Five things to know about Kony 2012

Ten days ago Invisible Children posted a 28-minute film 9 days ago on Youtube which aims to make Joseph Kony, the Ugandan leader of the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) rebel group who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court, ‘famous.’ (The only way you haven’t heard about it is if you’ve been stuck in a mildewing box on a secluded island for a week.) It’s attracted over 76 million views. It went viral and so could be seen, from a campaigner’s and communications perspective, to have been wildly successful. But it’s generated stinging criticism too.

So, what can be learned from the Kony 2012 video and the debate that’s ensued?

1. Us and them: who can speak and act for whom?

The film focuses on an external solution to the crisis. It’s message: create public pressure to ensure that the USA continues to have technical advisors who help the Ugandan government catch the LRA. The campaign paints Uganda (and Africa) as a country/ continent that can’t solve its own problems.

If you take the approach that catching Kony is a problem that Africa must and can solve, I would argue that you should take the same approach in the way you communicate about the problem too. So, instead of talking about it myself, what do Ugandans think?

Rosebell, a Ugandan multimedia journalist found the portrayal of Africa as a continent with no agency repugnant,  as did Maureen Agena. (A similar critique can be found on (non-Ugandan) blogs such as Ed Pomfret’s and Mike Shanahan’s Under the Banyan Tree blog.)

But, unsurprisingly, even within Uganda opinions differ. Ivy, a Ugandan woman, was previously a campaigner and visited northern Uganda to interview child abducteers, and children walking miles each night to escape capture. She also participated in a memorial service for one of the biggest massacres that Kony has committed in a village. This is what she had to say in a recent group email to campaigners:

“I would say mission accomplished. Kony is now a celebrity. Let the work begin from all sides of the table to get a resolution to this atrocity. 26 yrs is just too long to have waited.

Someone has put all our continued procrastination aside and taken an action to a situation that has been going on silently… out to the public. We must learn the lessons from this. Those of us on this list that have commented that this is undermining what is being done on the ground. Let me ask you. What exactly is that? Cause I’ve not heard about it.

I think that if you follow the first approach (critiquing external solutions to a problem) through to it’s logical conclusion, you risk isolationism and end up in a small box on your own afraid to speak or act on anyone else’s behalf because you are not from the same culture/ sexual orientation (or whatever) as yourself.

It denies a sense of global citizenship and responsibility. It’s also inconsistent. Any NGOs or think tanks working internationally often have to speak on behalf of others during a campaign or to present research findings and, while people may not agree with that in principal, they generally see that it’s sometimes a practical necessity.

Read further African writer’s opinions on the Kony campaign. 

2. Better to reach 100,000 with complexity or millions with simplicity?

The peril of campaigning is that campaigns need a simple call to action and a simple message. In reality most problems are complex and need really complex solutions. In the video the quick fix solutions are: buy a bracelet, email the President. But, watching the video and doing those things doesn’t actually get you much closer to working out the origins and complexities of that conflict.

This happened with the Make Poverty History Campaign in 2005. The asks were simple: wear a white bracelet and come march in support. But 7 years on poverty isn’t history – far from it. Are we over-promising the simple solutions to complex problems and, in turn, destroying our long-term supporter base because they’ve become disillusioned?

Is it better to reach 100,000 who might really understand about the nuances and complexity of the situation at the end, or millions with a very simple message that doesn’t?

And, as Luke Malcher says here (again in a group email), many of these critiques on simplicity of messaging could be just as easily leveled against the mainstream media on a daily basis anyway:

“Neocolonialist? most probably, but really those complaints should be being levelled daily at the mainstream media. I see not one single campaign which aims to change the frames through which major news outlets explain events, which are always patronising, neocolonialist, sexist, capitalist and every other ist you could think of. Same goes for hollywood, mainstream literature, all mainstream media. It is a cultural lexicon which holds sway and which some people choose to harness.

Same goes for “victim” narratives, “bad guy” narratives and similar grand stories. I know from personal experience, you can convey all the nuance you want in a press release, but it will always get turned into a story of tension, of injustice, of good and evil, by the people who write it up. And that is what creates the environment in which these campaigns come out of the shadows and get mainstream exposure. Sure, its not pretty, but for communicators it always has to be a case of compromise.”

 3. Facts, anybody?

Setting aside whether to get into the complexities of a situation or not, the film is plain misleading in places. It mostly harks back to an earlier time period when children were forced to sleep in large schools and buildings praying for safety in numbers. Now Koney isn’t even in Uganda. The latest news is that he’s been chased from the Democratic Republic of Congo and has less than 300 followers.

But, to be fair, the Invisible Children website does have a LRA tracker, so, even if the film is misleading, the organisation is driving people to the website where they can get the latest information on where he is. So, how do they do that? Invisible Children has set up a community radio network where people can call in to share information on LRA threats and attacks.

If you want to see the spread of LRA atrocities, play with the timeline so that it shows all incidents over a 3 year period and you’ll see the geographical spread (Central African Republic, Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo) and the severity of their actions. You could argue that this is an incredible piece of human rights monitoring, such as Ushahidi, which documented post-election violence in Kenya.

4. Financial transparency, tick

Much has been made about the fact that only 37% of Invisible Children’s spend is in Africa. See, this Guardian article which discusses the accounts.

But, on their website they say have 3 objectives: awareness-raising, advocacy and support to Africa – ie, two of their objectives are focussed on raising awareness in America and around the world. According to this, 80.46% of their spend is on programmatic activities.

4.   The internet generation has a longer attention span than we thought

It isn’t 30 seconds or 2 minutes. Nope, viewers in their millions watched a 29 minute film, a film length that any campaigner or online professional KNOWS is way too long. We were wrong. So, what compelled them to watch?

5. Great storytelling works

Putting aside the debate on the issues and messages discussed, telling stories through individuals works. Here we see the father figure (one of Invisible Children’s founders, Jason Russell) and the two boys – Jason’s American son and Jacob Acaye, now a 21-year-old law student in Kampala, who Jason had met years earlier when visiting the country. The two are joined in a few film shots – Jacob playfully holding up the son above his head in his arms. This takes a large and potentially overwhelming situation and makes it personal and accessible.

But this is a risky strategy that can backfire. In this case the key storyteller isn’t Ugandan – this clearly works for the target audience (college students in American) but not so well in Uganda itself.

A local Ugandan charity, the African Youth Initiative Network, organised a film viewing and got an angry response. People who watched the film asked: “Why give such criminals celebrity status?” . They couldn’t understand why the film focused on ‘white’ people and not more on victims affected by the atrocities he carried out.

Read the full press release of the event and a more thorough analysis of the Kony campaign, and why it works as a campaign.

So, what have you learned from the Kony 2012 campaign?

Note: You can contact Ivy by email: or leave a comment on this blog for her.