Today is yet another day in the Republican Primary Season. Today is another day many thousands of Republicans will not want Barack Obama re-elected, but nor will they rally around a viable contender. Yet today also is the day possibly the 75 millionth person watches the viral video phenomenon ‘Kony 2012′. The video tells the moving story of Joseph Kony of Uganda who was certainly known (7-8 years ago) for kidnapping boys and forcing them to serve in his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and the viral video campaign by Invisible Children to raise money and awareness to have him brought to justice.
But Is Kony even alive? Is Invisible Children truly dedicated to helping youth in war-torn central Africa? The very success of the ‘Kony 2012′ campaign shows us how fraught with challenges our media saturated brave new world is.
As I write this post, the numbers who have watched the video on YouTube climb faster than I can bother to get the number posted (I’ll just stop here at 74.846 million views). But those who watch are not necessarily pulling for the cause: 1.3 million ‘Like’ the video on their Facebook accounts, 83 thousand plus do not. Why has it gone viral? What does the success of the 30-minute video and the stunning backlash against it mean for video campaigns and nonprofits going forward?
Many of the comments to the video range from teary hope that purchasing a $30 Action Kit will end the child army and its zealot leader to inarticulate slander against the filmmakers. The range does not much narrow once one moves beyond the YouTube comments − Though the analysis tends to be more substantive.
Max Fisher of The Atlantic has no doubt about the ‘bizarre and horrifying story‘ of Kony and his child-paramilitary, but he has little faith in the work of Invisible Children. The organization has an unnerving ‘.com’ URL, and promotes the ‘soft bigotry‘ of a neo-White Man’s Burden in Uganda − at least, the burden of clicking the ‘Like’ button and or tweeting your support for their campaign.
On the other hand, at least one site is dedicated solely to proving the entire project a money-spinning scam perpetrated by Jason Russel (Filmaker) and Ben Keesey (CEO). Even the staid International Business Times wonders if Invisible Children is up to selling itself rather than furthering a cause. Certainly the organization has had its finances questioned in the past, and according to the IB Times, it has been unwilling to open its books to independent auditors. In their defense, IC has posted their recent (internal) financial reports. Moreover, the staff page (which contains no contact information for anyone at IC) seems bloated with ‘lead animators’ and ‘directors of ideology’ and ‘tour managers’. To be fair, Invisible Children expressly reaches out to bands to get them involved with outreach. And even the internal financials say only about a third of donated money gets to Uganda, the rest going to overhead, outreach, and promotion.
At best, the case against Invisible Children should give donors pause. One thing that really struck me is why the whole campaign ‘had’ to reach its climax on April 20th − a date whose reason is not given (Perhaps they are channeling Harold Camping?). No political event in the US or in Uganda is noted, and if the 2012 campaign were so important, why end it a third of the way through the year…unless you wanted to create a sense of urgency before people began to poke around?
This video below from Forbes.com opens up the specific campaign to questions of how social media might be inspiring ‘slacktivism’ rather than activism, and how motivating people might become a game of averages in which nonprofits make the most heart-wrenching appeals (truth be darned) in the hopes of going viral with millions of viewers, and hope at least 3-5% actually do something. Such appeals surely will move us toward a sensationalism that will make our audiences all a bit more skeptical of any particular appeal, no matter how important.
The quality of the Kone 2012 video is first rate and the narrative it tells is quite engrossing. Indeed, it might hold the record as the longest running video on YouTube that nevertheless went viral. It is worth watching if only as a model of compelling storytelling and inspiring activity. But for a documentary about an unfolding tragedy in Uganda, there’s stunningly little footage of Uganda. If it is drumming up funds for the producers by using a past and/or nonexistent threat, what could their work mean for the future of video storytelling for nonprofits?
In an awkward but reassuring way, the many disputes against Invisible Children shows that people are paying attention and using social media to challenge the social media launched by the California-based charity. Charities are thus put on guard to present themselves in a public and authentic manner. They also must have a consistent history of acting thusly, because social networks demonstrably are able to undermine campaigns that do not meet such expectations.
Have you been following Kony 2012? Do you have evidence to support or to question Invisible Children? Please share your experiences with us and with your social networks – perhaps a good deal of donation money is at stake, as are the lives of many Ugandan children.
| Category Case Study, Cause Marketing, Civics, Communications, Community, Fundraising, Media Review, National/International, News and Current Affairs, Nonprofit, Opinion, Politics, Public Media, Public Relations, Reviews, Social Media, Storytelling, Video Interview | | 3 Comments
Written by: Christopher Gardner, PhD