Why youth are drawn to Invisible Children: Prefiguring Kony 2012

by Neta Kligler-Vilenchik

The rapid and expansive spread of Invisible Children’s Kony

2012 film has garnered immense attention (both positive and negative)

online. While much of the criticism is around the organization’s

rhetoric, its suggestion of military intervention, or its financial

practices, I would like to touch on a different  aspect of Invisible

Children — its impact as an organization on youth participation in US

civic and political life.

Why

has Invisible Children’s approach resonated so well with young people

and what impact does this and other campaigns have on their sense of

themselves as political agents? The Kony 2012 video has been most

popular with 13-17 year old Americans (as well as 18-24 year old American males…),

and part of the video’s soaring viewership is attributed to these

teenagers’ sharing of the video through their various social networks.

So far,  it would be simple to dismiss their sharing of the video as a

form of Slacktivism: these young people, allegedly, are practicing easy

and thus meaningless forms of social action, actions that don’t go

beyond pressing ‘share’. This critique, however, ignores the possibility

that the movie may be meaningful in mobilizing young people

as civic actors. Making such statements around Kony 2012 would be

premature, as only time will tell what the long-term impacts of young

people’s experiences with this movie will be. But, we can gain some

preliminary insights by looking at what Invisible Children has done

before, over its years of mobilizing young Americans to action. At this

time, we do not want to get into the controversies about the right

action to take around the war in Central Africa. Rather, we want to

highlight Invisible Children’s ability to powerfully engage young people

through what we call Participatory Culture Civics.

Let’s

first provide some background. Invisible Children (IC) is an

organization that has been around for 8 years. IC’s previous 10 movies,

while not circulated as widely as Kony 2012, have sparked similarly

intense reactions from many of its viewers. Some of these previous

viewers joined what became the “Invisible Children movement”, consisting

of volunteer staff, interns, roadies, and local club members in high

schools and colleges. These members participated in IC’s large-scale,

performative campaigns, including the Global Night Commute, Displace Me and 25,

and dedicated time and energy to promoting IC’s causes nationwide.

While this was not Invisible Children’s original goal, the organization

became increasingly aware of its “inadvertent” role in encouraging

American youth’s social engagement. The organization has increasingly

focused on this role as part of its action, as exemplified by the “Fourth Estate”

event they held in the summer of 2011, an event dedicated to empowering

650 socially active youth to become activists for the causes they care

passionately about. The key elements of this event are summarized in a video created by IC for the Do Something Award competition:


Do Something Award – The Fourth Estate from INVISIBLE CHILDREN on Vimeo.

The Civic Paths Project Research Group, working with Professor Henry Jenkins at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, University of Southern California and supported by the Spencer Foundation,

has been looking at Invisible Children as a case study of what we call

Participatory Culture Civics: organizations which build on top and

harness the strengths of participatory cultures to further their civic

goals. Invisible Children sparked our interest due to its innovative and

non-orthodox use of media, but even more so, due to the way it created a

participatory community around its goal. But we’ll get to that in a

moment.

Among

the tens of millions (we’ve given up on updating this number) of

viewers of Kony 2012 are hundreds of thousands of young people who have

joined Invisible Children’s mission long before this film. In 2010-2011,

we interviewed 30 such members, who told us about how they learnt about

Invisible Children and got involved in the organization, and how

becoming involved with the group helped shape their identity as civic

actors. We talked to members who were relatively highly engaged: interns

volunteering to work at IC offices for the summer, roadies, who

volunteered 3 months of their lives to tour IC movies around the nation,

and leaders of local IC clubs in high schools and colleges. In short,

they were young people who dedicated significant time, energy and effort

to IC’s cause.

Yet in some ways, they are not unlike some of the new

viewers of Kony 2012: many were in high school when they first

encountered IC, and to many (though not all) viewing the film and

becoming engaged with IC was a first experience of taking part in any

civic action. We believe that listening to these members’ accounts of

their experiences can help us better understand why young people are

attracted to Invisible Children and what role the organization has

played in the past in helping young people begin to conceive of

themselves as political agents.

This blog entry is based in our research

with Invisible Children and builds on a forthcoming article

“Experiencing Fan Activism: Understanding the Power of Fan Activist

Organizations through Members’ Narratives” which will be published in

the Journal of Transformative Works and Cultures in June 2012.

