The questions we should be asking about the Kony Invisible Children viral

Over the past 24 hours, my Facebook newsfeed has been swamped with a single subject: Invisible Children’s Kony 2012  / Stop Kony campaign.

The campaign film was uploaded to Youtube on the 5th of March. Since then, #StopKony has been a trending topic on Twitter – both in Australia and worldwide, for several days. At time of writing YouTube listed the number of views at 11,624,969, which is likely to be shy of the actual total.

This is a phenomenal success by anybody’s standards. But what has made this single issue – which I think it’s fair to say was relatively far from most Australians’ minds until a day or two ago, such a hot topic – and why is the campaign such a viral hit?


Typically the videos that generate the most hits are short and funny. The Stop Kony video is just over 29 minutes long, and it’s heart rending from start to finish.

According to YouTube’s Karen Stocks, one factor in viral success is  “think popular, not premium”.  Invisible Children has enlisted the support of celebrities like Justin Bieber and Rihanna, amongst others, and it’s clear that the campaign is using these celebrity endorsements as a key component of its publicity drive.

So if the film breaks what we’re coming to understand are “the newest rules of web marketing”, what is behind its success? I’d argue it’s a triumph of marketing, but I’m afraid there are some aspects of this that may make Kony 2012’s supporters feel uncomfortable.

1) It’s all about us. The film begins with the line “right now there are more people on Facebook than there were on the planet two hundred years ago”. So statistically correct, so what? Well, it’s this statement that positions the entire campaign; the backbone is that we – you, me, our friends- can take action and make a difference simply by doing something we do every day: interacting online. Within the first four-and-a-half minutes of the piece there are seven calls to share, like or engage in other social media actions – all this before we’ve heard a single mention of the reason for all this action.

Is this “slactivism” at its most damaging? It gives us a sense of having made a contribution, having taken part in a movement for real change, clicking ‘share” or “like” or “tweet” or even buying a bracelet as a revolutionary act, thus assuaging any guilt we may have about our relative privilege – but what real difference do we make, beyond joining together in moral outrage?

Charity Navigator rates Invisible Children two out of four stars. Last year’s fundraising efforts, “only 32% went to direct services (page six), with much of the rest going to staff salaries, travel and transport, and film production”, according to the critical response to the campaign on Visible Children. In other words, what we’re funding is largely the publicity for Invisible Children as an organisation.

2) Scar(city) tactics: 8 minutes into the film, we learn that this initiative has a shelf life. I’ve watched it twice and I’m still unclear as to what the legitimate reason for this is, but we’re told this campaign will end by December 31. This is a time-honoured marketing tactic to create urgency, playing to the fundamental human fear of missing out. Why a campaign seeking to deal with an issue thirty years in the making should expect resolution in ten months is, to me, somewhat troubling.

Stop Kony 2012

3) The call to action is clear, direct and often repeated. We’re asked to do three things: sign the petition, buy a bracelet and”action kit” and donate to the cause. Underpinning all of these activities is the strong directive to use social media; to discuss them using the hashtag, upload photos, change our statuses and profile pictures etc etc.

These are all excellent ways of getting people to feel involved in a campaign and harness the amazing power of the social web – without costing us very much in terms of effort. To play devil’s advocate, could it be the case that the greatest benefit of this activity is Invisible Children (the organisation) itself?

4) It takes a complex issue and makes it incredibly simple. Not only this, it offers a tangible outcome we’re not accustomed to seeing in aid efforts. The campaign enlists support not to end poverty, or the vague and nebulous business of helping people in general; rather we know what success looks like: Kony in chains.

It’s a clear and compelling image, and as such, much easier to get behind for the public.

“We know what to do. Here it is, ready? In order for Kony to be arrested this year, the Ugandan military has to find him. In order to find him, they need the technology and training to track him in the vast jungle. That’s where the American advisors come in. But in order for the American advisors to be there, the American government has to deploy them. They’ve done that, but if the government doesn’t believe the people care about Kony, the mission will be cancelled. In order for the people to care, they have to know. And they will only know if Kony’s name is everywhere – Jason Russell.

Worryingly, this call to action is built on two flawed premises: one, that the US is threatening to withdraw its advisors in Uganda – no such suggestion has been mooted by the government. And two, that Kony is in Uganda. He isn’t, and he hasn’t been for six years.

My understanding of the situation in Uganda was almost nothing before I watched the Stop Kony video; it was virtually zero afterwards, and after spending three hours researching the subject, all I really know is that the situation in Central Africa is bewilderingly complex, and the combined efforts of numerous foreign agencies, NGOs and NFPs are making only small and gradual improvement.

“Choosing to simplistically define Congolese women as “The Raped” and Ugandan children as “The Abducted” constrains our ability to think creatively about the problems they face, and work with them to combat these problems”. Kate Cronin-Furman & Amanda Taub, Wronging Rights 

For me, the most troubling aspect of the entire campaign is the way it demonises a single human being. By making him the object of hatred, it’s certainly easier to feel that we’re united in a single objective, but as Primo Levi wrote after the Holocaust in his fervent plea to humanity not to repeat the mistakes that allowed Hitler’s act of genocide to take place:

“Monsters exist, but they are too few in numbers to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are…the functionaries ready to believe and act without asking questions.”  (If This Is A Man)

Ugandan Warlord meme


Cathie McGinn

(By the way, I am certainly not advocating taking no action at all. If you’re looking at alternative ways to support the Invisible Children,  Visible Children has a list of established charities active in Central Africa.)

Mumbrella’s Tim Burrowes discusses the issue on Sunrise:


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