Skip to content Skip to footer

The things that “Kony 2012” anticipated

Loading player In 2012, Invisible Children was a semi-unknown Californian association engaged for eight years in information and awareness activities in Western countries on crimes committed in Central Africa by a violent group of fundamentalist militias led by a Ugandan leader named Joseph Kony. In the first days of March of that year, exactly ten years ago, the name and work of Invisible Children became exceptionally well known in the United States and many other countries of the world, beyond all realistic expectations, after the association published on the Internet. a documentary of about half an hour entitled Kony 2012.

In six days it became the first video on YouTube to be viewed over 100 million times, and tens of millions of times more was seen on the Vimeo video sharing platform and on the site set up by the association, which in the first hours after the publication of the documentary became unattainable due to the volume of visits. A survey conducted in those days by the Pew Research Center showed that 58 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 had heard of Kony 2012. A campaign of social media promotion involving several famous people, including TV host Oprah Winfrey, influencer Kim Kardashian, singer Justin Bieber, and singers Taylor Swift and Rihanna.

In a short time, partly anticipating the dynamics, reactions and trends that would have permanently characterized both the diffusion of viral content and a certain activism on the Internet in the years to come, Kony 2012 attracted great attention on traditional media and also received numerous criticisms, for aspects of the story neglected or treated superficially. Other criticisms focused on the disputed management of the large amount of money (totaling $ 28 million in 2012) received in donations by the association.

A second documentary, published a month later, did not achieve even the slightest popularity of the first video, later defined by the media as a unique event both for the unpredictability of the success and for the subsequent controversial developments. As reporter Adam Taylor summed up in the Washington Post two years later, “An online video of crimes most Americans had never heard of, committed by a man they did not know, in a country few would have been able to place on a map, became the most viral thing in the world “.

At the time of the events recounted in the documentary, filming of which set in Africa dates back to 2003, Kony had been the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA, “Lord's Resistance Army”), a group based in the north for over twenty years. Uganda but which had previously also committed violence in neighboring countries such as Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic. The Invisible Children documentary focused on one of the aspects for which LRA was known among the associations of Western countries that had been involved in it for a long time: the use of child soldiers.

The goal of the documentary, directed by Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell, who had personally met a Ugandan child involved in the LRA operations, was to describe Kony's crimes and popularize him in a way that solicits government intervention. westerners. Made using graphics and promotional material from election campaigns, Kony 2012 – which also contained some very violent scenes – came out in the middle of the election campaign for the American presidential elections then won in November by outgoing President Barack Obama. On the poster, a donkey and an elephant, respectively symbols of the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, were superimposed to form a dove as a symbol of peace.

The Obama administration itself, in 2011, then sent a hundred military advisers to Uganda to help the local regular army capture Kony, whose group – included among the terrorist organizations during the presidency of George W. Bush but today not more active – it had however disunited and weakened numerically due to the opposing actions of the Ugandan government. Even earlier, in 2005, the first arrest warrant in the history of the International Criminal Court was issued against Kony, for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The children who formed Kony's armed group, as recounted in Kony 2012, were kidnapped from the villages while the adult population was largely killed.

Kony, a fugitive at the time of the documentary and still today, claimed to be a prophet in contact with God and to want to establish a government based on the ten commandments in Uganda. He led a group with deep religious roots in Catholicism and Christian millennial movements, grafted onto other local religious beliefs. Much of this information, and other useful information to contextualize the figure of Kony within the complex political situation of Uganda and the surrounding areas, were however absent in the documentary by Invisible Children, whose goal seemed to be predominantly to generate worldwide a form of activism around the phenomenon of child soldiers.

Many commentators expressed doubts about the concrete effectiveness of the Invisible Children initiative and the idea that increasing Kony's popularity around the world was enough to bring about an end to the violence in Uganda. The news of the popularity of the video had however circulated much more than the information contained in the video itself. And the political situation inside Uganda had changed a lot from 2003 to 2012: much of the country's problems had little to do with Kony and much more to do with the corruption and inefficiency of President Yoweri Museveni's government.

– Read also: Is 3.5% of the population enough to change things?

Furthermore, in an article published a few months earlier in Foreign Affairs magazine, Invisible Children was cited as one of the organizations accused of misinforming to obtain more funding. Specifically, they were accused of emphasizing data on child abductions and LRA murders and omitting “the Ugandan government atrocities”, the numerous looting, rape and violence against civilians by other rebel groups in the area as well as, in general, the complicated regional policies that fueled the internal conflict.

Other allegations were leveled at the organization regarding the lack of transparency in managing budgets and the fact that most of the funding obtained through donations went into salaries, travel expenses and documentary production expenses, rather than directly into charitable projects.

In general, Invisible Children proved unprepared for the success of Kony 2012 and the attention of such a large section of public opinion, and was heavily discredited. An episode that took place two weeks after the release of the documentary and was widely reported by the international press was considered indicative of the level of physical and psychological stress felt by the authors due to the media attention received. Russell, co-founder of the association and narrator of the documentary, walked out onto the street completely naked and screaming nonsense, and was briefly admitted to a psychiatric institution. Some newspapers also reported that he masturbated in public.

“There are very few examples of people who have been publicly infamous and have fallen into that kind of spotlight without having some kind of breakdown,” Russell, who is now 43, and a child who goes to school, recently told the New York Times. superiors (Gavin, the same one who appears in the documentary and to whom Russell tells the question of child soldiers as if he had to explain it, precisely, “to a 5-year-old child”).

In an era in which social networks tell the war in Ukraine in real time, wrote the New York Times, Kony 2012 represents both a “memorabilia” dating back to a period of great optimism about the possibilities offered by technology, and a “precursor” of times when videos of violence and wars would have been the order of the day. The documentary was also one of the first occasions for public debate on the usefulness, effectiveness and limits of a certain activism still popular today, made up of online petitions and the use of the Internet and digital media as tools to mobilize users.

– Read also: The First TikTok War

Speaking of one of the main accusations leveled against the authors of Kony 2012, namely that of oversimplifying a complex topic, Russell told the New York Times that he thought it “a compliment”, since simplifying something difficult was necessary to achieve the goal of making the video go viral.

Eric Meyerson, YouTube's partner marketing manager in 2012, said the documentary was part of the kind of video the platform was trying to promote at the time to elicit a certain kind of emotion, trust and “good feelings. »In users. Meyerson said that in 2015, when he moved to Facebook, that idea was still present and widespread but that things changed with the success of live streaming after the introduction of Facebook Live in August of that year. .

After a significant staff reduction and a general downsizing of the organization at the end of 2014, today Invisible Children is committed to financing a few local projects in Central Africa. In 2017, the United States reduced investment in Uganda to capture Kony, no longer considered a danger in the region.