Behind the buzz about KONY 2012

Mar. 15, 2012 12:37 pm

Ten days since its launch, Invisible Children‘s latest campaign video, KONY 2012, has far exceeded its original goal of 500,000 views.

Facebook, Twitter, world news organizations and classrooms alike are buzzing with conversation about the film, with terms like Uganda, #Kony2012, Invisible Children, Joseph Kony and #StopKony buzzing around the Internet.

To date, the campaign video has amassed over 100 million views, according to social media tracking sites SocialFlow and Mashable. The film is the latest in a series of productions by Invisible Children, a nonprofit group whose main purpose is raising awareness and advocacy. The Kony 2012 campaign seeks to “make Kony famous,” arguing that the indicted war criminal Joseph Kony ought to share the same kind of fame as top politicians and celebrities. The film also calls viewers to action and “cover the night” on April 20.

[vimeo w=500;h=375]

SocialFlow found that Twitter hashtags #StopKony and #Kony2012 had almost 20 times the popularity of the very active #SXSW, referring to the music, film and interactive conference this week that attracts social media gurus.

Regardless of personal opinions about the video, there’s no denying its promotion has gone well.

But for UNC junior Brynne Henn, the issue is immeasurably personal. She’s been involved with Invisible Children for several years, and even went on the road as a volunteer for six months. She’s passionate about their cause, but it’s even more than that.

On July 11, 2010 her brother died while in Uganda with Invisible Children.

Nate Henn, a 25-year-old former student and rugby player at the University of Delaware, had spent the last year of his life working with Invisible Children. He’d dreamed of going to Uganda to see his Ugandan friends and the organization’s work on the ground, and he finally had the opportunity to do so in 2010. After only a week abroad, Nate and 73 others were killed in terrorist bombings while gathered to watch the World Cup.

Working with Invisible Children

It was Nate who first got Brynne Henn interested in Invisible Children.

“My brother Nate had actually seen a screening at his college, the University of Delaware, and I was heading off to Congo and he was like, ‘You have to watch this, you need to know what’s going on in the area,'” she said.

“I was kind of annoyed – I didn’t really want to watch it,” she said, sounding embarrassed. “But he literally held my head for the first five minutes to make me watch it intently. And then I was hooked.”

Brynne Henn was 16 years old at the time and preparing to leave for a mission trip to central Africa. She immediately showed the film to the team she would be traveling with and organized a screening at her church. On her trip, she came into contact with Invisible Children and the violence the Invisible Children were fighting much sooner than she expected.

She said that one day in September 2008 she and her teammates heard about an attack by the LRA – the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel force led by Joseph Kony – on the radio through the early warning system Invisible Children has implemented in the area. That was the year of what has become known as the Christmas massacres, a series of attacks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that killed over 400 people.

“Then when I traveled to Congo and Sudan, within two weeks after I’d been to two individual cities, there was an attack in each of those cities,” Henn said.

In Uganda, she went to Gulu to see the school she was donating to through the Invisible Children’s School for Schools project and ran into the film makers.

“Actually, Fall Out Boy was there shooting a video for Invisible children and they were staying at our same hotel,” Henn said.

While Henn was still in Uganda she applied to intern with Invisible Children as a “roadie” – the nickname given to volunteers that go on promotional tours in the U.S. Roadies travel from city to city within their designated region holding informational screenings wherever they can. She was accepted into the program and spent the next six months training and traveling with Invisible Children.

One of her favorite things about Invisible Children, she said, is their openness about finances.

“The biggest thing for me going into it was the financials,” she said. “I didn’t want to associate myself with something that I wasn’t 100 percent behind with the way they spent their money. We actually had two whole days where they go over their statements from the last three years, explaining every single line to you: how they’re outside audited, what the lines mean and what that really looks like on the ground and on the awareness side.”

Below is an infographic Invisible Children published of their 2011 financial breakdown:

Henn remained heavily involved until her brother’s death in 2010, when she said it became too personal. However, she’s recently picked up again with her volunteer work, just in time for the recent surge of interest.

She’s setting up lobby meetings, starting with one on April 3 at UNC, for activists to learn how to lobby to their congressman or congresswoman. She said that the best thing students can do to help without officially working with Invisible Children is to attend these meetings.

“That is the biggest representative of your opinion that you can give,” she said. “The way it works with Congress is that one email equals one person, one phone call equals 10 people, one letter equals 100 and one visit, per person, equals 200 individuals. So every person that’s at the meeting stands for 200 people that care about it that are too lazy or too busy to come out.”

She said anyone is welcome to contact her for more information about meetings at

The African view

Barbara Anderson, associate director of UNC’s African Studies Center, said she’s seen the African studies field respond with confusion and concern to the Kony 2012 campaign video.

