Kony 2012 is now the most rapidly disseminated human rights video ever. In six days it reached an aggregate 100 million views – faster than other pop culture phenomena like Susan Boyle (9 days), Rebecca Black (45 days) and ‘Charlie Bit My Finger’ (445 days).

Because of this enormous reach Kony 2012 (the video and associated campaign) has been a lightning rod for celebration and critique, both around dimensions that are specific to the video and campaign themselves, as well as viewing them as proxies for whole genres of contemporary activism. These debates range across: specific advocacy choices, finances, accuracy, slacktivism and clicktivism, organizing, communications strategy, the failings of traditional NGOS, and the ethics of representation and voice.

In this blog I will look at Kony 2012 through the prism of two core video advocacy principles that guide our work here at WITNESS (do also look at an earlier post by my colleagues Rose and Matisse with initial reactions to Kony 2012″ as a video advocacy example):

Principle 1: Video should be part of a campaign, complementing other forms of activism.

Principle 2: Storytelling should be audience-oriented and should provide a clear space for action.

Then, looking at the meta-debate that’s emerged in the 12 days since the video was launched (see notes from a SXSW session I organized here)  I propose two key questions that can help us turn critique into action:

Kony2012 Screen Grab
Kony2012 Screen Grab

1) Simplification is necessary for some audiences. But when does it go too far?

2) Ethics, representation and framing matter.  How do we amplify the dignity, agency and voices of the people most affected even in the context of mass audience videos like Kony 2012?

We’ve got to be able to have this discussion without heaping blame on Invisible Children, or lampooning the attention spans or commitment of people who watched “Kony 2012.” It is amazing and positive to see more than a 100 million people engage with a human rights issue, including many youth who have never been engaged by traditional human rights movements.

In fact, we should want to see this happen again and again – how about Syria, Guantanamo, the global water crisis, or any number of other issues where people need to mobilize cross-borders to stop injustice? (Avaaz has certainly made a start on this).

Principle 1: Video should be part of a campaign, complementing other forms of activism

Much of the initial criticism of Kony 2012 occurred in the absence of discussion about the organization behind it, Invisible Children (IC for short in this blog post) and the organizing work they do. I’ve followed IC’s work for a number of years. It has succeeded in creating a broad, committed community of student activists in the US focused on one of the less discussed issues in central Africa. They have brought documentaries on northern Uganda to over 10,000 schools in eight years, mobilized student organizing teams across the US, and supported grassroots communications and policy-maker advocacy via innovative projects like the LRA CrisisTracker, a community radio response project that also maps atrocities.

In past campaigns, IC built up a following by releasing roughly one major film project a year, holding screenings in which students would attend and then getting them to participate big public actions (which they would then see reflected back to them in future productions).  There are certainly critiques of this form of spectacle-based action – Melissa Brough has written on the commodification of activism and the deployment of spectacle (in IC’s work, heavily manifested through sales of bracelets, action packs, and big choreographed events as well as films that didn’t always directly reference Uganda or the LRA) but it has been effective in building a strong core base of support among high school and college students.

The IC team didn’t expect Kony 2012 to be such a success (see comments from IC’s COO Chris Carver at SXSW).  In fact, they had aimed for the video to build up to their April 20th action and get a total of 500,000 views in 2012, not 100 million in ten days.

In this sense, IC has been too successful, too early with this campaign, and has also jumped rapidly outside of their core audience because of the spread of the video online.  Because of this, the online component overshadowed the offline organizing and in-person screenings that usually characterize the launch of their advocacy. As Ben Keesey, their CEO, said to The New York Times:

What we are working on now is to speed up the pivot of the campaign from awareness into action. We thought the awareness piece would take until at least April 20. Now, with this huge viewership, we are trying to translate all this excitement into action.

One important lesson that I take away from this is the importance of building momentum though in-person screenings, even in the age of the viral video. In-person screenings build strong collective nodes of activism, allow responsiveness to the questions that come up about choices of advocacy and dialogue, and build the types of communities of activism in places like Birmingham, Alabama, which kick-started the online push this time around (see this informative analysis by Gilad Lotan, which also explains the online strategy, including celebrity engagement, in more depth).

Like Invisible Children, at WITNESS, we believe in video as part of a campaign (and train people how to do this – for example with our Video Advocacy Toolkit and other training tools highlighted below). Video complements other forms of organizing, mobilizing and advocacy – people taking to the streets, lobbying their elected representatives, using ‘boomerang’ strategies to engage distant publics to action, collating and mobilizing powerful evidence for justice.

