistic framings do more unintentional harm than intentional good? Or is the wave of pushback against this campaign from Invisible Children evidence that we're learning to read and write complex narratives online, and that a college student with doubts about a campaign's value and validity can find an audience? Will Invisible Children's campaign continue unchanged, or will it engage with critics and design a more complex and nuanced response?

We might think about this process through a lens of "monitorial citizenship" -- groups like Invisible Children help to identify and focus public attention onto urgent problems, initiating a process where-by a range of grassroots groups and experts work together to create richer and more nuanced frames for understanding the problem and identifying solutions.

But this raises the question of whether despite our capacity for networked circulation, we have developed collectively the skills we would need for this kind of deliberative process. We do not know how much these other critiques are able to ride the coat tails of the rapidly circulating video, to what degree young people are inspired by the debate to think more critically about the frames they deploy in thinking about injustices in Africa or America's place in the world.

Ideally, part of Invisible Children's commitment to civic learning would include the fostering of critical media literacy, including the capacity to test and appraise the group's own claims and its own media practices. Ideally, Invisible Children itself would be ready to respond to the controversy with much more information which can support the efforts of their movement to promote human rights in Africa. In practice, they seem to have placed a much higher investment in spreading the basic message than in giving the young citizens they have mobilized a chance to drill deeper and learn more about these issues.

As Invisible Children's critics seek to correct what they see as the simplifications and misrepresentations of the video, we can also hope they will do so in ways which respect the commitment of Invisible Children's young activists, in ways which support their efforts to find their footing as political agents and make a difference in the world. There is a risk that a more complex and nuanced narrative may also be a disempowering one, one which, as so often happens, convince citizens -- young and old -- that they have nothing to contribute and that these matters are best left in the hands of experts.


Neta Kligler-Vilenchik is a Doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC. She works with Henry Jenkins and Mimi Ito on the Media, Activism, Participatory Politics (MAPP) project, as part of the Youth & Participatory Politics (YPP) Network, where she is investigating connections and continuities between youth's involvement in participatory cultures and new media and their civic engagement. The case studies she works on focus more specifically on organizations and groups that build on networks and communities of fandom, online and off-line, with the aim of encouraging and sustaining young people's involvement in civic life. Neta is currently working on her Doctoral thesis, which revolves around alternative citizenship models and their potential for youth civic engagement. She holds an M.A. in Communication from the University of Haifa, Israel.

Zhan Li holds a B.A. in Social & Political Sciences and a M.Phil. in Social Anthropology from Cambridge University (Trinity) as well as a S.M. in Comparative Media Studies from MIT. For his Ph.D. in Organizational Communication, he is specializing in researching the future of scenario planning, a widely used strategic foresight method. Previous thesis topics have included the World Bank's promotion of Knowledge Management and Economics in the 1990s, and the U.S. Army video game America's Army during the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War. Most recently working as a global media investment banking analyst for HSBC in New York City (with a special focus on India and China), Zhan has also been employed as a researcher at Sony (Los Angeles), the Microsoft Games-To-Teach lab at MIT (Cambridge, MA), the London Business School's Future Media Program and UBS Warburg (London). At Annenberg, Zhan manages the Annenberg Scenario Lab, which focuses on online media innovation in scenario planning techniques for a variety of organizations. His dissertation will focus on the development of online techniques for participatory scenario planning and futures that are informed by organizational communication and new media theory.

Melissa Brough is a Doctoral Candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California, and a 2010-2011 Fulbright grantee to Colombia. She works in the fields of communication for social change, participatory media, visual and new media cultures, and social movements. She has collaborated with youth and community media projects including Mobile Voices , FilmAid International , Listen Up! and the Chiapas Media Project . She received her B.A. in Development Studies and Modern Culture & Media from Brown University.

Most of Lana Swartz's work is on money (and other regimes of value) as techno-social practice. At Annenberg, she has worked on the CivicPaths research collaborative and the new Media, Economics, and Entrepreneurship working group. In 2009, she completed a masters in Comparative Media Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her thesis was on "fake" luxury fashion. There, she also worked on a teachers' strategy guide and an unconference on cultural geography and new media literacies. As part of TeachForAmerica, she taught high school English in Houston, TX.

Rhea Vichot graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Comparative Media Studies in 2004. She attended New York University and attained a Masters in Cinema Studies as well as a Graduate Certificate in Culture and Media in 2006. In 2009, Rhea received a Masters in Digital Media from Georgia Institute of Technology. At Annenberg, Rhea has conducted continuing research on Anonymous, along with other online countercultures and their relationships to learning, cultural practices, and political and civic engagement. Her current research interests include global popular culture, online and fan communities, and media criticism. In particular, she is interested in subaltern groups that have been historically linked with either 'hacker' culture or 'deviant' subcultures. In addition, she is interested in critical analysis of media, specifically games, both as a medium of commercial art as well as an object for cultural production by designers and players.