Five days ago, the Internet was swept up in a fevered do-gooder frenzy, watching and forwarding an online video depicting the brutal actions of a Ugandan warlord and a nonprofit’s sexy, graphic, cause-braceleted plan to capture him. Four days ago, celebrities and Twit-lebrities got involved, with everyone from Justin Bieber to Oprah Winfrey encouraging their multitudinous followers to support Invisible Children, the nonprofit behind “Kony 2012.”
Three days ago, portions of the well-intentioned masses began to question their support. Facts emerged. Invisible Children received a lowish two stars for transparency and accountability on the Web site CharityNavigator.org. And the content of the film, some protested, was muckraking but misleading — failing to acknowledge that Joseph Kony, the Ugandan warlord who recruited and enslaved children, is no longer the threat that he was in the early 2000s. His once-voluminous Lord’s Resistance Army is now thought to number just a few hundred followers. Further, officials believe he is no longer in Uganda.
Still, the clicks poured in. As of Friday afternoon, almost 71 million people had watched the video on YouTube or Vimeo; millions more were tweeting about the film using the hashtag #StopKony. Invisible Children chief executive Ben Keesey says he’s been in “absolute shock” over the video’s success. He had been hoping for 500,000 views by May.
“Anybody who does advocacy on this or any other issue is looking very closely at what Invisible Children has done,” says Ethan Zuckerman, a senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. The film “proposes that there’s a very concrete way of understanding who is good and who is bad. It’s very simple. It says, ‘Look, all we need to do is catch him.’ ”
The film, directed by and starring activist filmmaker Jason Russell, is a compelling and watchable narrative. In less than 30 minutes, he connects atrocities in Africa with his own moral obligations as a parent — the film intercuts between Russell’s child and a young Ugandan boy he met while visiting Africa — with the prospective desk-sitting viewer’s moral obligation as a citizen of the world. Russell asks supporters to purchase $30 “action packs,” which include the bracelets, and to launch a major postering campaign April 20 in their respective cities.
The hype and hyperbole surrounding “Kony 2012” swelled in the span of a week, but the true test for what it signifies — for the Internet, for activism, for how people want to interact with the world around them — won’t be measurable until April 20 and beyond.
Will activists take to the night, cover the streets in posters, bombard policymakers with phone calls and demands for action? Or did they just want to click and move on?
Plenty of good causes have gone viral online. During the Iranian uprisings of 2009, citizens of Twitter changed their locations to Tehran in shows of solidarity. Online petitions are signed, Facebook statuses are updated, Twitter feeds are cause-jacked.
“Kony 2012,” however, is one of the first examples of cause-jacking being so self-aware, and so upfront about its own gimmickry. “Humanity’s greatest desire is to belong and connect,” Russell intones at the beginning of the film, directly addressing the power of Facebook and implying that getting involved in this cause will fulfill human needs that go beyond the screen.
What phenomena such as “Kony 2012” reveal is that “people don’t watch to just watch awful things,” says Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies social media. “They want a world in which there is a way to engage.”
Online, “engagement” is a word with many meanings. Clicking on something is a form of engagement — but it’s a form of engagement that has acquired the derogatory nickname “slacktivism,” implying that online users may view their Internet habits as a proxy for offline action. Invisible Children’s video went viral, in part, because of its attractive packaging. But issues in Uganda are more complex than a 30-minute video can convey, and buying an action pack is several steps removed from effecting change.
On his blog, Harvard’s Zuckerman philosophically questions what videos such as “Kony 2012” mean for the future of what kind of social engagement is possible online. “If we need simple narratives so people can amplify and spread them, are we forced to engage only with the simplest of problems?”
Keesey, of Invisible Children, says that the success of its mission will depend on the group’s ability to translate massive attention into action. He hopes to organize small groups into “lobby parties” to meet with their congressional representatives and urge support for the capture of Kony.
Jedidiah Jenkins, Invisible Children’s director of ideology, says that the viral success of the video represents its own level of achievement. “How are you going to get young people to care about an issue on the other side of the planet that doesn’t affect them?” Jenkins asks. “We did that.”
Staff writers Paul Farhi and Elizabeth Flock contributed to this report.