Where we diverge from IC is on our emphasis away from the viral video (instead our videos target more specific audiences, sometimes a single person, and recognize that in an age of information overload we can’t all compete for huge audiences and may not need to) and emphasis on understanding the voice of local human rights activists. This means local voice and local decision-making determines what is needed in a video campaign. In the same region as IC, we are currently working with women’s activists to tell their stories from the eastern Congo, the Central African Republic, and northern Uganda.

Principle 2: Storytelling should be audience-oriented and should provide a space for action

Invisible Children’s core audience is youth in the USA.  A consistent thread through their work has been the representation of the situation in Northern Uganda through the lens of how the founders first encountered it, and developed their passion for action. They traveled as individual filmmakers to Uganda, and encountered a problem they had never heard of –  the LRA abuses towards children.

Every substantive documentary (and indeed related action – such as sending youth to Uganda) since has retained this narrative frame, this analysis of the problem and translated it for youth audiences in the US. Each substantive film is about this discovery and coming together in solidarity. The youngest ‘discoverer’ is Jason Russell’s five-year-old son. Because of this, the prominent voices and narrative framers in the videos are, for the most part, white American leaders of IC. And though they do have many Ugandan staff, their leadership remains largely American.

As Neta Kligler-Vilenchik notes of an earlier, also much-watched IC film, “The main strength of the movie to most IC members is the feeling of identification with the protagonists – the three filmmakers and future IC founders, young people not much older than themselves, who go out to Uganda, encounter a social issue and launch a movement.” Beth, an IC intern interviewed for a USC research project, notes: ”The movie is just very raw, and it’s, even though they were older than me they were kids, and you see these kids just go, they see something, they run into a problem and they’re like, OK, now we have to fix this problem.”

Alongside the IC founders, the agents of change in Kony 2012 are the youth who have and will act in solidarity with the campaign. From a movement-building perspective in the US this makes perfect sense. Research by USC scholars reveals IC members share a strong sense of community and purpose (see more of Kligler-Vilenchik’s research in Why youth are drawn to Invisible Children’). This research also suggests strongly that – for all the criticism of the viral reach of the “Kony 2012” online video  as clicktivism or slacktivism – the core audience of IC is far from cursory in its engagement.

However, this storytelling frame, which emphasizes US youth’s agency above all else, can be criticized on a practical and analytical level. Writer Dinaw Mengestu, captures this best: “In the world of Kony 2012, Joseph Kony has evaded arrest for one dominant reason: Those of us living in the western world haven’t known about him, and because we haven’t known about him, no one has been able to stop him.”  In what Leshu Torchin relates back to a concept of the ‘narcissism of pity’, every struggle relates back to the experience of the advocates, not the victims or survivors. Responding to this, Ugandan diaspora activist TMS Ruge noted in a recent panel:  “We need to be at the center of our own rescue” not part of a savior complex. As a thought experiment, we could consider for example, how the story could have been told with Jacob (the young man whom IC’s founders met in Gulu), as the leading actor, and Jason Russell as the supporting actor rather than the current configuration.

IC makes a direct argument for their approach to storytelling to this audience. Jedidiah Jenkins, one of their directors noted: ‘Our films weren’t made to be scrutinized by the Guardian.’  COO Chris Carver said that they are always thinking about their materials being seen by students on iPads with short attention spans,  “thinking about a class, a girl, a guy.”

This audience-driven approach to advocacy is actually very similar to how WITNESS approaches its work (albeit we are more focused on training and supporting local human rights advocates to use video themselves). Find an audience that has an influence on a needed change in human rights policy or practice, and pair an ethical and compelling narrative and effective distribution strategy directed at them. Though we rarely support mass movement building on a single issue like IC, that audience-centered approach has been key to our successes in settings as diverse as pushing for ICC action on child soldiers in the Congo to mobilizing elder voices to lobby for elderly rights here in the US.

Creating A Space for Audience Action

Invisible Children also advocate that each film must propose a manageable solution. Here’s Jedidiah again:

There are a lot of good documentaries out there that paint a well-told story about something that’s wrong with the world. But (…)they rarely presume to propose an answer; they just beautifully articulate the problem. And we hate that. You’re left going, “Ok, yes, I hate fracking. Now what am I supposed to do about it?”

