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Kony 2012

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How did the video Kony 2012 by Invisible Children Inc. become so popular within a few days and why was the hype over just as quickly?
This short paper is concerned with the popularity of the video Kony 2012. We will both analyze the popularity of and the criticism on the content of the video, by examining how the video became so popular, focusing on the usage of social media, and how the criticism on the video evolved. Next to the explanation of the popularity of the video and the criticism on the video, we will address the positive and negative aspects of Kony 2012.
There is one video on YouTube, launched on the 5th of March 2012, with more than 93 million views, evidenced to be the “fastest spreading viral video of all time” (Steel in Cavanagh, 2012). This video is named Kony 2012, after the man Joseph Kony, number one criminal in the world (Invisible Children, 2012). Kony 2012 focuses on the war in Northern Uganda, between the Lord’s Resistance Army founded by Joseph Kony and the citizens of Uganda. In 1988, Joseph Kony founded the LRA, with the aim to clean the nation spiritually (Blattman, 2009). Because not many people joined the army by free will, the army started abducting people. When in 1995 the recruitment got stronger and stronger, they started to abduct on a larger scale. From 1995 to 2004 they kidnapped 60,000 to 80,000 younger people (Blattman, 2009). In the video, Joseph Kony is accused of abducting youth, forcing them to kill their parents and turning the girls into sex slaves.
Kony 2012 is the eleventh movie and campaign started by Invisible Children. Invisible Children is a movement begun in 2004 by three filmmakers from California, when they started raising awareness of the war in Uganda by uploading a film about the situation there (Kligler-Vilenchik et al., 2012). When the film Invisible Children: Rough Cut gained success, they started the movement Invisible Children, to

“use the power of young media to inspire young people to end the longest running war in Africa.” (Invisible Children in Kligler-Vilenchik et al., 2012)

The video shows several points of view: the filmmaker, Jason Russell, the son of the filmmaker, Gavin Russell, and a boy Jason Russell met when he was in Uganda, Jacob. All three of them tell their stories about Joseph Kony. Kron and Goodman (2012) identified Jason Russell, the filmmaker, as a University graduate who went to Northern Uganda to shoot a documentary and there found out about the war and the LRA. He then decided to focus his documentary on Joseph Kony and the LRA and continued focusing on this subject for nine years. In the movie Kony 2012 Russell explains how all people can take action to stop Kony and how far they have progressed already. Still, a few questions arise. Why does the video have so many views? How did it become so popular within such a short period of time? And why was the hype over so quickly?
This short paper will focus on the popularity of the video Kony 2012 and the reactions and the criticism on it by first explaining how Kony 2012 became so popular in such a short time before explaining the reactions on the movie, where we will focus on the criticism. In the conclusion we will indicate how future campaigns can prevent the criticism Kony 2012 has received. By doing this we make this paper relevant for people interested in the hype Kony 2012 and for people with a campaign or movement based on social media.

The popularity of Kony 2012
Goodman and Preston (2012) wrote that Isaac Hepsworth, a Twitter employee, created a chart showing the growth in Tweets about Kony. There were almost ten million Tweets three days after the launch of the video. These were not only by the largest audience of the movie: 13-17 year old Americans (Kligler-Vilenchik et al., 2012), but also by celebrities and politicians. These people telling their followers about the movie and why they should watch it, was one of the causes of the popularity of Kony 2012. But the movie did not only reach Twitter. Kony 2012 reached Facebook, Tumblr, Google Plus, Vimeo, blogs and many other applications. The video was suddenly everywhere! Neta Kligler-Vilenchik explains three elements of experience people can get by being involved in fan activism, a term for “forms of civic engagement and political participation growing out of experiences of fandom” (Kligler-Vilenchik et al., 2012). People will have shared media experiences and will discuss their experiences with each other, causing more people to know about the activism. The second element of experience is a sense of community; people will feel like they all belong to one big community. The last element is the wish to help; the key strength of fan activist organizations is the chance they give to young people to help with actionable steps. Helping wasn’t just for the experts or the adults anymore; everyone could help (Kligler-Vilenchik et al., 2012).
The video Kony 2012 did not only reach people, it touched people. The story of Jacob seeing his brother murdered and the pure innocence of Gavin, the child of Jason Russell, moved the audience. It caused people to talk and share the story. The video not only asked to simply talk about it and share it with people, but also to talk about it and share it using social media. This created communities by, for example, Facebook groups. The video being shared on all sorts of social media, next to it being shared word of mouth, caused the enormous amount of viewers. However, the most important element of the video was still to persuade the people to help. Russell specifically mentioned that everybody could help and that it didn’t matter who or where you were. By donating a couple of dollars per month and making Kony famous, people could stop the war. This approach might seem simple, but it has proven to be very effective.