“I’ve had an outpouring from faculty who have been concerned about this,” she said. “The African studies’ community of scholars has been really concerned about this event and has not viewed it in positive terms.”

“The center of the critiques have been first and foremost that the video has very little current or correct information about the Lord’s Resistance Army and the effects of what’s going on now.”

Anderson does not claim to be an expert on Uganda or a representative of the field as a whole but said the most telling critiques, in her eyes, are those coming from an African perspective.

“There is a variety of African responses to Kony 2012 – none that I’ve read that have been very positive, most have been fairly negative. It seems to depend on whether or not people are writing from a Ugandan perspective or a Congolese perspective,” she said.

She added that when a charity organization showed the film to Ugandans, the response was outrage.

“They cannot believe that there are images of Joseph Kony all over the world right now,” she said. “They are appalled.”

She said that part of the problem lies in the general American attitude that we can go into other countries – countries we may know nothing about – and take on a savior persona. To an African, Anderson says, the Kony 2012 campaign seems outlandish, as strange as if a foreign student, who spoke no English and knew nothing about our culture, came to the United States and wanted to talk to your mother about having safer sex.

“The entire video is extracted from its African context, which makes it almost bizarre,” she said.

Anderson explained that the African Studies Center has been concerned for years about this attitude and hopes all of the discussion regarding Kony 2012 will encourage students to carefully consider the harm their good intentions can do.

Anderson highly recommends the Go! Orientation, which is for students who are preparing to do service abroad.

The recent hype

The Kony 2012 campaign has been a sensation. Popular technology news blog Mashable reported that the film reached 100 million views faster than any other video in history.

But the attention is certainly not all positive. Critics have spoken out on YouTube, in the news and throughout social media.

UNC Professor Zeynep Tufekci, a social media analyst and assistant professor in the School of Information and Library Science, said that although she isn’t a fan of the film, she is very impressed by the success of the campaign.

“In terms of a campaign, this is the kind of stuff ad agencies in New York and Madison Avenue spend a gazillion dollars on and don’t succeed,” she said. “I’m really impressed by how this kind of success comes from a fairly young organization of fairly young people. They really know how to make this work.”

She’s been following the response and agrees with much of the criticism, especially relating to the simplification of the issue.

“There are also some layers of complexities,” she explained. “The International Criminal Court indictment on him is part of the problem because he can’t surrender; he’ll be tried. So, you can’t negotiate with him. It’s a very complex issue and the video is making it a lot simpler than it might seem to be.”

She said she recognizes that a simple message was the point, and without a simple message the film would have been unlikely to spread like it did. Though its message is possibly too simple, she said it has sparked a much more complex conversation – one she’s excited to see.

“My social media timeline is flooded with people criticizing this, too, so I think people are being exposed to more,” she said. “I think that’s the great thing about the Internet: even if you put a simple message out, it comes back to you complicated. It doesn’t stay simple.”

“I’m not for simple messages, but I’m for simple messages that trigger complex discussions, complicated discussions.”

Tufekci added that she thinks the real problem lies in failed international politics.

“If there are war criminals, there should be a global multilateral institution that deals with these issues,” she said. “That’s the problem, right? We have a war criminal – not just one but many – and no way to get them and then you have this advocacy group trying to step up to what is failure of international politics. Because what’s failing is clearly international politics. We indict them through the international criminal court, but then nothing.”

“I would want the International Criminal Court and United Nations to have some means through which they can do this though a process of law,” she said. “That’s what missing.”

Henn said she’s seen a lot of surprise from within the organization at the scale of the campaign.

“There’s been a lot of excitement,” she said. “There’s been a lot of bafflement because our goal was 500,000 people to see the video.”

Henn said that the criticism isn’t anything they haven’t heard before. What seemed odd to her, though, was that she thought a lot of the questions raised were actually answered in the film.

She said she liked how clear the video was about the financials and Kony had abducted 30,000 children for his army in Uganda, placing heavy emphasis on the past tense.

“Yet the major critiques are like, ‘But it’s not 30,000 anymore and, ‘It’s not in Uganda’ and we’re like, ‘We know, we said that.’ As Kony moved they actually invested more in things like Schools for Schools and the cotton initiative and the bracelet campaign as part of rehabilitation.”

“As far as Congo where we’ve set up our early warning network, that’s an area that hasn’t suffered under the LRA for 25 years. They don’t have something like night commuting to protect their kids,” Henn explained. “But they focus is in Uganda because that’s where they need the most rehabilitation.”

For more information

For more information about Invisible Children, the campaign and the news, check out:

Invisible Children’s official criticism response

Articles from Al Jazeera on clicktivism and Ugandan anger

Articles from The Washington Post on the spread of the video and a questionable photograph

Invisible Children’s Cover the Night event

A Ugandan blogger’s YouTube response

The African Studies Center at UNC recommends Africa Focus and Michigan State University’s compilation of URLs.