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#StopKony: The Simple Viral Demand That Sparked a Broad Debate

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, March 7 2012

Every part of a viral marketing campaign targeted at raising pressure on the U.S. and other governments to work towards the capture of Lord's Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony, called "Kony 2012," is fascinating.

The campaign intends to pressure specific American elected officials, using the newfound power of networked public opinion to spur more action. Last year, President Barack Obama ordered 100 military advisors to help the Ugandan military remove Kony. But the campaign's scale and the narrow focus of the advocacy in its centerpiece, a free 30-minute web video with high production values, raised a laundry list of questions about its sponsor organization, their exact goals and their mission.

The campaign was launched March 5 around the premiere of a new, 30-minute web video from Invisible Children, a non-profit focused on Kony, whose LRA is known for displacing thousands of people from their homes, abducting some children as soldiers and sexually abusing others, and raiding villages for food and slave labor.

Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell is advocating for an international, guerrilla brand marketing campaign, flyering cities and towns, continuing social media buzz — when #stopkony became a trending Twitter topic Wednesday morning, it attracted the attention of the Washington Post and others — and generally building an opinion around the world that Kony should be captured straightaway. One recommended course of action here is to buy a $30 packet from Invisible Children containing bracelets and other "Kony 2012"-branded collateral.

"The people of the world see each other, and can protect each other," Russell says at one point in the video, "and it's turning the world upside down."

"Arresting Joseph Kony," he says at another point, "will prove that the world has new rules."

Daniel Solomon, STAND's national student director, calls the video classic organizing narrative for its use of personal stories and a focused call to action. Invisible Children also recruited a long list of celebrity supporters — George Clooney makes an appearance in the video, and it was passed along on social media by stars such as Blake Shelton, the country singer and coach on NBC's The Voice, P. Diddy, Kim Kardashian, Rihanna, and others.

All of this has certainly worked: Over the course of the video's two-day lifespan, it has racked up well over 7 million views on YouTube.

But the situation in Uganda is not quite so black and white.

The Ugandan military, which Invisible Children has called the most effective force against the LRA, has its own spotty record on human rights. The LRA, much depleted since its peak, now operates in extremely remote areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and South Sudan, but was pushed out of Uganda. And the organization orchestrating this campaign spent $1.7 million on compensation in 2011, $358,000 on film costs, $852,000 on production costs, nearly $1.1 million on travel, and a comparatively low $2.8 million on direct services, according to its financial statements. The video pays little attention to this: All the viewer is left with is the strong impression that Kony is a menace and that broad and urgent action is needed by Western governments, in cooperation with Uganda, to stop him.

In response to questions on Reddit about its activities, Invisible Children's communications director, Noelle Jouglet, wrote, "We still hope that Kony and the top LRA commanders will surrender peacefully, even though peace talks don't seem to be a viable option at this point."

"We do not defend any of the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Ugandan government or the Ugandan army," Jouglet also wrote on Reddit. "None of the money donated through Invisible Children ever goes to the government of Uganda."

Writing for Foreign Policy, Oxford Ph.D candidate and freelance journalist Michael Wilkerson wonders what the consequences are of building pressure for the U.S. government to pursue a such narrow goal in a region with such complicated, interconnected sets of problems:

One of the biggest issues with a simplistic "Stop Kony" message is that discussions of Navy Seals or drone strikes are inevitable when patience runs out with Ugandan-led efforts. But what about the dozens or hundreds of abducted and brainwashed kids? Should we bomb everyone? Will they actually stop fighting after Kony is gone? What if they shoot back?

Coming back to the "Kony 2012" video and its celebrity endorsements, what are the consequences of unleashing so many exuberant activists armed with so few facts?

Agreed upon by all is that Kony should be brought to justice. As Invisible Children's co-founder Jason Russell notes, the world indeed seems to have new and ever more clearly defined rules today about what makes a popular message and how it will spread. But how much or how little nuance an activist must in good conscience include in that message, there's no consensus view.