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Kony 2012: 100 million views for a non-event?

By Sandrine Perrot

From now on, non-profit organisations will strive to meet the benchmarks it set

On April 20 hundreds of thousands of young activists worldwide covered the walls of their town with posters of Joseph Kony to make him famous. They were responding to the call of the young Californian NGO, Invisible Children that posted the “Kony 2012” video on the web. In less than a week, Kony 2012 had become the most “viral” video in the history of internet and social medias. The NGO succeeded in making Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s resistance army (LRA), a celebrity in just a few days. According to Visible Measures, the 30-minute video gathered 100 million views in only 6 days after being posted on Youtube, quicker than the Britain’s got talent performance of Susan Boyle (100 million views in 9 days) and much quicker than Lady Gaga’s video clip Bad Romance (100 million views in 18 days).


Since its creation in 2004 by three students from San Diego just back from a film escapade in Northern Uganda, Invisible Children has organised many advocacy campaigns on the LRA atrocities, using film production, social actions and happenings in northern American major towns. It actively took part in the efficient lobbying campaign that led President Obama to sign the LRA disarmament act (2010) and subsequently to the deployment of 100 military advisors in Uganda and Central African Republic at the end of 2011. Kony 2012, through the storytelling of LRA victims and classic emotional hooks around universal childhood, lobbies to make the LRA atrocities world-wide known in order to maintain US forces in LRA-affected areas and enable the arrest of Joseph Kony before the end of 2012.

Video’s value

The video carries along the imprudent use of unverified and unverifiable data, over-simplification, Manichaeism, dubious confusion (between Kony, Osama Bin Laden and Adolf Hitler for example) and factual approximations. All this has been clearly set out in the thousands of critical comments posted on the internet about the video. But in the end, the real impact of this phenomenon is not what it tells us about Joseph Kony, the LRA or the resolution of that conflict, but what it reveals about the new digital modes of mobilisation of Western youth, the way it redefines – via social media – its relationship to the world and the subsequent transformation of the humanitarian and fund-raising industry.

The IC campaign displays its willingness to cope with the attention deficit disorders of the international community by demultiplying the impact of classical lobbying and celebrity diplomacy through their virtuosities in video-making and virtual sociability networks. In terms of conflict resolution, the video as such is a non-event.

In northern Uganda, where the LRA hasn’t been active since 2006, beyond anger and frustration of being deprived of the atrocities they underwent (including those committed by the Ugandan military) for self-promotion and commercialisation purposes, the news on the front burner is far different. The area indeed is plagued by another insecurity, that attracted much less  worldwide awareness : an epidemic of nodding disease that already affected more than 3000 children, whose causes are unknown, and whose eradication would desperately need human and… financial resources for research and treatment.

And in Congo or CAR, making Kony famous by sharing the video, wearing a bracelet or sticking his poster in Western streets won’t bring any solution to the highly difficult operational terrain, to the weak coordination and raising tensions between the Ugandan, Congolese and Centrafrican militaries deployed since December 2008 (which the so far unfinanced joint UA/UN mission created on March 23rd will first have to smooth), or to the underlying strategic divisions between Washington, USAID, the State department and the defence department.

Nor will it affect the extreme mobility of the LRA and its amazing adaptation and organisational mutation capacity. The real tracking of Kony is not played at the top of youth’ lungs in the streets of San Diego, Washington or New York, but quietly, by a few hundreds regional soldiers and a handful of US Special Forces deployed in the Central African Republic.

The video however is an event in terms of the use of social media for charity.  In spite of its juvenile naiveté appearances, the team of artists, webmasters and mass communication graduates developed an implacable mastery of viral marketing. The first trailer of the campaign was posted as soon as December 2011 on Vimeo, a more selective website than Youtube used by professional video makers but also churches and humanitarian organisations. The video percolated on Vimeo from February 20, 2012 before its diffusion exploded a few hours after it was posted on Youtube on March 5, 2012.

Textbook case

The viral propagation was first provided by the professional Vimeo pre-viewers but also by the previous capillary support networks built among US campuses and evangelical circles when publicising IC’s first movie in 2004 and 2005. Through a slick aesthetic and an MTV-like jerky rhythm, the video aims only at one audience: the “digital natives” of the northern American youth. It drills home only one motto – share this video – while convincing internet users that, through this simple and immediate action, they will positively change the world. Light on contextual elements, the video doesn’t aim at comprehension but action. A pre-defined, clickable action. Invisible Children doesn’t dwell on chocking negative images of the LRA war

They even intersperse them with long positive and self-centred joyful scenes of young IC activists. In a fully uninhibited “Save Darfur” way, Kony 2012 depoliticises and dehistoricises the conflict. It smoothes-out complexities to raise the digital mobilisation to the rank of moral cause, of an international solidarity gesture from youth to youth. Fundamentally, the success of this campaign capitalises on a thorough knowledge of the identity aspirations of the “net generation”, who grew-up in a world where laptops, video games and internet define a way of living.

On Facebook, Twitter or other social media, this digital activism defines the internet user as a person, builds his/her profile, anchors him/her in a community and defines its relationship to the world.

The elevation of this video to the rank of social phenomenon has limits however. What of the financial convertibility of this digital activism? According to The Guardian, Invisible Children collected US$ 5 million in 48 hours, which, not by the amount but by the time spent to collect it, ranks this fundraising campaign as one of the fastest in humanitarian history. Time will say if over the months, the financial mobilisation of youth (or, through them, of parents) will reach amounts collected by classical campaigning. Secondly, beyond the local controversial echo of the video that led to the cancelling of public screenings in Northern Uganda, one has to question the auto-regulation effects of digital mobilisations.

The viral dissemination of the video is now stalling (only 15 days after it was posted on the web). And it is difficult to determine whether that shows the target group has been reached or if the video’s progress has been impeded by the fierce critical counter-mobilisation of humanitarian professionals, academic circles but also of another part of the net generation via videos, posts, tweets or comments on various websites decrying facts instrumentalisation for self-promotion and now scrutinising IC financial reports.

Whatever the reason, this video sets a precedent. It successfully materialises an ongoing reflection in humanitarian circles about the terrific efficiency of viral mobilisation. Among the 100 million viewers, the most attentive have certainly been the non-profit and fund-raising organisations.

Kony 2012 has become a textbook case the humanitarian is already learning from, a standard according to which we’ll gauge the success of an advocacy campaign. “People are tantalised by the potential it suggests.

Over the past week, the campaign has been a hot topic among nonprofit leaders,” comments Suzanne Nossel, the executive director of Amnesty International-United states in an interview to Grant pros. “Over years, we’ve reached this scale. But not on a single issue or a single action or playing a single video”. So from now on, there is no doubt that non-profit organisations will strive to meet the “Kony 2012” benchmark, provided that they assume the controversies that come with it.

Sandrine Perrot, is a long-time specialist on the LRA for Sciences Po, Center for International Studies (CERI) in Paris, France

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