People’s Insights Volume 1, Issue 11: Kony 2012

‘Kony 2012’ is an online campaign by the non-profit Invisible Children that aims to make one of the world’s most sought after war criminals, Joseph Kony of Uganda, famous. The campaign is meant to raise awareness about him and his crimes, eventually leading to his arrest.

The official Kony 2012 website  said:

Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign aims to make Joseph Kony famous, not to celebrate him, but to raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice. In this case, notoriety translates to public support. If people know about the crimes that Kony has been committing for 26 years, they will unite to stop him.
Secondly, we want Kony to be famous so that when he is stopped, he will be a visible, concrete example of international justice. then other war criminals will know that their mass atrocities will not go unnoticed or unpunished.

The campaign kicked off with a 30-minute documentary by Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell on YouTube and Vevo showing Kony’s killings and Uganda’s struggle against his terror.

Invisible Children has been working for nine years to end Africa’s longest running armed conflict. It has two broad objectives:

1. Make Kony famous as the world’s worst war criminal.
2. Push lawmakers in the US and elsewhere to deploy more forces in Uganda to stop Kony, and draw up a comprehensive strategy for disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration.

Even though Kony has been named by the International Criminal Court as one of the world’s most wanted men, not many know about him.

Kony took over leadership of a rebel group in 1987 and renamed it the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which earned notoriety for abducting children to be soldiers or wives of his officers.

Over the years, the LRA committed numerous crimes such as rape, torture and murder, often with blunt weapons. The LRA has abducted more than 30,000 children and displaced at least 2.1 million people.

Invisible Children’s documentary was watched by millions within hours of its release.

With over 100 million views in the first six days across platforms, it became the most viral video ever. The video featuring Susan Boyle on Britain’s Got Talent in 2009 hit 70 million views in six days while Old Spice’s ‘Responses’ campaign didn’t hit 70 million until five months after launch.

Russell said that he would have been happy if the video got half a million views on YouTube by the end of the year, but it had more than 79 million views within 10 days.

The result was #StopKony and #Kony2012 trending on Twitter within hours.

Initially, the response was positive. Mashable reader Stephwight  said:

I think the amount of awareness this campaign has drawn to Kony and the problems in Uganda is a huge accomplishment and shows the positive power social media can have on the world

Kony 2012 is not a typical viral success. It is different from videos that went viral earlier; they usually had slapstick humour or entertainment value. Kony 2012 has created a new genre.

It showed that a slick, controversial video playing on human emotion has immense potential for virality. It portrayed happiness, sadness, shock and hope in the space of minutes. It also simplified the issue for the target audience – the youth. Almost everyone who watched it understood it and related to it.

The calls-to-action also urged users to share the video.

Social Media expert Calum Brannan explained on his blog why the video went viral :

• Viewers are shown ‘Share’ buttons in the first few seconds almost subliminally, now i’m not a psychologist, but one could hazard a guess this helps plant that seed.
• This video is emotive, its a roller-coaster of happy to sad to shock
• Film maker Russell invites the viewer to participate in an experiment, and the use of the word ‘We’ and ‘Us’ instantly builds a sense of community and is very personal
• Another point to note is a younger Russell from a clip a few years ago makes a ‘promise’ to a child, and I personally was amazed he could make such a promise, you feel that you almost want to help
• The end of the video provides clear instructions on how you can help, leading with financial ones first, then powerfully suggests that the least you can do is ‘Share’ the video
• There has also been critics who are shouting that the facts are wrong, this sort of debate and emotive reactions are simply more fuel to the fire for this social media blaze.

Russell said in the video:

Celebrities, athletes and billionaires have a loud voice and what they talk about spreads instantly.

Invisible Children targeted celebrities who could amplify the message. It also turned to lawmakers to act on the campaign.

The celebrities and politicians were selected keeping their credibility, reach and influence on social media in mind. They included the likes of Justin Bieber, Bono, George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, Lady Gaga, Mark Zuckerberg and 14 other household names.

The organisers made these celebrities tweet on #StopKony and retweet other #StopKony tweets, flooding timelines.

