The Next 20

The Lessons of Kony 2012

The viral video quickly became a punch line, but it taught a generation of activists how to harness the power of social media for good.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Keith Bedford/Reuters and Scott Barbour/Getty Images.

In 2012, three American men launched a campaign to make Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony the most infamous person in the world. The leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a decades-old guerrilla group, Kony had been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity almost too barbarous to believe: among them, kidnapping tens of thousands of children to use as sex slaves and soldiers. The 2012 bad-publicity campaign against Kony was led by Invisible Children, a small nonprofit founded in 2004 to raise awareness of the LRA’s murderous deeds. Some of the organization’s tactics were time-honored: stickers, stencils, posters, wristbands. But the centerpiece of the project was a 30-minute documentary film, posted to Facebook and zealously promoted through Kony 2012–branded profile photos paired with fervent calls to action.

Within six days of its March 5, 2012, release, Kony 2012 had racked up more than 100 million views, making it, at the time, the most watched viral video in web history. (It has since been surpassed by videos from Psy, Adele, and Miley Cyrus.) Teenagers who had previously been numb to images of starving African children and news bulletins on faraway wars were shocked by the film’s heart-wrenching footage of terrified, homeless Ugandan kids and drawn in by the relatable first-person narration of handsome white guy Jason Russell, one of the co-founders of Invisible Children. The plight of Ugandan children living under threat of kidnapping, rape, and murder was unconscionable; luckily, Kony 2012 told us, there was something each of us could do.

We could share the video with our Facebook friends. We could tweet at the African Union or celebrities such as Ryan Seacrest and Tim Tebow. We could add our names to a Stop Kony pledge that bound us to do nothing in particular. We could sign up for recurring monthly donations to “join our army for peace.” If we were truly committed to helping stop Kony’s child-soldier camps, we could buy the Kony 2012 signature “action kit”: a $30 package that included a T-shirt, wristbands, and posters that equated Kony with Osama Bin Laden and Adolf Hitler. There was a price point for every level of concern and awareness.

Did it work? Kind of. Insofar as its aim was to raise money and awareness of Kony’s crimes, Kony 2012 was a success. Invisible Children collected $5 million in the first two days of the campaign and netted even more from celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, who gave a cool $2 million. Bill Gates tweeted the hashtag; Rihanna shared the video.

But the sea change Kony 2012 suggested we could achieve, if only we harnessed our potential as informed citizens of the world, never materialized. The Ugandan conflict continues, despite U.S. involvement that began long before Invisible Children made its video. Kony is still at large.

To be fair, Invisible Children was always relatively upfront that its main goal was “awareness,” not the capture and prosecution of the elusive Kony. The group existed to raise funds to make films, which raised more funds, which it spent raising more awareness. But young supporters were surprised to learn that just a third of Invisible Children’s funds went to programs that directly served Ugandans.

Those supporters had fallen prey to what we now recognize as textbook clicktivism. The Kony 2012 movement offered a cartoonish, apolitical villain; “join the movement” language; and a call to action that doesn’t require the clicktivist to leave her laptop. It also distilled a complex problem to a digestible set of facts. Soon after the video went viral, three psychologists conducted a study that measured participants’ levels of outrage and desire to take action after watching the original Kony 2012 film and a more nuanced follow-up video Invisible Children released in response to critics. They found that the former video’s simplicity, at the expense of crucial nuance, was the key to its impact. “When a complex adverse situation is reduced to the actions of a clear enemy, this inspires moral outrage against the enemy,” the authors wrote. “However, if the complexity of the situation becomes clearer, the enemy inspires less moral outrage and determination to act.”

The film’s oversimplification had real consequences. As Kony 2012 became a sensation, experts in the socio-political history of central Africa castigated Invisible Children for ignoring inconvenient facts about the Ugandan conflict. Adam Branch, a professor of international politics and author of Displacing Human Rights: War and Intervention in Northern Uganda, wrote that the film overlooked the complicity of the Ugandan government and the dangers of further militarizing the region.

“What is wrong with [Kony 2012’s] approach: the warmongering, the narcissism, the commercialization, the reductive and one-sided story they tell, their portrayal of Africans as helpless children in need of rescue by white Americans,” Branch wrote. “As a result of Invisible Children’s irresponsible advocacy, civilians in Uganda and central Africa may have to pay a steep price in their own lives so that a lot of young Americans can feel good about themselves, and a few can make good money.”