Creating content worlds – Invisible Children’s storytelling through movie

Our

analysis of Invisible Children’s model of youth engagement began with

the lens of “fan activism”: forms of civic engagement and political

participation growing out of experiences of fandom. We were examining

Invisible Children as a parallel to another case study of Participatory

Culture Civics: the Harry Potter Alliance,

a non-profit organization that mobilizes the Harry Potter fan community

toward civic action, using metaphors from the popular narratives. In

comparing the two organizations, we found that while the Harry Potter

Alliance built on an existing fan community and harnessed a pre-existing

content world (a powerful narrative that strongly resonates with

members) toward its civic goals, Invisible Children began with a

goal–ending the use of child soldiers in the civil war in Uganda–and

built a content world around it.

Invisible

Children has been creating documentary films since 2004, when they

released their first, and for many viewers most powerful, film, Invisible Children: The Rough Cut:


For an analysis of IC’s transmedia storytelling practices see the Invisible Children Working Paper written by fellow Civic Paths member Lana Swartz.

The Rough Cut documents IC founders Jason, Bobby and Lauren’s trip to Uganda,  where they first learned about the war with the LRA and the existence of child soldiers. In members’ narratives, this movie is attributed with an almost magical effect in transforming their worldview:

“They

showed me the film and I remember being so floored like, ‘I cannot

believe that this is going on’ and ‘why have I never heard about this.’ I

remember something in me shifted that night.” (Ruth, IC intern)


The

main strength of the movie to most IC members is the feeling of

identification with the protagonists–the three filmmakers and future IC

founders, young people not much older than themselves, who go out to

Uganda, encounter a social issue and launch a movement:

“The

movie is just very raw, and it’s, even though they were older than me

they were kids, and you see these kids just go, they see something, they

run into a problem and they’re like, OK, now we have to fix this

problem.” (Beth, IC intern)


In this respect, the Kony 2012 movie represents a significant shift in point of view and style. If
Rough Cut presented

the founders as naïve but good-intentioned film students accidentally

stumbling onto a war, Kony 2012 shows Jason as a leader of a viable

movement and, predominantly, as a father. When he teaches his 5 year old

son about Joseph Kony being “the bad guy”, it’s not clear with whom

young viewers most identify – with the 30 something old dad, or with the

innocent but earnest 5 year-old.

While

Kony 2012 was released online, previous IC movies were mostly

distributed through “screenings”: 1.5-2 hour long events, taking place

in high schools, colleges and churches. In screenings, IC roadies, who

are volunteer staff members, show the movie, and accompany it with an

introduction and Q&A sessions. Some screenings also include young

Ugandan, recipients of IC scholarships in Uganda, who come to the U.S.

for a short period of time to tell their own story in screenings. After

screenings, audiences were encouraged to donate to Invisible Children,

buy its merchandise, as well as become more involved with its local

clubs.

This

distribution model, of course, reached a negligible audience when

compared with Kony 2012. At the same time, the live interaction with the

roadies enabled Invisible Children to create a different experience

than that possible when watching Kony 2012 online. By supplementing the

movies with live interaction with the roadies, Invisible Children could

supplement the information given in the movies (e.g., explain the

current state of affairs in Uganda), answer audience’s questions (e.g.,

how are donations used) as well as create contacts between roadies and

IC supporters, which were later maintained online. This model, while

reaching much smaller audiences, enabled IC to create a more nuanced and

informed message, and thus counter some (though not all) of the

criticisms it is now encountering.

Accusations of Slacktivism, or, can watching a 30 minute movie make you a social activist?

30minuteactivismeme.jpg
image source: http://jeffzelaya.com/


Part

of the critique around the Kony 2012 campaign is that it promotes

Slacktivism: a genre of social action that is easy (done with a click of

the mouse), comfortable, and thus meaningless. One of the memes that’s

been circulating around Kony 2012 presents this critique. This critique

already ignores some of the more active forms of participation that are

planned as part of the Kony 2012 campaign, such as the “cover the night”

events planned for April 20th 2012, in which participants are called to

cover their local cities with posters of Joseph Kony. Countless notices

have already sprung up for such local events on Facebook (though,

arguably, the goal of getting the world to know who Joseph Kony is, has

pretty much been achieved).

