When I was 14, I bought into the hype of the first viral activism campaign I encountered on Facebook: Kony 2012. What I remember from watching a video on Facebook was that this Ugandan warlord, Joseph Kony, was the embodiment of evil, taking children to be soldiers against their will and taking other children to be sex slaves. People altered their Facebook profile pictures, begging to bring justice to Kony, and for a day or two, it felt like anyone who wasn’t posting about Kony was complicit and indifferent to child slavery, genocide, and child rape.
About two days later, I stopped buying into the hype. At 14, I was looking for any possible devil’s advocate stance or loopholes that could deem the Kony 2012 video and the organization behind the video, Invisible Children, problematic, and there were a lot of factors that deemed Kony 2012 problematic after the initial wave of activism.
Today, Kony 2012 is the embodiment of slacktivism in the West and white saviors wanting to play hero, but at the time, the unexpectedly popular social media campaign actually pressured legislation to pass: according to Foreign Affairs, Obama said he would send troops to kill or capture Kony in October of 2012.
Whatever happened with Kony 2012?
First, it became the most viral video ever made, a label given by TIME Magazine. After six days, it got 112 million views, defeating Susan Boyle’s famous Britain’s Got Talent video for the fastest video to gain 100 million views, receiving shares from celebrities like Justin Bieber and Oprah. That year, Gangnam Style exceeded Kony 2012’s views but did so at a much slower rate. Kony 2012 was so viral a Pew Research poll found that 58% of young adults (aged 18–29) said they heard about the video.
According to Saul Gonzales at PRI, the video was produced by Invisible Children, a small non-profit in San Diego without the same capacity of humanitarian resources as an organization like Doctors Without Borders. Gonzales notes the video quickly earned backlash for oversimplifying the situation, and given the popularity of the video, the backlash was, to say the least, significant. Critics contend the video oversimplified the situation on the ground, and misled people to the actual magnitude of Kony’s forces. One man who lived in the Lira District was critical of Invisible Children’s merchandise when the community was trying to heal from Kony’s terrorism instead of being reminded of him:
“How do you think Americans would have reacted if people in another country wore Osama Bin Laden T-shirts?”
The stress from the video’s reaction took a toll on Jason Russell, the director of the video. TMZ released a video of Russell walking naked near his home in San Diego. He was arrested after alleged vandalism and making sexual gestures towards witnesses. Invisible Children released a statement about Russell suffering “exhaustion, dehydration, and malnutrition” and the two weeks since the release of Kony 2012 causing a tremendous emotional toll on Russell.
But the TMZ video also went viral, so the Kony 2012 social media saga included two viral videos. Soon, the personal struggles of Russell and memes making fun of Russell dominated the story.
So what exactly happened to Kony 2012 and all the parties depicted and involved in the video? Where is everyone now, and what was the legacy of the campaign?
Joseph Kony is still at large and doing what he’s been doing, which might signify a failure of the overall Kony 2012 campaign. Kony ran the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which terrorized northern Uganda. Recently, the group has had dwindling membership. However, Kony and the LRA have still perpetuated child kidnappings in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic.
According to Sophie Neiman at The New Humanitarian, Kony founded the LRA in 1987 and had a goal of overthrowing the then Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni. The group that once perpetuated massacres is now fighting for its own survival. Many members defected due to Uganda’s amnesty laws and campaigns, leading to only a couple dozen members in the LRA today.
Kony wasn’t captured at the end of 2012 and he still is not captured today. Despite the publicity and weapons poured into the region, Dr. Manuel Barcia notes Kony 2012 highlighted the ineffectiveness of many “good will” efforts of the West to intervene in African affairs. The resourcefulness of African warlords was underestimated by the West, leading to incidents like U.S. forces being defeated at Mogadishu in 1993 (which is the inspiration for Black Hawk Down).
Barcia says Kony is also not the only warlord in the region, and unfortunately, his atrocities pale in comparison to the Janjaweed militias that terrorized Darfur. 11 NGOs in Africa were actually very critical of the UN’s response and strategy to fighting Kony and the LRA, which left the situation on the ground very unchanged. In particular, the UN’s focus on military action above providing humanitarian aid and child protection was a point of criticism.
Critics focused on why the makers of Kony 2012 didn’t question the effectiveness of the Ugandan government in holding Kony and the LRA accountable. Nor did the video refer to atrocities committed by the Ugandan military. They also questioned why the video would focus so much on Kony when other warlords at the time, like the M-23 rebels, were also terrorizing local areas. The area Kony and the LRA terrorized has many natural resources and minerals, like coltan, cassiterite, wolframite, and gold, and diamonds, which many warlords struggle and compete for.
