Co-authored with Matisse Bustos Hawkes

Over the past several days, there’s been a flurry of activity and online discussion around “Kony 2012” the now-ubiquitous video on Joseph Kony created by the U.S.-based group Invisible Children. This video is certain to be the most-viewed video of our time – and with this notoriety has gained both accolades and criticisms.

Instead of focusing solely on the controversy around the video, we’d like to engage with the video through the lens of our Video Advocacy Example series that we curate on this blog to highlight uses of video for advocacy on human rights issues, and share some of the perspectives on this from our staff, since here at WITNESS we’ve been talking about this video from our various viewpoints for the past few days. We’ve been particularly interested in this in relation to our present work with partners who work on LRA-conflict related issues in Uganda, the Central African Republic, and the DRC  (with partner Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice) – and in terms of our past work with HURIFO on the crimes committed by the LRA and the UPDF in Northern Uganda.

Normally we share the details of the video being discussed, when it was uploaded, and embed the video, but because the video has become so widespread in recent days, we’ll forgo that to get into a discussion about the most talked-about example of video being used for advocacy in recent memory.


Broadly, it’s the general public, the generic “you” that filmmaker Jason Russell mentions several times throughout the film – but more specifically, its the ‘army of young people’ – youth. A closer look at Invisible Children’s organizing structure, primary methods for outreach and communication and style of their films point to an audience roughly 12-25 years-old, based primarily in the U.S. Read this post for reactions by (UK) youth to the film. In addition to youth, IC is targeting 12 Policymakers and 20 Culturemakers, of which you can read more about here.

In relation to some of the criticism around the film’s simple presentation of a complex issue, secondary audiences – the likely-older adults (parents, relatives, teachers, family friends) of the youth, become very important as this is who youth are likely to speak to about the film –  and who will hopefully encourage them to take a deeper look into an issue that is only briefly introduced in the film.

On this, staffer Grace Lile shares:

My younger son, who’s rarely gravitated towards social action of his own accord, and who’s been fairly oblivious to international affairs generally, has signed up for some Kony 2012 event. […] And so I am grappling with how to engage with him, because I want to encourage his interest in serious issues, while also using this as a teachable moment in media literacy.


The goal is stated simply as starting a worldwide movement to ensure that Joseph Kony (the ruthless leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army originally based in Northern Uganda) is captured and brought to justice by the end of this year. The film notes that this campaign ‘expires’ on December 31 2012.

The approach, framing, and effectiveness of this goal is one point where much criticism or concern arising from Ugandans, other regional and international activists, humanitarian workers, and human rights organizations has coalesced – in terms of this being another example of the US intervening in a situation where it is not wanted nor needed, as Americans trying to misguidedly ‘save Africa’ and of an oversimplification of the solution to the complex LRA issue without sufficiently including the perspectives of those affected. For more on this see Teddy Ruge’s Respect My Agency 2012Global Voices, All Africa’s Uganda: Tweeters Oppose Invisible Children Campaign, Ethan Zuckerman, and The Guardian‘s timelined coverage of the controversy yesterday. The Ugandan Government’s Media Centre has issued a response to the Kony 2012 campaign.

Others have passionately defended the film and approach, including Jacob Acaye, who is a young Ugandan who is featured in the film and was abducted by the LRA, and IC’s Regional Ambassador Jolly Okot who has a response to these criticisms on YT here. The video has also received congratulatory support from the White House.

In terms of the video’s singular focus on the arrest of Kony in an issue that is much larger than Kony, many have noted that those who work on this issue have to keep in mind the steps beyond his arrest – the reintegration and rehabilitation of the those abducted, the continued rebuilding of war-torn communities, and the creation and implementation of sustainable solutions to the immense livelihood, health, and psychosocial issues that this conflict has left in its wake, especially among survivors of gender-based violence (see women in Northern Uganda speak to this here) –  in order to both practically and holistically rebuild communities and create lasting peace.

Staffer Tanya Karanasios’ thoughtful take on this:

As human rights advocates we cannot pit justice against recovery, or minimize the importance of pursing the arrest of Kony as an advocacy objective. Assistance and support to victims in CAR, N. DRC, and South Sudan would not be needed had Kony been arrested years ago when the ICC issued their first arrest warrant for him. Nowhere has this debate been greater than the Northern Uganda but the reality is both advocacy objectives are worthy. And, the arrest Kony campaign is very clear and simple objective and it is realistically achievable in this year.


Filmmaker Jason Russell narrates and guides the viewer throughout the video. There’s much to say about whose voice is included in this video and whose is not – and many are troubled that we don’t hear more from those who have been affected by this conflict in the video.  The representation question, especially in a situation with the dynamics and complexities of the LRA conflict – should not be taken lightly.

