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Invisible Children Kony 2012 Campaign

Kony 2012: Why It Resonates With Students

March 14, 2012 12:00 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
The Kony 2012 film has become one of the most watched videos on the Internet. How were the filmmakers so successful in gaining the attention of American youths?

The Kony 2012 Video

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On March 5, 2012, an organization called Invisible Children uploaded a 30-minute video to YouTube entitled “Kony 2012.” The film focused attention on Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and the LRA’s recruitment and abuse of child soldiers. The filmmakers later said they hoped to attract 500,000 views by the end of 2012.

The organization leveraged the power of social media, and enlisted celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Justin Bieber, Rihanna and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs to promote the video. In one week, the video has been viewed more than 75 million times. Teenagers have been the primary viewers of the video. Since its release, teachers and librarians have been scrambling to help students make sense of the video, their powerful reaction to it, and their desire to get involved.

Criticism of the Kony 2012 Campaign

Many experts have picked apart the video, which is riddled with factual inaccuracies. While no one disagrees with the portrayal of Kony as an evil man, Michael Wilkerson, a freelance writer who has lived in Uganda, reported on the blog of Foreign Policy magazine that Kony and the LRA no longer operate in Uganda, and their numbers are likely in the few hundred now. Wilkerson concludes that “it is unclear how millions of well-meaning but misinformed people are going to help deal with the more complicated reality.”

Others were harsher: Ugandan blogger Angelo Opi-aiya Izama wrote, “These campaigns don’t just lack scholarship or nuance. They are not bothered to seek it. … For many in the conflict prevention community including those who worry about the militarization of it in Central Africa this campaign is just another nightmare that will end soon. Hopefully.”

On The Lede, a New York Times blog, Robert Mackey ponders whether Kony 2012 is simply a manifestation of “The White Man’s Burden for the Facebook Generation.”

Another oft-leveled criticism is that Invisible Children essentially aligns itself with the Ugandan army, which has also been accused of atrocities.

Others have questioned the finances of Invisible Children. The organization readily admits that it is primarily not an aid organization, but rather a group that raises awareness. In 2011, it raised nearly $10 million, but spent only 37 percent of this on aid programs in Central Africa, with the remainder spent on “awareness programs” and salaries and other overhead.

Invisible Children reported on Monday that it has raised approximately $15 million from the sale of 500,000 “action kits” at $30 a piece. Some critics are urging Invisible Children to provide its financial plan for spending this windfall.

Lesson for Teachers and Parents: How Did the Video Spark Such a Reaction Among Youths?

There have been many report and documentaries on the use of child soldiers in Africa, but none have received the kind of response that Kony 2012 has. How did Invisible Children dramatically escalate awareness among young people of the issue of child soldiers with one 30-minute video?

Undoubtedly, a good portion of the video’s appeal stems from its simple message - which the narrator literally explains to a 5 year-old; and the use of a villain: we must stop Kony. Had the video referred amorphously to “rebel groups,” its message would not have evoked as powerful a reaction. A common enemy has been a device used by storytellers, marketers and politicians forever to focus the attention of the audience to bring about the intended result: affection for the protagonist, the product or the candidate. 

On the blog of Henry Jenkins, a USC professor and scholar on the participatory culture of youth, one of his students, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, reviews several years of research that she and her peers have conducted into the effectiveness of Invisible Children’s outreach efforts.

She views the criticism of Invisible Children as a message that, “social advocacy, particularly around world affairs, should be left to experts: to politicians, to ‘serious’ NGOs, to erudites. Young people—and this includes both the film’s 30 something-old creators and its mostly 20 and under viewers—are told that this isn't a world for them. It is too complicated, too hard, too serious. These are the same messages young people are getting about politics: If you don't know exactly what you're talking about, you'd better not talk at all.”

Kligler-Vilenchik suggests that the best way for adults to understand why the message resonated so profoundly with young people is to ask them. As she notes, “Invisible Children is asking them to participate. Are you?”

In a similar vein, Ethan Zuckerman wrote a three-thousand word critique of the video and explained why it's "theory of change" would not work. The first commenter, "Erin," wrote "you’ve left us with the impression that there is no solution, because all the players are bad and untrustworthy, so we shrug our shoulders, blame the Africans, and turn away. Give us hope; point us toward a solution; give us something specific and achievable to do! This is what Invisible Children has appreciated about human psychology and has done so effectively."
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