How Kony 2012 campaign went viral and focused rare attention on Africa

Invisible Children, through its Kony 2012 campaign against the Lord's Resistance Army, had a strong message, social media, and a strategy for how to channel a youthful desire to be involved.

Kai-Huei Yau/Tri-City Herald/AP
Lisa Longoria, of Kennewick, Wash., uses Facebook after school at the Keewaydin Branch of the Mid-Columbia Libraries, Wednesday, March 7. On Tuesday, the Invisible Children organization launched a program it called Kony 2012 to draw attention to the head of the Lord’s Resistance Army, Joseph Kony. Longoria said she cried when she watched some of the Kony 2012 video by Invisible Families, that has gone viral thanks to social media.

On Tuesday, the Invisible Children organization launched a program it called Kony 2012 to draw attention to the head of the Lord’s Resistance Army, Joseph Kony, and agitate for his arrest.

By Wednesday, #stopkony  was trending on Twitter. On Thursday, “uganda” (one of the bases of operation for the LRA) and “invisible children kony 2012” were trending on Google at no. 5 and no. 11 respectively. At last glance, its video on YouTube has been viewed more than 55 million times.

The effectiveness of this campaign to make Kony famous – and to pressure US politicians to commit to helping stop Kony's two-and-a-half decades of violence – is because of the way that Invisible Children took full possible advantage of current social media tools.

Other campaigns have used videos and social media to get their message out (consider the Enough Project's campaign against Congolese militias who fund their wars by controlling the trade in "Blood Minerals" such as coltan). But it takes more than having a message worth hearing, and the tools of social media to get that message out, to make a campaign like this one catch fire. It takes an insider’s view of the technology combined with an outsider’s view of the message.

And Invisible Children has some smart nerds at the helm of their operation.

The organization has been around since the film that gave them their name debuted in 2004. They have had the time to experiment with various tech tools and to make the group's name known. So when they came out with Kony 2012, they had a message (“elect” Kony to the public consciousness), online fund-raising, including t-shirts and other gear, “kits” that allowed interested people to promote the message, a very popular video, a healthy Twitter and Facebook presence, a blog, and the LRA Crisis Tracker, a mapping platform built over IC’s incident database.

“Starting with a pretty robust base of supporters, they did a great job of using one of the interesting social features of Twitter - the ability to enter someone's timeline by messaging them directly,” the Berkman Center’s Ethan Zuckerman told the Monitor. “The main thrust of the campaign, as I understand it, was to get 20 ‘culturemakers’ and 12 policymakers to make a statement supporting their campaign. By encouraging the folks they reached via e-mail and then via social networks to message those recipients, they mobilized a very rapid lobbying campaign."

"In the same way that a politician receiving hundreds of phone calls about SOPA/PIPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act in the US Congress) will want to reconsider a stance on the issue," Mr. Zuckerman adds, "a person receiving thousands of Twitter messages will want to figure out what they're being asked to do, and may want to join a movement, in part, because it might make the lobbying stop.”

This strategy impelled celebrities such as Ellen Degeneres, Zooey Deschanel, Rihanna, Brent Spiner, and others to jump on their Twitter accounts and talk up the campaign. These folks, with sometimes millions of Twitter followers, acted to amplify the Kony issue.

What Invisible Children has done is difficult to duplicate. Their success is not a result of a new bit of code or a novel mobile application. What they have done is strategy, not technology. Most, perhaps all, of what they use are the standard tools of online outreach. But Kony 2012’s strong message with its emotional appeal, the targeting of "influencers," and the consistency across media are what sets this effort apart from related campaigns. 

Additionally, their call to action is extremely simple: Talk about the Lord’s Resistance Army and bug others about it. It may be what other human rights groups denigrate as “slacktivism,” but it is well crafted to take advantage of the desire to be involved, so long as that involvement requires actions that are extremely easy to do from the computer – the same computer that you use to read about the campaign in the first place. Technology can be duplicated, but strategy requires a mind predisposed to its implementation.

Other groups fall short because they tend to have a complicated message, not enough of an emotional plea, or too complex a call to action. Any one of those things is a click-killer.

The campaign’s veracity, the organization’s financing and the general value of such campaigns have all been called into question. However, the fact remains that regardless of the purity of the organization, a strong message persistently propagated through every medium and supported by a stable set of social media relationships has helped to make Kony 2012 the digital cause célèbre it is today. 

"I don't think it's social media [that has made the campaign so effective], I think it's their decision to focus on one individual rather than the collective atrocities," said Jillian York, the director for International Free Expression for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a freedom of expression activist group.  "People love a good villain."

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