What we did was paint moral clarity and provide direct action steps. There are no credits or anything else. We presented the problem and then ended the film with three steps to help people make a change. That resonates with people. The third step was as simple as sharing the film. People can do that.

We also strongly believe in the need to use powerful storytelling to engage that audience, and to give the target audience ‘a space for action’ once they watch a video – viewers need to know that they can do something. Their realistic option to exercise agency should not just be an add-on action at the end of a video but a response that makes sense based on the narrative journey they’ve gone through while engaging with the media (for more on this in multiple contexts see Kat Cizek’s ‘Storytelling for Advocacy’ chapter in our Video for Change book). In this context, for example, the admonition to ‘Above all share this movie online’ at the end of Kony 2012 film makes perfect narrative sense as an action after the framing that has gone before about the power of online action.

The challenge of course is when a video either steps outside its original audience, distribution context or timing. This is something I frequently experience in our work at WITNESS – if you show a video made for evidentiary purposes at the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights to an audience of teenagers without a clear explanation of who the original audience was, they will be bemused and viceversa. Consider the puzzled reactions to the Invisible Children Global Night Commute Musical among people discovering Invisible Children for the first time here in the US. More seriously, look at the puzzled, angry reception of “Kony 2012” in at least one screening in Northern Uganda.

However, above and beyond that, what bounds should there be on the way an ethical advocacy video presents its topic and solutions – even to convince, persuade, shame or create empathy in its core audience?

When does storytelling for an audience make simple too simple?

One major complaint about the IC’s Kony 2012 campaign is that it oversimplifies the situation in northern Uganda.

Many commentators point out that the film proposes simple solutions that are not a priority today and that don’t tackle systemic dynamics that will continue to create human rights abuses (for example, by backing the Museveni government and focusing on further militarization, rather than the rehabilitation needs of survivors of LRA violence or reconstruction in the North).

Writing about this in an early blog on the Kony 2012 video, Ethan Zuckerman of the MIT Center for Civic Media (and a founder of Global Voices) poses a bigger question the human rights movement must ask itself.

I’m starting to wonder if this is a fundamental limit to attention-based advocacy. If we need simple narratives so people can amplify and spread them, are we forced to engage only with the simplest of problems? Or to propose only the simplest of solutions?

As someone who believes that the ability to create and share media is an important form of power, the Invisible Children story presents a difficult paradox. If we want people to pay attention to the issues we care about, do we need to oversimplify them? And if we do, do our simplistic framings do more unintentional harm than intentional good? Or is the wave of pushback against this campaign from Invisible Children evidence that we’re learning to read and write complex narratives online, and that a college student with doubts about a campaign’s value and validity can find an audience? Will Invisible Children’s campaign continue unchanged, or will it engage with critics and design a more complex and nuanced response?”

Let me build out from Ethan on the question of simplicity by posing some suggestions on when ‘simple is too simple’.  Here I am not saying that Kony 2012 is all of these things – rather I am suggesting how we need to think about this discussion moving forward in all our work in presenting situations and solutions. In that light, I’d welcome suggestions of videos and campaigns that demonstrate both these potential pitfalls and innovative responses.

  • Simple is too simple when oversimplifying the problem leads to modeling the wrong solutions or to counter-productive impacts for the people who are directly affected.
  • Simple is too simple if the initial action participants are asked to take is not followed by a next step in a ladder of engagement (and I would note that Invisible Children explicitly notes the video is a ‘first entry point’ to engagement).
  • Simple is too simple when it models a solution that misdirects an audience’s understanding of the systemic causes of an issue (two analyses here of this in the context of Kony 2012 are presented by Ethan again, and Conor Cavanagh).
  • Simple is too simple when a simple entry point does not allow viewers/participants to easily drill down and engage with more complexity (see Lana Swartz’s working paper on this potential for ‘drillability’ in transmedia campaigns)
  • Simple is too simple when it perpetuates stereotypes (for example, a ‘rescue’ approach) or reinforces the lack of agency in situations where agency has already  been assaulted by the human rights violations themselves. At the root of human rights work is human dignity.
  • Simple is too simple for a single human rights video when it misstates facts, uses footage or interviews out of context, or when it breaches ethical ideas on representation, particularly when that compromises people’s dignity and safety.

All these are important if we are to make clearer distinctions between ethical advocacy work and advertising or propaganda.