There is also much discussion around whether the inclusion of the filmmaker’s young son borders on manipulative, and yet this seems to resonate with many people – creating a connection through seeing this child (who could be any child, anywhere, in the vein of the film) to the issue at hand. In terms of other voices – you see a celebrity (George Clooney); a high-level human rights official (ICC Prosecutor Ocampo) a U.S. activist (John Prendergast from the Enough Project), a U.S. Senator (Jim Inhofe) an artist (Shepard Fairey), three Ugandan activists who work with IC (Jacob Ayaye, Jolly Okot and Peter King) along with a plethora of student activists. Several of these interviews appear to be from archival footage, and not directly filmed for this Kony 2012 itself. 


Invisible Children has an engaging and highly produced style – all of which contribute to the success of this film among U.S. youth. “Kony 2012” contains slick animations, audience-appropriate music, and heavy integration of Facebook and Twitter – all of which speak to their base extremely well – and since it shows youth taking action, it directly demonstrates to the audience what they are being asked to do.


The video is on YouTube and Vimeo – and between the two sites, has accumulated over 50 million views in the past several days. Enough cannot be said about the incredible speed with which this 30-minute video has gone viral – in addition to the incredulity of many to see “30-minute” and “viral” in the same sentence. IC’s massive Facebook campaign is surely one reason, and it’s also been a top trending topic on Twitter on Mar 6th through today. Read these posts about why/ how the video went viral.


With this video Invisible Children aims to “make Kony famous” – to raise his profile with the American public so they in turn keep the pressure on the U.S. government to maintain the U.S. military advisors who are working with regional armies in their quest for Kony. Many points have been made about the efficacy and intentionality of supporting U.S. engagement in the region – in addition to the fact that there isn’t an apparent threat of U.S. advisors being removed from the region as the film suggests (read here for more).

In order to focus on their singular goal –to reach youth with a public-awareness campaign about Joseph Kony – it’s easy to make the case for their success in that aim. But if this many people have been compelled to share this video and join the #Kony2012 campaign with simplified or incorrect information – and if this “army of youth” has been equipped with the wrong tools –  and there’s now millions of people out there with a new but limited understanding of Kony and the LRA – then there remains much work to be done.

In addition, what is the long-term efficacy and sustainability of such rapid-fire youth engagement ? Staffer Raja Althaibani chimes in:

It’s a successful movement and campaign because it’s driven by youth. […]IC’s community, like most activist communities, is made up of two very different types of activists: The passive activist and the active activist. The passive activist is an individual that isn’t very involved in any form of activism or cause. The active activist is the individual that is heavily involved, fully committed […] eats, breathes and sleeps with his/her cause. […] Now does reaching out to the passive work? Is this effective in impacting change? Yes and No.

It helps in the short-term. It helps mobilize and get people together. The reality is most people are passive. It takes A LOT to get people on their feet. For example, for decades now, most people in the Middle East have lived under oppressive autocratic regimes. Most of the protests that started in the Middle East were of a smaller scale, with full time active activists who invest everything for the cause. Not until the Arab Spring did everyone come out and join the movement (not to say that collective encouragement was the sole factor leading to the popular uprisings), to be part of a social movement. And naturally human beings like to invest in things that have a chance at success, and to see a mass social movement demanding change is encouraging. They realize that as individuals they might not make a difference but being part of the collective whole they can.

In the U.S.- activism is different. There isn’t an oppressive regime depriving us of our freedoms – inspiring us to take action, so this video was produced to appeal to the passive, to get them on their feet … A larger group gives the cause more leverage.

In the long-term these passive activists die out, lose interest, and get distracted. At the end, it always goes back to the small solid group of active activists and human rights defenders that continue the fight on their own– the individuals that are the engine of these movements. This doesn’t mean that our passive activists don’t play an important role, they do; but their role is different and their actions and assigned roles differ than that of the active activists.

On whether the ends justify the means, from staffer Tanya Karanasios:

Does it matter how we feel about the narrator or his tactics, the use of his son, the (near) lack of voices of women and people from Uganda, the oversimplification of the conflict and cheap bracelets stunts if it is effective in the end? Ultimately, if the campaign helps to effectively result in the arrest of Kony, will our opinions be irrelevant or have the ethics of the film been so trampled upon that this would be too high a price to pay for Kony being arrested? Not sure.

It’s clear that in any meaningful and sustainable resolution to the LRA conflict in the affected regions, the arrest, trial, and sentencing of Kony and other senior LRA commanders is an essential step to bring these perpetrators to justice and to prevent and deter further crimes. This step is the first of many that will be required in terms of securing long-term peace and recovery for the affected communities and individuals – and it is exactly their perspectives on which any advocacy around these issues should be founded.