The consequences of Kony 2012
As a reaction on the popularity of Kony 2012, Invisible Children started a new action: Cover The Night. In the night of the 20th of April 2012 thousands of people would get together to cover all streets and buildings with the famous Kony 2012 posters. However, between the upload of the video and Cover The Night, a lot of criticism appeared on the content of the video. This resulted in low turnouts in different cities around the world.
To know why there was so much criticism on the video, we must first look within the content of the video. David Hickman (2012) explained part of the criticism by using the six documentary modes from the film theorist Bill Nichols. These modes being poetic, expository, observational, participatory, reflexive and performative, which are

“designed to classify the narrative techniques used by documentary film-makers to represent and interpret the real world.” (Hickman, 2012)

We can see that Kony 2012 barely used the observational mode, meaning in this case the observation of the war in Uganda (Hickman, 2012). The only observation to be seen in the video is the few scenes showing the villages and people living in Uganda. When asking why there wasn’t any observation of the war in Uganda, we came across a simple answer: there isn’t one.
Joseph Kony has not been seen in Uganda for the past six years, because he fled to nearby countries as South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo by United States and United Nations backed groups (Human Rights Watch in Cavanagh, 2012). The video also lets people believe that Kony is still in possession of more than 30 000 children, while the truth is that the numbers declined to a few hundred teenagers. The criticism doesn’t stop at these two points; the simplistic portrayal of the video causes even more critique. Ethan Zuckerman (in Goodman & Preston, 2012), the director of the Center for Civic Media at M.I.T. questioned the campaign because of its simple narrative:

“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 [president of Uganda, formed a truce with the LRA in 2006, but failed to accomplish peace talks in 2008], the campaign may end up strengthening a leader with a terrible track record.”

Not only Zuckerman, but also Ugandan journalist Angelo Izama (in Cavanagh, 2012) disagrees with the campaign, saying that the war in Northern Uganda and the actions of Joseph Kony are past time. More criticism on the video is that Invisible Children portrays the population of Uganda as victims only to be saved by the white, middle-class people, that Invisible Children not explains how they will avert comparable wars and that Invisible Children does not spend enough money on the charity but that they keep a lot for themselves. However, the biggest critique on the video is by Schomerus et al.’s (in Cavanagh, 2012). According to them, Invisible Children has

“manipulated facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders and emphasizing the LRA’s use of innocent children as soldiers… [while] rarely refer[ing] to the Ugandan atrocities or those of Sudan’s People Liberation Army, such as attacks against civilians… or the complicated regional politics fuelling the conflict”

On the other hand, the video may have led to youth having interest in politics, since many adolescents have seen the video and responded positively on it. The video has also led to awareness of the actions of the Lord’s Resistance Army and of Joseph Kony, because the actions were displayed and explained in the video. Kony 2012 has also proven that social media is a very powerful tool to get the attention of Internet and social media users. The video derived its popularity thanks to the attention it got on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and many other social media websites.
Although there has been much criticism on Kony 2012, the video does give us hope. The video gives us the hope that we can change the world, as mere humans, starting with the war in Northern Uganda. This hope-giving image is neither damaging nor unrealistic. The video has also shown us the power of social media. However, we cannot deny the criticism there has been on the video, especially the manipulation of facts and the simple narrative of Kony 2012. Even though the video brought some positive aspects into view, the negative criticism outweighs these positive aspects.

The video Kony 2012 created a tremendous uproar in the world of social media. The video has touched people by using a child and victims of the war as narratives. Kony 2012 asked the Internet, meaning we-the people, to help stop the conflict in northern Uganda between Kony and the population there. Thus, Kony 2012 urged for involvement in the war and to fight Kony by saying “We’re going to stop him” and “You know what you must do” (Invisible Children, 2012). This involvement plus the creation of a community and shared media experiences forms the core of the popularity of Kony 2012.
The criticism that followed, existing of the misrepresentation of facts in the video and its simple narrative, resulted in doubt. Also the fact that Invisible Children did not have a good plan of action caused skepticism. Many young people who watched the video and later heard about the criticism questioned their initial enthusiasm for the video and described their behavior as childish. This immediate response is one of the reasons why the hype was over so quickly.
Kony 2012 did do a good job by involving social media in their campaign. This might be a strategy that will be used more often in campaigns for charity. However, future campaigns should be careful with the way they portray information, mainly because any information on the Internet can be misinterpreted or can seem misleading or false. Campaigns should also make sure to not leave out any important information, as happened with Kony 2012.
Overall, Kony 2012 has set an example for future campaigns: how it should be done and how it should not be done. Future campaigns would profit from using social media in their campaign, since this is a good way to get attention. On the other hand, campaigns should prevent the mistakes Kony 2012 made by leaving out important information and manipulating facts.

Blattman, C. (2009). From violence to voting: war and political participation in Uganda.
American Political Science Review, 103, 2, 231-247. doi:
Cavanagh C.J. (2012). Kony 2012 and the political economy of conflict representation.
Retrieved from:
Goodman J.D., Preston J. (2012, March 9). How the Kony video went viral. New York
Times. Retrieved from: kony-video-went-viral/ Hickman D. (2012). Jason and the Internauts. Journal of Human Rights Practice, 4, 3, 1-6. doi: 10.1093/jhuman/hus022
Invisible Children (2012, March 5). Kony 2012 [Video file].
Retrieved from
Kligler-Vilenchik N., McVeigh-Schultz J., Weitbrecht C. & Tokuhama C. (2012).
Experiencing fan activism: Understanding the power of fan activist organizations through members’ narratives. Transformative Works and Cultures, 10. doi: 10.3983/twc.2012.0322
Kron J., Goodman J.D. (2012, March 8). Online, a Distant Conflict Soars to Topic No. 1.
New York Times. Retrieved from: ugandan-conflict-soar-to-topic-no-1.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

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