Elsewhere we’ve blogged on some key principles on using social media to engage with human rights, and discussed extensively how to think about questions of dignity, safety and consent in human rights video. We also have some internal guidelines that we will be sharing in an upcoming blog post. Sparked by the discussion around Kony 2012, Katrin Verclas from Mobileactive has also shared a draft code of online advocacy conduct that speaks to the broader realm of advocacy.

How can big picture storytelling better amplify local voices but still connect to broader bases of people?

One key element of storytelling that’s missing from Kony 2012 is the voice and agency of the hundreds and thousands of Ugandans living with the legacy of the LRA, or advocating and mobilizing to confront that legacy. Also missing are the voices of people living with the threat of LRA violence now in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Southern Sudan.

The pushback from Kony 2012 indicates a hybrid path that we need to follow. A path that finds ways to understand how simpler messaging for new mass audiences can be informed by (and combined with) the richness of knowledge, solutions and voices that exist but aren’t being amplified. TMS Ruge has noted that the discussion has given the opportunity for Ugandans to take the mic –  from individual bloggers like Rosebell Kagumire to more systematic efforts such as Al-Jazeera’s promotion of Ugandan voices in response to Kony2012 via its #UgandaSpeaks campaign. Other groups like Resolve (partners with IC on the LRA Crisis Tracker) have aggregated responses to the film from communities in areas currently affected by LRA violence.

What would a Kony 2012-like campaign fully grounded in local voices look like?

It would start from debate with local activists on solutions, and then tap into powerful storytelling to communicate with its core audience in ethical and direct ways that reinforce the agency of those local activists. That storytelling might be led by people on the ground or by a filmmaker, but there would be a purposeful effort to make sure those stories were part of the narrative from the beginning – within single films and within the flow of content that surrounds high-profile media items. It would ensure that just as much as the campaign was ‘spreadable’, it would also be ‘drillable’ (meaning that a person can dig down and understand easily beyond the core message and narrative) and have a depth of voice and context (for more on this see a recent Henry Jenkins blog). It would also create spaces for those stories from video bloggers, video activists and citizen witnesses to be created, amplified, curated and added to: a number of models exist for doing this well from training programs of SmallWorldNews, WITNESS and many others to the edited communities of Global Voices to the curation and aggregation spaces of Crowdmap and Crowdvoice, and the pages on Facebook that act as nodes for mulitple voices like ‘We Are All Khaled Said‘.

So what comes next?

On a campaign level, it’s early days with Kony 2012. There can and will be legitimate disagreements on their approach to justice and reconstruction in Central Africa.  I hope that Invisible Children will be open to dialogue with others about their next steps and how they use their bully pulpit. Either way, this increased attention on LRA crimes presents an amazing opportunity to think out how to secure justice and recovery in Central and East Africa.

Beyond critiques, the human rights community needs to work out how to provide the activists who engage with IC with a gateway to other human rights issues. We need to build better, non-proprietary pipelines for engaging each others’ supporters and networks. And we need to help them engage with local voices and opinions from the places where their advocacy and awareness will have a real-world impact.

IC have highlighted (in their response video) their interest in answering people’s questions on their approach and strategies, and being transparent. Ben Keesey, their CEO, asks people to tweet @Invisible with #AskICAnything, and they’ve started to respond to some of those questions here,  here and here.

Is the incredible reach and debate that Kony 2012 has generated a good or a bad thing? There are no simple answers here. And I cannot speak for the range and diversity of voices in Uganda, East Africa and Central Africa, as well as humanitarian, human rights, and policy professionals who could argue for alternative solutions to that advocated by the video. The consensus on the political solution initially presented in the video does appear to be: too simple and too military-focused. IC needs to work out how to convey that there is more nuance to what they seek behind the banner headlines. But irrespective, attention may translate to concrete options for change that will generate a lasting peace.

In addition, the video has engaged 100 million people, it has given a chance for people in the region to say why they object to it (or appreciate it) and to have their voices amplified (albeit accidentally) and it’s enabling us now to have a conversation on some of the bigger questions. Let’s leverage that part. Lets have a constructive discussion on the difficult balance between advocacy, audience and agency, and around ethics, simplification and local voice.

10 thoughts on “Kony 2012: Juggling Advocacy, Audience and Agency When Using #Video4Change

  1. The novelist Teju Cole published a piece yesterday in The Atlantic that also speaks to the agency/voice issue raised here by Sam. Here’s the article http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/03/the-white-savior-industrial-complex/254843/

    A couple of lines that stood out on this point: “There is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.”