Join the Conversation

As “Kony 2012”  reflects the “beginning of an ending of which we are only at the beginning” it’s clear that this discussion too is a beginning – not only in terms of debating the approach and impact of this video, but also in what we as human rights and video activists can learn from the success of this video, and what we can contribute to the discussion.

What do you think? Is this possibly the most successful online video for human rights advocacy yet? Or rather than ‘Stop at Nothing’ should IC have stopped before they crossed some of these lines? Perhaps more saliently – does the potential for impact with their stated goal outweigh the reservations many of us have about the video?

Please share your comments below, on Twitter with us @witnessorg or on Facebook.

And finally – in terms of the various critiques of this video and of IC’s work, make sure to check out their responses to this on their site.

Stay tuned, we will be talking about this video again in the near future, and please note: these are the views of just a few of us here at WITNESS, we look forward to a fruitful discussion on this as we watch this campaign progress.

Do you have a Video Advocacy Example to share? Please email blog editor Matisse Bustos Hawkes with a link to the video and a short summary (max 150 words) about why you think it should be shared on the Video For Change blog. Thanks! 


18 thoughts on “Understanding #Kony2012 as #Video4Change

  1. I appreciate the Bustos Hawkes/WITNESS assessment of the KONY youtube campaign,
    for it provides some excellent perspective for considering the pros and cons
    of this phenomenon.

    Having worked on social justice issues for some decades now, and currently being deeply involved with Rwanda, and with concerns about the many advocates of genocide who are still rampaging in the eastern DRC, I come down on the side of YES to the effort under way to make KONY more famous, and propel the process to put him on trial.

    I respect the views of those in Uganda who disagree with this current effort to make KONY famous, but none the less, I add my voice here to the chorus for taking care of business with KONY sooner rather than later.

    1. Hi Glenn, thanks for reading this post and for contributing your thoughts to the discussion. We appreciate it!

  2. Thanks to Sameer Padania for alerting us to this wonderful piece by film scholar Leshu Torchin It discusses the role of personal narrative in the video Kony 2012 (and raises, as many other critiques does the lack of personal narratives by Ugandan voices in the piece), the role context plays/ doesn’t play in the film.

    For me a take away from this piece is that it is important to develop media literacy across online viewing audiences so that more of us can think critically about conversation-starting media like Kony 2012.

  3. and, actually I disagree with Tanya. Films like this will lead to endings such as of Qaddafi or of Saddam Hussein. These types of executions are irresponsible and don’t lead to learning about us as human beings and it seems this is the option that’s promoted in this film!

  4. I have watched the film. And I have mixed feelings about it. One the one hand, it seems that the impact is that a lot more people have learnt about the conflict and feel they care about the issue of child soldiers and Kony. I don’t know about the conflict much and I have learnt the name Kony and I am slowly learning about the conflict. One the other hand, I wonder if films like this even if they’re oriented at youth should be produced in this quite superficial way. I wonder if films like this make people in general and especially young generations learn about the world in over-simplified ways. And, I think this is the type of impact that the film might have. I am afraid that films like this might have the same impact as the Hollywood made happy ending films. Hollywood films are nice, sweet and cosy but at the same time they over-simplify life and they give answers, do films have to give answers or inform and encourage further learning and discussion which would lead to an awareness, which in turn would lead to action? I am not sure this film will lead to an awareness about a system, history, complexities, perspectives… at a deeper level. Not giving voices to the actual children, etc. that’s another downside but enough people have been talking about that…

    1. Thanks Mari for your comment. Oversimplification of any issue runs the risk of creating only limited awareness-unless people are compelled to independently research and develop a deeper understanding on their own. Hopefully, the debates and discussion surrounding their video are doing just that.

  5. في الحقيقة انا من العراق والفلم لم اشاهده ياحبذا لو برسل لي لكي

    اعطي رايي فيه
    تحياتي مهندس محمد

  6. I am poorly equipped to comment on how the Kony 2012 campaign video presents the LRA or its objectives. I guess most people who watched and shared the video are in the same boat. So, for me that is the first issue – not just of this particular online campaign, but generally – how do we determine the authenticity and objectivity of campaign information presented to us in this way (and the background of the organisation)? It is quick and easy to ‘share’ but it takes more time to investigate what is behind the media you are sharing. Secondly, the 30-50 million ‘views’ is seriously impressive, especially in such a short space of time, for a ‘humanitarian’ video, and of 30 mins!! I take my hat of to them. A technical question – does YouTube record a ‘view’ only after the full 30mins has been watched? I think that is important as many of us working in this sector have worked on the assumption for years that very few people will sit through anything longer than 10mins (at most) online. Did 30million people watch all the way through? Thirdly, how will those views translate into action, and impact? Even if 30million people signed an online petition, will the targets take action? Again, I don’t know enough about this particular issue to judge. The video has made a known issue much more ‘known’ amongst a wider audience. But in the relevant corridors of power did it ‘bear witness’ to anything new? I can imagine a similar situation on a rather forgotten issue I work on (war crimes from the past in a forgotten conflict), and what would happen if it got this level of attention. And my conclusion is that we would gain a lot of media space and noise but little would change because the realpolitik is that no one is going to be politically punished for not acting. Maybe that is not the case here, but it highlights the need for domestic as well as international advocacy and solutions.