Oprah for example referenced Kony’s the LRA, saying:

Thanks tweeps for sending me info about ending #LRAviolence. I am aware. Have supported with $’s and voice and will not stop. #KONY2012.

Bieber retweeted an Invisible Children message and looped the link to the video, saying:

it is time to make him known. Im calling on ALL MY FANS, FRIENDS, and FAMILY to come together and #STOPKONY.”

The list of politicians included George Bush, Condoleezza Rice and Bill Clinton.

The public can message these influencers directly from the Kony 2012 website.

The campaign wants to make everyone feel like they are part of the movement. The video repeatedly uses the words ‘we’ and ‘us’ to create a sense of togetherness and belonging to the movement.

By asking people to get more involved by visiting the website, signing a pledge, getting the Kony bracelet and action kit for $30, and donating for the cause, Invisible Children makes people feel like they are playing a vital role in bringing Kony to justice.

The campaign had its detractors. Political and social affairs experts questioned its legitimacy and many charities and non-profits picked holes in the strategy and accountability of Invisible Children. Within hours, conspiracy theories were floated and many questioned the objectives of Kony 2012.

One of the criticisms was that the video misrepresented the situation in Uganda. As stated by Mark Kersten in his blog ‘Taking Kony 2012 down a notch’ 

The campaign reflects neither the realities of northern Ugandan nor the attitudes of its people. In this context, this post examines the explicit and implicit claims made by the ‘Kony 2012′ campaign and tests them against the empirical record on the ground.

The truth is that Kony has been inactive for more than six years, and is said to have fled to Congo. Much like the speculation behind Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts, some reports said that Kony is dead.

Many Ugandans say that the country is now safe and the video wrongly portrays it as a war zone. The other criticism is related to Invisible Children’s donations to the Ugandan army as brought up by Mario Shapiro :

Detractors feel that Invisible Children’s priorities and motivation are completely out of whack with the nature of their cause (Invisible Children is accused of providing funds to the Ugandan government’s army and other military forces which allegedly committed rape and looting, though the charity has denied the allegations).

Reports also alleged misappropriation of funds by Invisible Children; they said it sent only 30% of the money collected previously to the anti-war effort in Uganda.

Another conspiracy theory was that the US deployed its troops in Uganda with an eye on the oil found in nearby Congo.

Jlkinsella sums up a lot of doubters’ thoughts on a blog by Fred Friske :

There is no question that Kony is a bad guy. But, it is also true that he and his couple hundred followers are unlikely still in Uganda. So what is this video really about? Why do we have 100 troops there? What are they doing? Money raised by this campaign certain goes to the organization that created the video. Does it do anything else? unclear.

Meanwhile, there is a story from Uganda that is largely ignored by our media. Over 20,000 Ugandans (a few killed) have been thrown off their land by their government so that European companies can plant trees for carbon offsets. Why is the land and livelihood of Africans being destroyed to mitigate the guilty consciences of Europeans? Is this the true atrocity occurring in Uganda? Why would we ignore one story and promote the other?

The controversy certainly contributed to the video’s virality. As the controversies intensify, the campaign will attract more eyeballs. But will they be the eyeballs Invisible Children wants?

One example of this was the screening in the northern Ugandan town of Lira, which didn’t go down too well. The angry audience threw rocks at the screen and shouted abuse as thousands fled for their lives. The audience felt that the documentary was factually incorrect and insensitive, that Invisible Children was commercialising their suffering through fund-raising merchandise.

This incident led to more people viewing the video online.

Stung by the criticism, Invisible Children hit back on its website as mentioned in the National Post :

After a brief period of near-silence in which it says its website repeatedly crashed from the volume of hits, has tried to fight back. Its chief executive posted a long video on the website in which he attempted to answer many of the questions posed by critics and the charity also says it will try to answer as many as possible of the thousands of questions lodged via Twitter.

This fuelled the conversation further.

The video was meant for the masses, but specifically for the youth. According to YouTube statistics, the Kony video was most popular with girls aged 13 to 17 and men aged 18 to 24.