  2. It was great to see IC themselves quoted here on what they expected from the campaign and when they expected it. Too much of the backlash has ignored their voices and not sought to establish the who the intended audience of the video was.

    Regarding Ethan Zuckerman’s comments about whether attention-based advocacy is limited to simplistic problems, messages, and solutions, I would tend to say that if you are trying to reach a vast audience, a simple message is necessary (especially when Twitter is a large part of your campaign). The key is to be able to pivot from that attention-based advocacy towards a plan that allows for more nuance and complexity.

    Thanks for this piece. It’s good to read something that actually engages this aspect of the Kony 2012 campaign and doesn’t seek to smear IC or its detractors.

  3. I think one of the central questions you touch on in this gets right to the heart: Invisible Children never saw themselves as being a definitive or authoritative voice. They saw themselves as a discrete part of a wider social media universe and deeper advocacy space on LRA issues. The gap they were trying to fill was explicitly about personalizing the conflict for an American audience and engaging a youth movement that was dormant (or apathetic), and they had some token development projects to help legitimize their work (and as toes in the water of what deeper engagement could look like). But that level of engagement was never their expertise, nor did they know how to hand the mic over successfully. They didn’t expect that moment had arrived yet. The problem has become that the popularity of their video has vastly eclipsed their expectations, accelerated beyond their sense of their change model, and now they APPEAR to have a more authoritative responsibility than they are actually ready to assume, so they are in no way equipped to handle it. People resent that, and there is an evident vacuum that needs to be filled. If I were them, I would be engaging as broadly as possible the right kinds of partners to help turn this momentum into a sustainable movement that delivers real lasting justice; or if they have those partnerships already in place, I’d be waving a flag and shining bright lights on them to direct the attention where it’s best served. Instead, the world is doing that for them – in the kinds of springboarding voices that are cropping up in criticism or coopting the visibility to make their own projects heard. I think this is a moment to observe how the new media landscape facilitates new kinds of responses and reactions (new kinds of collaborations deliberate or accidental) to occur. Organically, the world is digesting this foreign body and seems to know how to take the good and discard the bad instinctively.

  4. Hi Lisa – I agree, this certainly speaks to energy and power and I think its a positive challenge to everyone to do this as well in terms of reach and potentially better in terms of the areas where I highlight problematic areas (particularly on local voice and depth of voice). Do we need to set different ethical standards or representation standards for human rights advocacy rather than political campaigning – after all there’s plenty of incomplete, powerful media that moves people in that context?

    1. I would say “Yes” to your question about possibly needed a different set of ethical standards for Human Rights vs. Political campaigns IF one expects to build reputational currency that is the foundation of HR and diplomatic efficacy. Then again, perhaps the Human Rights campaign community should be, by definition, setting the “values” bar higher and challenging the politicos to follow. This project, KONY2012, moves the line in the opposite direction.

  5. Sam, thanks for this. I’ve been making commentary on my FB page as this thing went viral, and the push back was quick and intense – I would venture that a large group of people heard the criticisms via online and television media almost as fast as they heard the hoopla. I found myself defending the medium of online campaign/video advocacy, and suggesting that those people who were some of the loudest critics were also people who got caught up in the Obama Mania of 2008. Perhaps the grounding of our “Hope” and expectations of “Change” have evolved us past the immediate buy-in of the emotional components of such phenomena – and the reason KONY went so far, so fast is because it largely tapped a demographic that had not gone through this process during the 08 Presidential campaign and its aftermath. Younger people who were not of voting age in 2008 would be the prime drivers of the KONY phenomenon, e.g. the under-21 crowd. The fact remains, however, that this piece of media is outrageously successful, and strategists will spend the next phase trying to figure out why and how it was so successful. No mater what you think about the details, or lack thereof, in this video, it achieved some very real goals: it made KONY (in)famous, it offered an opportunity to teach our children about the plight of other people in other places, it created a empowered sense that activism can work, and it raised lots (and lots) of money around a cause. To the critics I say, since when is politics simple, yet voters go to the polls all the time with partial facts and canned messages… and change the course of history. Pundits be damned, this video has a story to tell… if not so much about the nuances of politics and history of Uganda, then certainly about our new collective power and pent up energy just waiting to find a way to express itself.

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