KONY2012: the rise and fall of an online social movement

When the KONY2012 video appeared in my Facebook newsfeed in early March of this year, I really had no idea what to expect. The only clue was the accompanying message from the friend who had posted it lauding the video’s originality and significance as a standard bearer of a new age—a grand departure from the endless parade of online kittens and music videos that saturate YouTube. From the opening minutes, however, I found its Hallmark-card statements about humanity’s greatest desire being only to belong and connect with each other rather childish and banal, akin to a well made commercial for cell phones or Levi’s jeans. There was, however, real innovation in the powerful combination of evocative imagery, music and extremely advanced production techniques used to market a simple, socially-conscious idea: raise global awareness about a war criminal from Uganda named Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a ragtag rebel militia that has survived on the rape, murder and abduction of children in central Africa for 26 years, and you can help bring him down.

KONY2012 is a case study for the impact technology can have on the future of activism and the development of social movements. Social media and the ever-advancing forms of communication available to average people have allowed for the magnification of an idea well beyond direct person-to-person interaction. Anything put online has the potential to spread at an accelerated pace and reach countless people. The whole world witnessed this in action during the Arab Spring, especially in places like Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, where Twitter and Facebook were used to broadcast information to the outside world. For KONY2012, there is no denying that the video got people talking about a remote issue that most of the world had never heard of. This kept the media debating the campaign’s relevance and governments did take some steps they might not have otherwise. Resolutions were made in Congress, commitments were given by world leaders. Therefore, as the year comes to an end and the controversy over the video has largely cleared from the headlines and been forgotten, KONY2012 merits a more proper examination.

The video was produced by an advocacy group called Invisible Children in conjunction with other organizations and narrated by their creative director, Jason Russell, who used his personal story to connect with the audience. It was designed to inform and energize people to take action by pressuring their own governments to put a stop to Joseph Kony through joint action and potential military force. Immediately, the video’s brand of ultra savvy online activism sent shockwaves through the digital space, especially among the young, impressionable audience, which was its target. Validation of this came quickly in the speed and intensity in which the clip moved around the world becoming the most viral video of all time. Within two days, KONY2012 had been viewed an astounding twenty million times. Within a week, it had reached close to 100 million, with donations pouring into Invisible Children and the media and pundits scrambling to understand what had happened. The trajectory of media coverage went from initial amazement to deeper analysis over the phenomenon and skepticism regarding its producers and their intentions—which was enhanced by the bizarre meltdown of Russell who was institutionalized after walking the streets of his hometown naked less than two weeks after the video’s launch. Eventually, coverage would settle on a balance between the praising of merits and the posing of problems for a video campaign which over-simplified a complex issue and ignored vital facts in a far away place. At the pinnacle of its fame it had reached the White House but within a month the video had burned out like a spark in the night and largely receded from our collective consciousness.

On the surface, the KONY2012 crusade follows a common prescription for collective action. It frames a specific issue, diffuses information to a wide populace using the internet, calls upon elite allies (Oprah Winfrey and Justin Bieber among others) to galvanize support and offer certification, mobilizes resources and utilizes a traditional repertoire of tools such as petitions and lobbying efforts aimed at politicians around the globe. In this regard, the campaign was widely successful on a scale and in a time frame unprecedented in history. But why then did it disappear so quickly? Was the amount of traction only illusory?

“What doesn’t happen online is the kind of face-to-face solidarity building and creation of a like-minded community that happens offline,” says Debra Minkoff, a professor of Sociology at Barnard College in New York. “If one believes that real change happens through sustained mobilization, online activity may alert people to a cause, it may even get them to a physical meeting place, but what matters for the longer term is what happens in that physical meeting place.”

One component that makes non-violent collective action so appealing and effective is the relatively low-cost of participation. Joining a demonstration requires little from the individual compared to affiliation with an armed resistance movement. This allows for a much wider level of participation among a given populace. If a government does crack down, more people are impacted and more people can sympathize with the ordinary people being oppressed. But did KONY2012’s reliance on social media lower the cost of participation—a simple click of a mouse—to such a degree that there was virtually no stake in the game at all? Some observers at the time termed what was happening as “slacktivism” or “clicktivism” and proclaimed it the death of traditional activism as we know it. Participation required so little of the person that they felt almost no actual connection or investment in the movement and would quickly lose attention when the next distraction came across their computer screen.

“There is a huge issue with the ‘clicktivism’ and ‘slacktivism’ mindset,” says Noelle West, the Director of Communications for Invisible Children. “Either people when they hear a story or they are made aware of something for the first time, the package is either going to compel them or not compel them to be a part of it and to be part of the solution. And with a group like us working towards a solution to a certain problem, we can only control the package that we put our stuff in to engage people to take a step of interest with us. We don’t think that clicking the button is the answer, it’s the entry point.”

Implicit in the video was the premise that Joseph Kony has survived for so long despite his horrific crimes because people outside of Africa were unaware of his existence. “It is obvious that Kony should be stopped,” narrated Russell. “The problem is that 99 percent of the planet doesn’t know who he is. If they did, he would be stopped long ago.” Yet does awareness translate into action? Do page views equate with support? These are the two most important questions that need to be asked when assessing the actual effectiveness of this campaign and future movements that incorporate the wide use of social media into their repertoire.

“There are multiple ways in which people engage,” says West. “I feel like that is the biggest challenge of any group is how do you escalate that engagement for your supporters. Because there is this idea that ‘I want to see change and I want to see it quickly.’ But unfortunately on a lot of these issues the change does not come that quickly. And so you have that hurdle to get over, with our issue and really with any issue.”