Kony 2012 spread because it was easy—easy to understand, easy to donate, easy to promote. It taught a generation of would-be activists some hard lessons—chiefly, that activism that begins and ends with social media posts (posting an ice bucket video, changing a profile photo to the Human Rights Campaign logo) performs more good for the doer than the cause. It tells your social network that you did this thing; you believe this thing; you are a charitable, good-hearted, aware human being, just like all of your friends who’ve posted the same exact thing. It’s activism so quick and easy that you don’t need to know much about the cause to join in, just a modicum of trust in the friend who posted it first. But when the target of a social media–driven campaign turns out to be far more complex than a prechewed nugget of share-bait suggested, those impassioned messages to Ban Ki-moon that linger on your Twitter timeline might become a source of shame. That shame may have turned some of Invisible Children’s young idealists into cynics. But it taught others how to harness the power of the web for good—and how to do it responsibly. 

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For many young people who bought into the Kony 2012 hype and were let down as they followed the waves of criticism that soon followed, the incident was a lasting lesson in skepticism. The Kony 2012 backlash brought to the public consciousness the “white savior industrial complex” that undergirds so many seemingly well-meaning campaigns, especially overseas. Kony 2012 arrived at a critical moment when social media was becoming the primary venue for conversations around activism and identity, not just a space for personal updates and the occasional news link. Facebook’s news feed had just shifted from a chronological model to one that took relevance and popularity into account, paving the way for viral media to take hold. Teens who were busy forming their identities and value systems in real life were doing the same with their online selves. Then came Kony.

Watching the movement wither under public scrutiny showed these young people the value of asking questions and looking for the telltale signs of white people making other people’s suffering all about themselves. It’s difficult to imagine Invisible Children’s tactics flying today, just a half-decade later. The nonprofit filmed a Fall Out Boy music video in Uganda in 2007. In April 2009, at the instruction of an Invisible Children video, a couple of D-list celebrities and groups of youth activists “abducted” themselves into urban centers, where they’d stay until a celebrity or politician “rescued” them and made a statement in support of Invisible Children. The organization’s website says its founders began their work on behalf of Uganda after they “traveled to Africa in search of a story.” If Kony 2016 appeared today, young people wouldn’t throw money at their screens. They’d be busy writing a thousand outraged blog posts about it.

Kony 2012 taught nonprofits to be wary, and young people to be skeptical, of people in power who appropriate narratives of suffering. Whatever the problems were with Invisible Children’s message—and there were several—it was doomed from the start because it centered on the stories, perspectives, and altruistic deeds of Westerners. After the Kony 2012 video came out, survivors of Kony’s violence told Al Jazeera that they were angered to learn that people around the world were wearing T-shirts emblazoned with his likeness, essentially glorifying him in their eyes. Some Ugandans wondered why the video focused on white American men; they questioned the motives of an NGO that uses Ugandans’ suffering to raise funds for work that takes place largely in America. Branch argued that Invisible Children’s blunt-force awareness blitz had no real relevance to the specific needs of Ugandans at all. “Uganda is largely just the stage for a debate over the meaning of political activism in the U.S. today,” he wrote.

And yet, despite its notoriety, Kony 2012’s legacy is more than just a cautionary tale. It made it easier for subsequent social media–born campaigns to take on the air of a “movement.” A 2015 article in the European Journal of Social Psychology identified the Kony 2012 phenomenon as one of the first internet-era examples of “emergent opinion-based social identity”: a way of creating an identity as part of a group that shares a certain belief, rather than a certain inborn characteristic. By making anti-Kony activism a marker of identity, Invisible Children established a crude model for other hashtag campaigns such as #NotOneMore (gun violence), #Not1More (immigrant deportations), and even #BlackLivesMatter to catch on as expressions of identity for people of a certain political leaning.

The major difference between Kony 2012 and these more recent campaigns is that the latter ones were created and led by people directly affected by the issues they addressed: gun violence, deportation, racism, and police brutality. These leaders used social media to tell their own stories in their own words, organizing online and off to come up with a series of demands that allies could support. Kony 2012 filtered the plight of Ugandan child soldiers through the eyes of Jason Russell and his cohort, who imposed their own ideas about appropriate intervention onto an impressionable population of youths. It was easy to get involved with the Kony 2012 campaign without knowing much about the Ugandan conflict; in fact, the campaign encouraged a kind of ignorance with its drastically simplified narrative. It would be harder for even the least committed slacktivist to participate in the #BlackLivesMatter and #Not1More conversations without brushing up against some hard truths about real people’s struggles.

Thanks in part to Kony 2012, a hashtag can be a legitimate motivating force behind an identity group; the Black Lives Matter movement took the energy and unity a hashtag campaign can inspire and channeled it into activism informed by the people whose struggles inspired it, people who’d been traditionally left out of popular discourse about their own lives. In the case of Black Lives Matter, a hashtag became a statement of group membership and eventually turned into a movement that’s changing conversations about race in the halls of power.

The creators of Kony 2012 could only dream of such influence. Still, for a campaign that’s gone down in history as a punch line, Kony 2012 left a lasting mark on young people’s political consciousness. That the mark has nothing to do with human rights atrocities in Uganda is a lesson in the limits of awareness pursued at the expense of truth.