Beyond

that, however,  talking to members of Invisible Children shows how

previous IC movies indeed played important roles in helping young people

become socially active, though not always in clear, immediate ways.

Beth’s story is one example of this. When we interviewed her, Beth was

an IC intern, in charge of updating their website with news on the war

in Uganda. Beth claimed that she used to be an apathetic, selfish kid

(though her family had always been involved in aid in Africa). She

happened to watch The Rough Cut

at a church, where it was shown by a youth pastor. Beth described

watching the movie as a formative moment, an embarking on a journey of

engagement in activism: “I guess it affects everybody differently. For

me there was no way I could do anything else. I couldn’t go get a white

collar job [...] I don’t even remember what other selfish tracks I was

on.” The movie opened her eyes to the world of non-profits, and she

began researching them online. She became engaged with the student

organization STAND, and is now their local president. Through her work

with STAND she reconnected with IC. In the interview, she claimed that

she now sees no other alternative for herself but being involved in

activism: “That life to me just seems like the kind of life everyone

should live, a life where you’re not doing something only for yourself,

whatever you’re doing is putting something back into the world”.

Beth’s

story exemplifies an element we heard in many IC members’ re-tellings: a

narrative of self-transformation. In this narrative structure, IC

members often describe their ‘former selves’, before joining IC, in

contrast to who they are today. Beth describes her former self as

apathetic and selfish, in many ways echoing prevalent stereotypes about

disengaged youth. In her narrative, watching the Rough Cut represented

a life-changing turning point. Her commitment to social engagement,

then, seemed to be created at that moment of realization, “understanding

that there’s more to life than the mall” (Beth).

These

narratives of members are extremely powerful, though they may not be

the full picture of what’s going on. Digging down deeper reveals that

many IC members (though not all) had been previously socialized to

altruistic values and practices. For example, while Beth understates the

significance of her parents’ involvement in aid in Africa to her own

activist desire, research shows that parental modeling is a key variable

predicting youth civic engagement. Yet the movie served as an important

catalyst to civic action, one that allowed Beth to feel that she

shifted from selfish child to civic actor. Moreover, we found that

seeing IC movies was part of a larger process through which young people

could become socially involved.

Even

when young people want to create social change, finding ways to get

meaningfully involved, particularly in world affairs, is described by

many members as a challenge. Many “traditional” non-profits, like the

Peace Corps, offer limited possibilities for youth (under 18), and often

require extensive voluntary commitments. Other organizations may offer

young people ways to become involved, but are perceived as old-fashioned

and out-dated, “charities run by middle-aged women”

(Edie, IC intern). A key strength of IC, and one that Kony 2012

exhibits as well, is the way it  offers young people actionable steps,

concrete channels to express a pre-existing activist desire:

“I

had been trying to find ways that I could get into volunteering or

working to become part of a more global community. I saw the screening

and they were in the process of trying to get the bill passed and they

were encouraging us to talk to senators to hold a meeting, a cool way

that you guys can make a big change, and so I got really involved from

there.” (Tina, IC roadie)


While signing an online pledge or purchasing a $30 action kit (which are now completely sold out) may be seen as meaningless steps, for young people they can be perceived as significant first steps in taking civic action, giving them a sense of agency and empowerment that often sparks further action, as Beth’s story shows.

“White man’s burden?” Nuancing the message

One

of the accusations against Kony 2012 has accompanied Invisible Children

from its start: the accusation of presenting “poor Ugandan children”

who “need to be rescued” by white Americans. Invisible Children as an

organization has grappled with this accusation and over the years made

many attempts to nuance their message. One of the leadership’s key

statements is that their relationship with the Ugandans is one of

friendship and mutual learning, not only one-directional aid. This

message is in fact one that was very peripheral to Kony 2012, but it is

strongly echoed in the narratives of members we talked to. IC members

repeatedly expressed shared affiliations with the people of Uganda whom

they have never met.