Barcia calls the video not only belittling and patronizing, a tendency in the West to look for white saviors for Africa. The BBC says Uganda and the U.S.A. stopped trying to track down Kony in 2017, citing larger threats.
Invisible Children was a largely unknown nonprofit before Kony 2012. Afterward, however, the group became very well known and in the spotlight in the wake of the virality of Kony 2012. Clearly, the negative backlash brought significant stress to Jason Russell, an ordinary father of two in San Diego who quickly succumbed to the negative publicity. Russell stopped sleeping and tried to escape the publicity, but people recognized him when he went on vacation in Palm Springs.
The next day, he and his family went to go see The Lorax, only to believe the Lorax was talking directly to him. Russell was particularly wary of journalists after one journalist talked to him for an hour and a half later wrote an expose about how Invisible Children was an evangelical cult. Russell, however, never shied away from the publicity and the press after the viral TMZ video — he even spoke to Oprah about his “breakdown” at length, saying he had an “out of body experience” and remembers nothing about the experience.
“At the height of the criticism, he was accused of running a cult, of embezzling funds, of running a covert evangelical mission. He was a narcissist, a megalomaniac, a racist war-mongering blowhard suffering from what one Twitter commentator called part of the ‘white saviour industrial complex,’” Carole Cadwalladr at The Guardian wrote.
Despite being burned before, Cadwalladr comments Russell has a “complete lack of guile” and is extremely open — he invited her to his office and Cadwalladr said there were many things, if she were a different kind of journalist, “I could so easily manipulate and exploit.”
Obviously, however, Invisible Children is bigger than just Jason Russell. The organization started in 2003 when three filmmakers, Jason Russell, Laren Poole, and Bobby Bailey, wanted to film a documentary about the War in Darfur. According to Ariel Schwartz at Fast Company, the three people almost died when the LRA bombed a truck in front of them in Uganda. The three of them spent time living in northern Uganda, spending time with children who feared being kidnapped by the NRA.
They released their first documentary in 2004 called Invisible Children: The Rough Cut and would try to raise awareness of Kony and the LRA’s atrocities across the world. They started trying to influence policymakers around the world to intervene in the atrocities. Its awareness events would be very successful, having 80,000 people turn out for an event in 2006 and having President Obama sign the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act in 2010, which sent 100 American military advisors to Uganda to hold Kony accountable.
Before Kony 2012, the organization received millions of dollars in donations. Starting with just $300,000 in donations in 2005, the organization jumped to $3 million in 2006, and then steadily rose its donation revenue until 2011. Then, Kony 2012 happened, leading the organization to have a net revenue of $28 million that year. The publicity overwhelmed Invisible Children, which was understaffed to handle media requests and website traffic.
The next year, Invisible Children had significantly fewer donations. The organization faced significant accusations of financial impropriety, saying the group spent most of its money on salaries and making documentaries. However, Charity Navigator, a charity assessment evaluator, gave the company an 88.37 out of 100 for 2019. In 2019, it spent 81.7% of its revenue on program expenses and 16.6% on administrative expenses. In 2012, it received a 4-star rating, which is the highest possible rating.
There was some publicity about the company closing down in late 2014, but the company just underwent restructuring after gaining the funds necessary to sustain its programming. That year, according to the organization, Invisible Children “dramatically downsize[d] Invisible Children operations in the U.S.” In Uganda, Invisible Children has its own independent organization called Invisible Children Uganda that holds many community recovery programs like scholarships and literacy programs.
As for Jason Russell, he is still serving on the board of Invisible Children. Since 2012, he has written a children’s book with his wife called A Little Radical, which is now advertised on his Instagram and Twitter. On social media, he is much lower profile than his accidental viral moment in 2012 — he posts pictures of his family and retweets and shares posts about left-wing politicians and causes (like police brutality and Asian representation).
For Kevin Zelnio at Scientific American, the documentary was the epitome of slacktivism, which is an armchair activist who supports a cause by performing simple measures like donating small amounts of money or just by “liking” something on social media. Zelnio notes slacktivism artificially inflates the number of people involved in a movement, but it also makes entry into the movement easy. At 14 years old, Kony 2012 made me, an average New York Asian-American teenager, feel like I could play a part in the equivalent of Hitler or Osama Bin Laden in Africa (check out the movie poster of Kony 2012 to see how the filmmakers portrayed it).
