In early 2012, most of the world had never heard of Joseph Kony, a Central African warlord responsible, according to UNICEF statistics, for kidnapping tens of thousands of children to enslave and use them. as soldiers, and displaced more than 2.5 million people. people throughout the region.
But that will change on March 5. Jason Russell, founder of the non-profit organization Invisible Children, has directed a movie called “Kony 2012” that exposes a crisis of violence.
“We felt that if people in the Western world knew about this brutality, it would stop in a few days,” said Russell, 43, in a phone interview.
In a video released by Invisible Children on YouTube, Mr. Russell explains the conflict in simple terms befitting his 5-year-old son, Gavin, who appears in the video alongside inspirational images of Ugandan children and North American defiant activists. Finally, Mr. Russell offers a call to action: for celebrities, policymakers and anyone else to follow along to help make Joseph Kony a household name.
When Oprah Winfrey tweeted “Kony 2012,” its views jumped from 66,000 to nine million, according to Gilad Lotan, a data scientist who compiled a visual analysis of its spread. Justin Bieber, Rihanna and Kim Kardashian also shared it. Within a week, the video had reached 100 million views – a YouTube record at the time – and Mr Kony was the target of a global manhunt for civilians.
Ten years on, Mr. Kony is still growing up, Gavin has started high school, and Mr. Russell is still grappling with the mixed legacy of “Kony 2012”. At a time when the constant stream of videos on TikTok, Instagram and Twitter is illustrating the real-time destruction of Ukrainian cities by Russian forces, the film is seen as a relic of what experts have described. is a tech-optimistic Arab Spring. the digital landscape and set the stage for an era of seemingly endless footage of violence and conflict on social media.
Invisible Children, founded in 2004 by Mr. Russell, Bobby Bailey and Laren Poole, has shown films about Mr. Kony and his rebel group, God’s Resistance Army, at events around the country, reached a total of five million viewers, according to Mr. Russell. “Kony 2012,” he says, was “the first time we went after social media so aggressively.”
In his analysis of the video’s spread, data scientist Lotan noted dense clusters of activity in Dayton, Ohio, and Birmingham, Ala., two cities where Invisible Children were stop on tour.
The film’s spread on the internet opened up the organization to all kinds of criticism. People online debated the film’s racial politics, the ethics of humanitarianism, and the use of “laziness,” the equation of likes and shares versus action.
“The top criticism I’ve read over the years is oversimplification of a complex problem,” Mr. Russell said. “I would say: ‘I hear you, but to make something go viral’ – our goal is to simplify a complex problem – ‘that’s what you have to do’. In a sense, it was meant to be a criticism, but I took it as a compliment. “
At the time, the attention the film received became overwhelming for Mr. Russell, who was filmed walking around his neighborhood naked, shouting obscenities just over a week after its release. “There are very few examples of people who have been publicly shamed and placed under that hot white light without some sort of breakdown,” he said.
According to Mr. Russell, the footage was sold to TMZ and #Horny2012 surpassed #Kony2012 in the hashtags trending on Twitter, as inaccurate reports emerged that he had masturbated in public. . What started as a serious attempt at raising consciousness has turned into a meme.
But it’s clear that the film has hit the viewer’s mind when it exploits what Jonah Berger, a professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Contagious: Why Things Catch On,” called STEPS : social currency, triggers, emotions, public factual values, and stories. These factors appeal to the basic psychological makeup and motivations of people, says Professor Berger.
Eric Meyerson, a former YouTube partner marketing executive, said at the time, “Kony 2012” was based on the emotional quality of the internet’s biggest buzzwords. Its first three minutes include footage of the Arab Spring and a kid riding a bike for the first time.
“Those are the videos that we at YouTube were trying to promote at the time, to send to Webbys, the kinds of good inspirational videos that are what bring people back to a platform,” Mr. Meyerson said. In some cases, he added, viewers get the feeling that by viewing and sharing content, “they’re helping to change the world.”
When Mr. Meyerson joined Facebook in 2015 to lead its video marketing team, a serious sense of that possibility remained. But after the introduction of Facebook Live in August, the mood changed, as graphic live footage began to appear.
“Then we had the rise of fake news, Brexit, the Trump election,” he said, “and all of a sudden, at the end of 2016, it went from ‘having social media’. can change the world for the better’ to ‘Facebook and YouTube and Twitter are destroying democracy. “
“The early 2010s were crucial in transforming our current information environment, and it did not receive the attention it deserved,” said Mr. Meyerson.
Now, the earliest images of conflict and crisis often reach us through social media and are communicated by the platforms where they are shared. Andrew Hoskins, professor of interdisciplinary studies at the University of Glasgow, said: “The advent of digital warfare has challenged mainstream media and other elite actors in their ability to shape lives. What will the war be like?
“Looking at Twitter right now is very interesting,” he said, referring to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, what has been called the first TikTok war. He said – “the vast amount of footage that pervades our sense of conflict” – open source intelligence, citizen journalism on TikTok – “could create a war revolution, but it has may not make any difference.”
In 2017, the United States and Uganda narrowed down their mission to capture Mr. Kony, claiming that he no longer represented a threat in the region. “Atrocities committed by the LRA have been reduced by 80%,” Samuel Enosa Peni, archbishop of Western Equatoria, wrote in an email. (He lost three siblings in the military.)
Today, Invisible Children is entirely focused on local programs in Central Africa. Social media plays a small role in its strategy.
Mr. Russell has also recalled his digital presence. “While we now have the media literacy to debunk things like the QAnon theory,” he said, “I can’t help but have the internet still triggering me.”