Back in 2012, an online video about crimes most Americans hadn't heard of, committed by a man they didn't know, in a country few could place on a map, became the world's biggest viral sensation.
It made a splash. That video currently has more than 100 million views on YouTube, and Invisible Children raised $28 million in 2012, which it used to significantly expand its operations in Central Africa.
Flash forward a little more than two years later. Joseph Kony is still free. The LRA still exists. And, as per a major announcement on Monday, Invisible Children has been unable to get enough funding to continue its efforts and will wind down its operations. "Stop Kony" has itself stopped.
In a message to WorldViews explaining the decision to shut down, Invisible Children communications director Noelle West pointed to the remarkable backlash that had made it "easier for people to decide to sit on the sidelines rather than participate," as she put it. And there's certainly no denying that the backlash was huge. Within weeks of the video going viral, Invisible Children was criticized for oversimplifying the conflict, for focusing too much on making films rather than finding practical solutions to the problem, for an alleged covert religious factor, and even for posing with machine guns. The pressure was enough to give one co-founder a very public breakdown.
So, as Invisible Children winds down, there's one big question: Was Kony 2012 a failure? It's a harder question to answer than you might think: Even some of Invisible Children's biggest critics have mixed feelings about the organization's legacy. If nothing else, pinning the failure to capture Kony on one organization is unreasonable (a huge variety of other actors were involved) and the Kony 2012 campaign did help mobilize a U.S.-backed African Union force in a bid to capture him.
Laura Seay, a political scientist with Colby College and a prominent critic of Invisible Children, says that much of the best work done on the LRA crisis was done by the Resolve, one of Invisible Children's partners. However, she points out that the Resolve's successful legislative and advocacy operation was underway before Kony 2012 came out, and she doubts the film did much more than add momentum.
Seay is one of many who felt that Kony 2012 badly misrepresented the LRA situation, which may have led to worrying policy consequences and the disillusionment of grassroots advocates . In fact, much of the criticism of Invisible Children has zeroed in on the tone of the video, which has also been called "soft bigotry" and part of the "white savior industrial complex." However, the Kony 2012 film was just one part of Invisible Children's work in central Africa.
Ayesha Nibbe of Hawaii Pacific University is deeply critical of the film, but she finds some of the other work done by Invisible Children more positive. "In my opinion, Invisible Children's educational programs are some of the best NGO work I have seen in northern Uganda," Nibbe explains, arguing that many young people have been given the opportunity to attend secondary school due to the work. "This rarely-spoken-about aspect of Invisible Children's work will have positive effects in northern Uganda for generations to come," she says.
However, Nibbe also points to more troubling actions, including playing "roles that are usually reserved for military actors," such as providing intelligence through its Early Warning System to track the movements of the LRA or distributing leaflets seeking defectors. "These types of self-appointed, private military actions create an environment in which “military humanitarianism” becomes normative and serves the US military in its aim to expand in Africa," Nibbe says, and that may have big consequences.
Invisible Children's focus on Kony may also have been a problem. By setting such a clear yet hard to achieve goal of "stopping" Kony, the organization was bound to fail. Seay argues that the LRA was tangential to U.S. foreign policy goals in Africa anyway. "Some Ugandan soldiers are getting some skills training and professionalization out of this, but mostly they're wandering around swamps looking for a has-been warlord who is probably in a part of Sudan that the U.S. and [Uganda People's Defense Force] forces can't legally access," Seay explains. "Why is this a spending priority over, say, providing more funding for efforts to stabilize CAR or Mali?"
Scott Ross, an academic who has researched in Uganda, says that Invisible Children's plan to hand over its Africa-based work to local partners is overdue and probably a good thing, given the organizations loss of momentum. Whether that work is a good thing will remain a subject of debate, he notes. "Many of the partner organizations they're working with will be able to carry on some of this work, so I wonder how much of a change we will see in LRA-affected regions in the short- and long-term," he explains. "The effects of the organization will continue on for a long time, from U.S. military involvement to intra-regional connections they and other groups fostered."
Outside of its work in Africa, Invisible Children's biggest legacy may be the precedent it set for other advocacy organizations. "I absolutely think Invisible Children produced some good," Jeffrey Smith, an advocacy officer at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, explains. "First, it essentially gave advocates a blueprint for how to do successful human rights advocacy on a big scale. It also helped expose the general public to a serious and long-standing issue that deserved attention and international action."
"Our goal as human rights advocates is to take these grim scenarios, expose them to the world, and get people interested and motivated to create change," Smith says. "By that standard, the Invisible Children campaign was undoubtedly a success."
Even critics agree that others will have to note quite how Invisible Children was able to gain this momentum. "From the human rights movement standpoint, Invisible Children's legacy is a big one," Ross, who formerly worked with the group but later became a prominent critic of it, says. "It will continue to stand as a model both for how to grow a movement well and as what not to do with a big non-profit."
The world has changed in the past two years, and perhaps it seems naive to marvel at so-called "hashtag activism" in 2014. It's become a no-brainer that activism can gain huge traction online – from #BringBackOurGirls to #CancelColbert, online campaigns are all over the place, covering a remarkably diverse range of issues. For better or worse, however, many of these social media campaigns have faced a similar problem to #Kony2012: Once you have the online support, how to use it for real world impact? It's an important question, and if an answer could be found it may point to better things.
"While I have developed a healthy critique of Invisible Children and the ways it can bolster well-intentioned but self-absorbed efforts to 'Save Africa,'" Amy C. Finnegan, Chair of Justice and Peace Studies at the University of St. Thomas, writes in an email, "I think it also is a sign of today’s millennial searching for a way 'do something' in a world full of inundating media reports of the latest harrowing crisis." In the end, "this type of activism is what we need for sustainable social justice," Finnegan adds. As disputed and messy as the legacy of Kony 2012 may be, it points to something positive.