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Kony 2012: Concluding Remarks

By now, the Kony 2012 video is known all over the world, famously having generated some 100 million views on Youtube in one week alone. Created by the group Invisible Children to raise awareness of the egregious crimes against humanity committed by Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, few could have predicted the ultimate fallout of the 30-minute Youtube video. Panelists discussed the repercussions of the video as an example of manipulating social media in Sala Raffaelo in Hotel Brufani on Thursday evening.

The panel concluded that Kony 2012 teaches us that popular grassroots movements, when taken to the web in the correct way, can alter the course of history. Take a cause that enough people with far-reaching networks care about, add the support, however desultory, of a high-profile and beloved cultural icon like Oprah Winfrey, and the cause will suddenly become a popular trend. The challenge is converting that superficial online interest into practical, real world action.

Charlie Beckett, director of the POLIS London School of Economics, analyzed how Kony 2012 attained such stratospheric levels of internet popularity. Several years ago, Invisible Children began building up a strong network of supporters from churches and high schools (generally in the American South). When the video came out, it was able to generate some 60,000 hits from that network of supporters alone. “The critical moment came when Oprah Winfrey retweeted [the video] and it turned from 60,000 followers, I think within about an hour so, to 6 million. That was the catalyst,” says Beckett. From then on, the story is well known. Initially there was a surge of support for Invisible Children’s proposed strategy to eliminate Kony, followed by a closer look at the video’s ultimately misleading claims, to the final coup-de-grâce: the nervous breakdown of Jacob Russell, leader of Invisible Children.

While Kony 2012’s internet marketing strategy was sophisticated, the plan outlined for stopping Kony in the video was not. Of the video Becket says, “It was utterly misleading as an analysis of Kony himself and misleading as to how that particular problem might be solved.” Invisible Children proposed bringing in American troops to the region to help the Ugandan Army search for Kony, a plan met with bemusement by Ugandans and strategists familiar with the region alike.

Kevin Doris Ejon, radio and TV journalist, says that the video was not just misleading but harmful. She describes the effects of Kony 2012 in Uganda trying to recover from the devastation of years of war. Displaced people were returning from camps to their homes, people were attempting to forgive former soldiers from Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. “For us it’s not a good time for that video. It’s just opening up the wounds that we had for 25 years,” she says. In effect Kony 2012 reignited a fire that was slowly starting to die down.

Nevertheless, with more than 100 million views, the Kony 2012 video generated much more awareness and support than traditional NGOs typically drum up. Martin Dawes, Regional Communication Adviser for West Africa at UNICEF, says that he has been told that media sources can only cover “one African story per month.” That an ideologically naïve Youtube video could incite so much sympathy so quickly, shows that the methods of Kony 2012 could be a powerful too for organizations equipped to understand and solve humanitarian problems. Dawes says, “There are lessons for us. I think any UN organization is probably the wrong age generation to do this properly. You almost want to form a new division. You want to say, ‘let’s put 11 years old on it and let’s give them computers and walk away.’”

Kony 2012 did not hold up against the intense scrutiny of more than a 100 million views. “I don’t think they ever planned for the scale that the campaign eventually attracted. And I don’t think they were ready to actually handle everything. In some sense they remind me of a lot of start-ups in Silicon Valley which launch, get really famous and then their website crashes,” said Evgeny Morozov, journalist and visiting scholar at Stanford University.

The metaphor works in more ways than one. Some start-ups fail, other start-ups eventually develop the Iphone. The panel concludes that hopefully more qualified groups can apply Invisible Children’s model to their work to better serve society. That the internet is a soapbox for everyone is both its greatest blessing and its greatest curse. Given the absolute freedom found on the web, there is no control to ensure that people seeking a platform for their ideas will remember to exercise social responsibility. Kony 2012 is a cautionary tale of inadequate fact-checking.

All lessons about the practical applications of social media aside, it must be remembered that the Kony 2012 video hides a great deal of darkness beneath its facile promise to eliminate a dangerous criminal. Ejon was the first journalist ever to interview the elusive Kony, back in 2006, bravely trekking through the forest with members of the Lord’s Resistance Army to meet him. “In my interview with him, when I went to the bush, he said he would never be captured. And he said he would be very popular, which I think has somehow come to pass. Because now it seems like many people have viewed him, he has become an international figure,” she says. That a slickly produced video full of images of smiling African and American children somehow helped a madman attain one of his goals is an uncomfortable fact, given that Kony may never be apprehended.

Catherine Morris

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