Tackling Kony 2012
The video is presented with first-person narration by Invisible Children founder Jason Russell, and is framed as his journey to understand the issue and explain it to his young son. Anointed as the most viral video ever, it’s currently sitting at just over 90 million views. This was a particular achievement because at 30 minutes long, it’s waaay longer than most videos watched online. In the video, Russell explicitly asks viewers to spread the word, and spread it they did - it was tweeted, facebooked and emailed around the world, and I for one saw it posted by numerous friends on Facebook in the first few days.
But, as any non-Jupiter-inhabiting readers will be well aware, that’s only part of the story. Soon after the launch, a rising tide of criticism about the video’s content and intentions grew rapidly to a crescendo. According to a Pew Internet Project report, the immediate response on Twitter was 77% positive, until the backlash hit and then the majority rapidly became negative. The criticisms centred around two issues - factual errors in the video, and the much broader issue involving questions about the appropriateness of the campaign and the intentions of Invisible Children. Many others with more right to speak on the issue (i.e. people actually from Uganda) have done a great job of fleshing out these problems so I won’t go into detail - an excellent e-book examining the whole hot mess and suggesting alternatives has been produced by Wronging Rights, or for a quick rundown, read this. Or for a more flippant approach, try the Kony drinking game instead - learn and have fun at the same time!
Amongst the angry global response to the Kony 2012 campaign, analysis remained firmly on the problematic content and aims of the video, while some other analyses were overlooked. What exactly was it that made this 30 minute video become the most popular online video in history? And are there any lessons to be gleaned about making online video with impact, or are the waters just too muddied here? Obviously, a large number of those 90 million views are directly thanks to the controversy surrounding the content, but in those initial few days of going viral, I think part of it could be attributed to the fact that the video was quite successfully manipulative in its aims. It used personal and emotive stories - Jacob the Ugandan boy, and Russell’s cute young son pointing to pictures of the ‘bad man’. Young people the world over (and it was overwhelmingly young people according to Pew) were moved and scandalised by the topic, and did what Russell explicitly asked them to do - forwarded it to their friends.
The unfortunate oversimplification of the issues allowed easy consumption of the video and thus helped its rapid spread - would a more complex and nuanced analysis of the issues surrounding Kony and Uganda have turned viewers away? Well, probably, but I think that’s the wrong question. What if a similar video had been made by a Ugandan organisation? A video using local people directly affected by the issue, telling their personal stories and explicitly appealing to viewers to take action? It certainly wouldn’t hit 90 million views, but then that wouldn’t be the aim. It would perhaps serve to start a conversation, a more effective conversation centred in Uganda and with some targeting it could reach other people in positions of power. I don’t know much (or anything) about Internet access and social media use in Uganda, but there seemed to be such a local backlash that enough people there must have seen Kony 2012.
Russell did happen upon two of the tenets of effective activist documentary - using personal stories and incorporating a specific ‘ask’. But, vitally, he missed key aspects: using the right personal stories and making the ‘ask’ something that actually has impact (i.e. not a wristband and a poster). As a result, it seems the campaign has somewhat fizzled out. However, the resulting examination of the campaign’s approach has been illuminating, and there are still a lot of lessons (what to do and what NOT to do) for organisations interested in attempting their own activist videos.
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