Some experts felt that the video was aimed at the youth because many of them are oblivious of world affairs. They are also the activists of tomorrow. As the youth are maturing emotionally, they are more likely to be riled about crime. Invisible Children hoped to capitalise on this emotional drive.

Sceptics said Invisible Children targeted the youth because they are easier to manipulate. Dalhousie University International Development professor Dr Robert Huish told the Peninsula News :

Huish says that the big issue with the use of social media in the Kony 2012 campaign is that “truncated (history) into sound bites and into tweets,” causing individuals without expertise on the subject to chime in with opinions which causes false information to circulate around the web.

The youth, though, heard both sides and were as quick to question the campaign as they were to support it.

Viewers were able to question the campaign quickly, thanks to the amount of information available on the internet through blogs, articles and social networks.

Mario Shapiro mentions the impact the movement had on her son in a blog :

So, how are teens reacting? Well, I only know what’s happening in my house. My own son, after doing a bit of research, has become a bit soured on Invisible Children. He stopped asking to purchase a bracelet, and other than a Facebook post denouncing the video, I haven’t heard another word about it.

Even though Roxanne Anderson’s views are different, she agreed that social media gets important information out faster :

I am also very impressed with how social media campaign has raised awareness so quickly, and would like to see that happen more. There are so many areas of the world where people are suffering for various reasons of injustice, and if we can use our media networking to motivate people to do something about it, that is noteworthy. Some of our greatest battles are to get people who aren’t suffering to care about people in another part of the world who are and to take action. Invisible Children has done that. Cheers.

However the movement is perceived, Kony 2012 certainly raised awareness about an issue that not too many people knew of. By becoming the biggest viral movement ever, Invisible Children met its first objective of making Kony famous.

Timelines are filled with Kony-related content. Thousands of content pegs, including spoofs, video blogs and celebrity opinions, were created on Kony. YouTube has over 50 pages of content on Kony. As mentioned in the National Post:

The video was produced by the non-profit group Invisible Children with the goal of making Joseph Kony a household name among the populace and eventually congressmen and senators with the power to take military action. They’re certainly on track. Not only is the video being viewed like crazy, but people are posting their own clips and commentary. In this new age of interactive media, viewers are investing their own time to record and upload their own thoughts. As I write, 278 video clips have been uploaded to the KONY 2012 YouTube video campaign. As of the 200th video, their average length was six minutes.

Most successful viral movements were more or less local or national in nature. However, Kony 2012 transcended these boundaries.

People across the world are talking about it. The movement didn’t gather pace in Africa, but that was probably because of the low levels of internet connectivity there.

There will be more twists to this story.

The kind of information – and the amount – a person consumes impacts his/her decisions. Hence, good research is important before voicing an opinion.

As the Darkest_Omega said on a forum called 6-sided world :

It’s your choice and I should have no say, do your own research make your own decisions, I’m all for helping other people. I personally think that Mr. President doesn’t make the best decisions so by you saying that he trusts that matters almost nothing to me. (He called the Egyptian president his friend until the Egyptian people started rebelling.) Make your own decisions. Research topics. Live, Learn, Love. Don’t be deceived by greedy people.

(MSLGROUP’s People’s Lab crowdsourcing platform and approach helps organizations tap into people’s insights for innovation, storytelling and change. The People’s Lab crowdsourcing platform also enables our distinctive insights and foresight approach, which consists of four elements: organic conversation analysis, MSLGROUP’s own insight communities, client-specific insights communities, and ethnographic deep dives into these communities.

As an example, 50+ thinkers and planners within MSLGROUP share and discuss inspiring projects on corporate citizenship, crowdsourcing and storytelling on the MSLGROUP Insights Network. Every week, we pick up one project and do a deep dive into conversations around it — on the MSLGROUP Insights Network itself but also on the broader social web — to distill insights and foresights. We share these insights and foresights with you on our People’s Insights blog and compile the best insights from the network and the blog in the iPad-friendly People’s Lab Quarterly Magazine, as a showcase of our capabilities.

As you can imagine, we can bring the same innovative approach to help you distill insights and foresights from conversations and communities. To start a conversation on how we can help you win with insights and foresights, write to Pascal Beucler at

Rooshabh Doshi

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