    1. Rob thank you for your comments on the video and for bringing up the reach it has already accomplished. YouTube has tightened its communications about how they count views to a video (when it first started out it was more based on how many times a specific page with a video was loaded) – see this blog from last year which goes into some clear detail: The take away is that likely viewers have to watch a bit of the video, but perhaps not all of it. It is safe to assume that not every one of the now 50+ million people who have seen the video have watched it all the way through. However, the number is staggering and I do think Invisible Children are to be commended for sparking a public and still on-going conversation about atrocities committed by Kony and the LRA.

      I think many of the critics or those who view the piece through a critical lens, would agree that moving beyond awareness raising to calling on those with power to make something happen will be the longer-term measure of success. I think many people who work in the human rights field would agree that seeing Joseph Kony arrested along with other senior members of the LRA and brought to justice. Whether or not the justice mechanism is the ICC or some national trial/ tribunal or a reconciliation process should be up to Ugandans and the surrounding communities who have been most affected by the LRA’s abuses.

      Hopefully future efforts of video advocacy on Kony or other issues (perhaps such as the one you mentioned you are working on) will benefit from a clear plan to engage the domestic as well as international actors who can most make change happen.

      1. In a presentation today one of Invisible Children’s staff mentioned that at the point they had reached 70 million views on YouTube their stats showed that approximately 30% of viewers had finished watching the film. This is an impressive statistic I think for a 30 minute film.

        1. Rob – we’ve also just posted another blog on Kony, looking at the background of Invisible Children and explaining more about how they do video advocacy, as well as linking to some of the analysis of how the social media circulated. And also raising the questions that we should all be discussing – above and beyond this specific campaign – around ethics, representation and agency. Check it out at

  7. I have been reading the pros and cons of the Kony2012 film and campaign, it’s reasons and motivations for being made. I have many, many thoughts on the subject and it is very fresh in my mind (I only watched the film and other ‘Invisible Children’ information about an hour ago, and I’ve been researching ever since), so I have not made up my mind entirely about the pros and cons – it will take a while to formulate things in my head as the film was very emotive.

    For my own part, these are the comments that I posted on Facebook just after watching the film (and before my research);
    ‘I’ve just watched this and cried (something that takes a bit as anyone who knows me can tell you) – please take the time to watch it and spread the word/share the video. I am just one person and that can sometimes make me feel insignificant when battling for the causes that I believe in; the guy that made this film is just one person, like me, and he has started a peaceful revolution with his passion for justice and the love for his friend. It has made me believe again that, as just one person, I too can have an effect, and that I can use social media like Facebook to do something useful for a change. I’m going to take some action, you decide after you have watched this – even if your action is just to share the film then that counts too. Thank you my friends, Love and Peace x x x’

    So, I have been reading the critiques and answering statements ever since. It has all had an effect on me. Maybe it is true, my interest will wane, I will wake up safe and warm in my comfortable bed tomorrow and feel that, once again, all is well with the world. And maybe I won’t.

    I would hope that if this were happening here in the UK, or to my friends in other parts of the world, that I would feel compelled to film it (as I carry my digicam virtually everywhere) and to notify the rest of the world, via social media, of what is happening, if only just to allow the scales to drop from their eyes whilst watching the story unfold.

    I am also reminded of Dr. Kent M. Keith’s Paradoxical Commandments;

    People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
    Love them anyway.

    If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
    Do good anyway.

    If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies.
    Succeed anyway.

    The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
    Do good anyway.

    Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
    Be honest and frank anyway.

    The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.
    Think big anyway.

    People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.
    Fight for a few underdogs anyway.

    What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
    Build anyway.

    People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.
    Help people anyway.

    Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.
    Give the world the best you have anyway.

    © Copyright Kent M. Keith 1968, renewed 2001

    I will do some more research, sleep on it, and see if my world does feel ok again tomorrow – if not, more action, however small, will follow.
    Finally, thank you for all the work that you do, you are braver and more informed than I and I appreciate the efforts that you all make to keep our speech free and in making it possible for me to use that right.

    With kind regards,
    Sally Robinson,
    Cleethorpes, UK.

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