To be fair, the KONY2012 campaign did not want to be confined to the digital space. People forget that Invisible Children has been around for nine years, has produced fourteen videos and has been spreading awareness on college campuses and in schools and churches with teams of young volunteer advocates. The video was launched only to reach a wider audience and  galvanize people into traditional grassroots action, the type of feet-on-the-pavement necessary to prove actual support for a cause. Indeed, Invisible Children has seen their profile and the amount of volunteers rise considerably since the video’s launch. But would people in the streets have even mattered? This is not a domestic issue for much of the world. Would one hundred thousand people in the streets of New York or Paris or Delhi change anything in central Africa? It would appear the reliance on social media to diffuse the message takes the onus off of actual participation and onto simply spreading information. It became sufficient to only be informed and in turn inform others using the tools at their fingertips. Thus people could feel they were “involved” and had made a difference.

“I think that it speeds things up for sure, it mobilizes—in a thin sense—unthinkable numbers of people,” says Minkoff. “But I also think that authorities are aware of the ease of what has been called ‘one-click activism.’ So I think over time, if it is just a signing of a petition, or a ‘like’ on a Facebook page, responsiveness to that is going to calibrate to that tool. Or they step back and wait to see if it does go somewhere.”

Moreover, the other major assumption in KONY2012 is that US involvement in hunting down Joseph Kony will invariably be successful. In his critique of the campaign, Dinaw Mangestu reminds us that the US spent an untold amount of money and effort hunting Osama bin Laden, a campaign which ultimately took eleven years. Yet KONY2012 would have us believe it will take less than one year to apprehend Joseph Kony and his top lieutenants. In the video Russell praises President Obama’s decision to send 100 military advisers to Uganda in October 2011. To Russell this was the beginning of the end for Joseph Kony and all that matters now is that average people ramp up the pressure on governments so that they stay the course and do not waiver over their mission.

Many critics, especially those with extensive knowledge of the Kony issue, criticized the video for its over-simplification and ignorance of facts. This may be true, but in Invisible Children’s defense, politicians oversimplify issues all the time. Just watch any one of the presidential debates’ gross over-simplifications of complex political and economic issues. Or simply look at any organized religion that seeks to explain deep spiritual meaning and human ethics to a universal audience—it does so in easily digestible stories that even children can understand. This human phenomenon has simply gotten more acute in the soundbyte age, and therefore we must ask the question: if it wasn’t simplistic, would it have been effective? As the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof stated about the video, “It worked. It got people talking about an issue. If it had academics giving a presentation on the LRA then thirteen people would have watched it.”

“We are definitely a youth movement,” says West about Invisible Children. “So we make our films and our media in that language. We don’t make our media in the language of an academic or even of a journalist for that matter. The film was really made to communicate with a younger person who really has little or zero knowledge about this conflict or really the idea of conflicts like this in these regions.”

Yet, Mangestu’s critique also strikes at the heart of the problem with today’s online activism: “Kony 2012 is the most successful example of the recent ‘activist’ movement to have taken hold of celebrities and college students across America,” he writes. “This movement believes devoutly in fame and information, and in our unequivocal power to affect change as citizens of a privileged world. Our privilege is the both the source of power and the origin of our burden – a burden which, in fact, on closer scrutiny, isn’t really a burden at all, but an occasion to celebrate our power. Mac owners can help end the conflict in eastern Congo by petitioning Apple; helping to end the war in Darfur is as simple as adding a toolbar to your browser. The intricate politics of African nations and conflicts are reduced to a few simple boilerplate propositions whose real aim isn’t awareness, but the gratifying world-changing solution lying at the end of our thirty-minute journey into enlightenment.”

Indeed, Invisible Children’s third video this year, MOVE:DC, is at least partially a riposte to the criticism leveled at the so-called “millenial” generation—at which Mangestu and a host of others take aim—and their apparent inability to produce anything of value. MOVE:DC becomes a rallying cry for millenials to rise to the challenge and use the technological tools at their disposal to create real change in the world, starting with Joseph Kony and the murderous LRA. “We will turn this digital revolution into something more,” the second video declares triumphantly.

When thousands of millenials actually descended on Washington for the November 16-17 event, around 300 meetings were held with Congressmen and other policy makers, according to Invisible Children. A summit gathering all the young activists was also held and attended by several officials from the African nations involved in the Kony affair. Watching the live stream, I saw Jason Russell standing on stage like Ryan Seacrest, addressing his young hopefuls in the most self-congratulatory language imaginable, exalting each one of them for their tireless commitment to this effort and all the self-sacrifice involved. It was like a coddled generation always being told they are doing a good job in order to stay motivated. At the same time it was giving a false sense of achievement, that something meaningful had been accomplished simply from their presence and participation. At the end of the long day in Washington they were all rewarded with a giant dance party, glow-sticks and all. The whole thing left me scratching my head: is this what is needed to keep the people of our generation motivated for change? Moreover, what were the African leaders in attendance thinking as they looked around themselves?

In my estimation, whether Invisible Children succeeds or not in their somewhat dubious mission is besides the point. People should be paying attention to what was pioneered here—and I am sure advertising execs and marketers across the globe are doing just that. The power of communicating in the digital space certainly cuts both ways. One person can now communicate with a billion simply by clicking a button, opening up immense possibilities. But there is a certain fragility in that action. Viewership is a superficial type of participation, it is ephemeral. What spreads quickly can evaporate just as fast. Instant fame can instantly be forgotten and our attention span is being dissolved along with it.

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