Slacktivism requires a very low barrier of entry that makes young idealistic adults not want to be left behind. It’s more important to be associated than participating with the cause. Dr. Zeynep Tufekci at the University of North Carolina prefers the term “slacking activists” over slacktivists — they’re people who usually are not activists who want to simply take “symbolic action.” In 2021 terms, it’s virtue signaling by people who are not actually involved in making change.
“In other words, slacktivism should be seen as the encroachment of politics and civics into people’s everyday worlds which tend to be dominated by mundane concerns of day-to-day existence,” Dr. Tufekci says.
Tufekci also notes how Kony 2012 lowered the barrier of entry for a sphere where only governments, NGOs, and international institutions could make a difference. The downside is the ephemeral nature of this symbolic act of association: people will write a Facebook post about the atrocities of Kony and then forget about it two days later (which is probably what I did at the time).
She also compares the pushback to Kony 2012 with the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. While the narrative of Iraq’s invasion had pushback, it was not well-organized and was not supported by the establishment media. By contrast, the opposition to Kony 2012 was extremely well organized and mainstream.
The documentary must be an interesting case study in social psychology. Thompson et al. in a 2015 European Journal of Social Psychology paper said the action was “an emergent opinion based social identity.” These factors also predicted participation in other forms of protest and social movements, but one blogger, Ethan Zuckerman, comments that Kony became a big, viral movement because of how simple the narrative depicted by Invisible Children was:
“The campaign Invisible Children is running is so compelling because it offers an extremely simple narrative: Kony is a uniquely bad actor, a horrific human being, whose capture will end suffering for the people of Northern Uganda. If each of us does our part, influences powerful people, the world’s most powerful military force will take action and Kony will be captured.”
The video made finding and killing Kony appears to be simple when the reality was anything but. Zuckerman asks some compelling questions, including whether we can truly advocate in an increasingly attention-deprived society without oversimplifying. Kony 2012 was not the first social media-driven slacktivist movement. But it was a precursor to many (more on that later).
Regardless of the very problematic implications of Kony 2012 (encouraging an imperialist country like America to invade Uganda), I watched the documentary film for the first time since, well, 2012.
I have never taken a filmmaking class nor do I have any aspirations to become a filmmaker. But I would encourage you to watch at least the opening, which keeps you hooked to continue watching with suspense. The speaker (Russell) equates the rise of social media and Facebook with sweeping change around the world, like the Arab Spring. Russell then includes a video of the birth of his son and photos of him with his toddler, and for about three and a half minutes, Kony 2012 seems like just an innocuous, cute YouTube video before segueing the atrocities of Kony.
Never did I question “is Kony 2012 a good documentary?” because of the outrage, backlash, and all the other commentary and noise surrounding the film. Russell certainly does do a great job of incorporating his personal life and his feelings as a father. Kony 2012 is a master class in escalating tension, and I don’t doubt the creators had good intentions.
But yes, all the critiques of exploitation, oversimplification, white saviorism, and imperialism are very valid. Whole essays have been written on how problematic Kony 2012 really was. One takeaway is that being well-meaning and well-intentioned is not enough. Misleading the public on the size of Kony’s army in 2012 was one misstep of Invisible Children, as is the selective attention given to Kony’s LRA while seeing the Ugandan army and Sudan People’s Liberation Army as good-natured allies. Kony had not even been in Uganda since 2006.
Kony 2012 was a mixed bag, and at the end of the day, did the pros outweigh the cons? Did Kony 2012 do more good than harm? I don’t know, and I don’t have the answer to whether having misled people with good intentions and a desire for change is better than having people apathetic to justice and change at all. Despite its selectivity and condescension, was it better for the West not to care at all?
It’s hard to decipher the legacy of the documentary, given it was only made nine years ago. Kony 2012 did set the stage for other social media campaigns, like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. I participated in the Ice Bucket Challenge six years ago and donated to the cause, and despite pouring a bucket of ice water not actually helping the cause of fighting ALS, more money in the form of donations and awareness did. The campaign raised $220 million for ALS research.
The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has more pros than cons than Kony 2012. Inevitably, the lesson is social media campaigns can raise a lot of money. Funding scientific research is a much more unambiguously positive cause than sending in troops to capture a warlord, so while the aims of Kony 2012 were problematic, the tactics set the stage for a lot of good.
Photo from Uncommon fritillary on Wikipedia Commons
Originally published on June 17, 2021 on An Injustice!