“Even

though I haven’t met anyone from Uganda, I feel like they’re kind of my

extended friends now. I care about them not just a far off, ‘Oh, I want

everybody to be okay’ but I really feel somewhat connected.” (Dave, IC

intern)


Janelle, an IC intern, is one of few IC members who have visited Uganda. She similarly speaks of a mutual relationship:

“It was such an eye opening experience. You put faces to the people

you’re helping, it’s not just helping others but building friendships

and exchanging. It was definitely what [the Ugandans] were giving, they

were giving to us as well, learning from their culture.” (Janelle, IC

intern)

It

is still early to tell which relationships toward Ugandans Kony 2012

may invoke in its viewers. In trying to create a movie that people will

be compelled to share, Invisible Children may have sidetracked their

previous commitment to a nuanced representation of their relationship

with the Ugandans. Yet when young people participate in conversations

online about whether or not Kony 2012 is a representation of White Man’s

Burden, they may be creating such nuanced understanding themselves in

active ways that may be particularly effective. In this manner, the

movie may again be seen as one aspect of a wider experience through

which young people gain awareness of a problem they previously did not

know about, become more informed about it, but are also mobilized in

concrete and empowering ways.    

The message young people are getting (again)

Beyond the specific discussion around Kony 2012, we have, as scholars, a wider agenda. Part

of the criticism that Invisible Children is receiving is a normative

and ideological one: it is about what social action needs to look like,

who may participate in it, and what it should entail. Bluntly read, what

some of critics are arguing is that social advocacy, particularly

around world affairs, should be left to experts: to politicians, to

“serious” NGOs, to erudites. Young people–and this includes both the

film’s 30 something-old creators, and its mostly 20 and under

viewers–are told that this isn’t a world for them. It is too

complicated, too hard, too serious. These are the same messages young

people are getting about politics: If you don’t know exactly what you’re

talking about, you’d better not talk at all.

A

lot of the criticism of Invisible Children and Kony 2012 can be read as

a protecting of boundaries and barriers. Who is and who is not allowed

to speak; what is the right way to speak; and what should that sound

like. There are many ways to take social action, and there are many

other organizations out there that probably do many things better than

Invisible Children. They have more nuanced messages, they offer more

detailed information, they spend more of their budget on direct aid

programs. IC is accused of spending too much money on filmmaking and

“marketing”. Yet this statistic is seen in a different light if we

consider fostering youth engagement as a central role of what Invisible

Children does, as the Fourth Estate youth leadership event implies. When

was the last time so many young people were so engaged around any

social issue, let alone a war in Africa?

IC belongs to a new genre of civic organization, one that plays with and challenges accepted

definitions of social action and what it should look and feel like.

Over the past days, many critics have again and again articulated what

IC is doing wrong. But in speaking to young people, it is obviously

doing something right.

Many

critiques of Invisible Children and of Kony 2012 may point to real

improvement areas for the organization, and IC will have to meaningfully

grapple with these critiques over time. But in addition to pointing out

important problems, non-profit organizations, politicians and scholars

should also ask, how is Invisible Children able to resonate so strongly with

young people? How does it mobilize and get them involved? We suggest

that the answer to these questions can be found not only in their

 film-making but also among IC’s young viewers, supporters and members,

who want to speak up – but they need to be spoken to and invited to

participate first. Invisible Children is asking them to participate. Are

you?

Comments

  1. I think organizations like Invisible Children and Falling Whistles appeal to young people because they treat young people as if they can make a difference. Not very many organizations do that. They also don't sugar coat the issue, but put very real facts and faces on it. I created Project Justice (projectjustice.wikispaces.com) in 2010 to give my middle school students time and space to learn about larger issues in the world and then create a project to raise awareness about any issue in the world that they wanted to see changed. It was through this project that I learned about the war in the Congo. They became aware of this conflict through a Falling Whistles video on YouTube. These globally connected children expected to see the U.S. leading the charge to stop the violence against children and women in the Congo. I was in DC last year advocating for the International Violence Against Women Act and as the designated speaker for our congressional visits, I learned that knowing and sharing what our children want for their future is a powerful tool for advocacy. I am convinced that children have an innate desire to share their voices and make a difference because frankly they are living in a world where they are not valued as they should be.

  2. I think your thoughts are spot on and the picture of the teenager summaries my entire thoughts about the whole Kony campaign. Many youths are sharing the video like it makes the an activist all of a sudden.

  3. Thank you for this analysis on the appeal of the Kony 2012 video and campaign to US youth. The video phenomenon raises serious questions about when “simple is too simple” and my colleague, Sam Gregory at WITNESS, referenced your blog post and critiques on ethics, engagement, and representation (http://blog.witness.org/2012/0….