Kony 2012: an idea whose time is now?

Posters and other collateral in support of a movement to bring down a tyrant

The Un-Campaign

What are we to make of Kony 2012, the campaign for Uganda’s Invisible Children, that has spread like a contagion through cyberspace, inciting all manner of conversation and controversy. Is it a really clever piece of agit-prop, putting all the elements in the social media toolbox to work for a greater good? Or is it simply a really savvy example of self-promotion? At this writing, the 29-minute film that launched thousands of comments has received over 73 million views on YouTube and as the days approach a self-imposed action deadline, we can expect the numbers to climb. Part music video, part campaign film, it has all the production values we’ve come to appreciate: beautiful young people joining together in harmony, appealing graphics, dynamic pacing, engaging visuals and an unspeakable villain to unite them all. It features a young hero (Jacob), who has lost his brother to the murderous Lord’s Resistance Army and an even younger American supporter (Gavin, the very blond and photogenic son of the film-maker, Jason Russell), who wants to follow in his dad’s footsteps and fight for justice in Africa. It is actually very moving and a stark contrast to the horror that Joseph Kony and the LRA have wreaked on Uganda for no reason other than because they can. If the film had just concentrated on the lives of these two children it would have been powerful enough. Instead, it devotes itself primarily to “the making of” the movement, the celebvocates and the feel-good, self-empowerment tropes that are ¬†now the subtext to “marketing” every cause, candidate and consumer good. The film also focuses unrelentingly on the wonderfulness of Russell himself, which is off-putting in the extreme. (Did we really need the birth cam shots?) This is where I part company with Kony 2012. Its very meta-ness makes me uncomfortable as does the Invisible Children “army” of mostly white, well-off young advocates raising their arms and ¬†shouting slogans in unison. I don’t doubt Russell’s altruism. He has spent the past nine years working to bring the Invisible Children to the world’s attention. All, well and good and admirable. But like so much in life, it’s not what you say, but how. And the self-congratulatory nature of the campaign, amplified by social media and the film’s manipulative vibe, gets in the way of the good works. (Doc News, a French e-newsletter about advertising and communications, noted Kony 2012 knows how to spin its web.) And as my millennial son remarked, “I bought the poster but now I feel had.” So what are we to make of Kony 2012? Is it the new face of advocacy and engagement or old-school propaganda in new form? And what lessons can we learn about the intrinsic virality of stories. Why is the LRA, allegedly weakened and no longer in Uganda, more compelling than the Syrian government bombing its own people? And who decides? As they say, it’s complicated.

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