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‘Kony 2012’: ‘Unprecedented’ Viral Video’s Message, Backlash Examined

March 8, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
The "Stop Kony" campaign that's gone viral in recent days aims to spotlight the atrocities of warlord Joseph Kony in Uganda. Margaret Warner discusses the nonprofit Invisible Children's popular "Kony 2012" video and its ensuing criticism with the Institute for Policy Studies' Emira Woods and Porter Novelli's Dawn Arteaga.

RAY SUAREZ: A video about an African warlord goes viral around the world.

Margaret Warner has the story, with this warning: Her report contains disturbing images.

MARGARET WARNER: The 30-minute video was posted on YouTube Monday and quickly went viral. The work of the non-profit group Invisible Children, it purports to document atrocities committed by militant Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and Central Africa beginning in the 1980s.

NARRATOR: For 26 years, Kony has been kidnapping children into his rebel group, the LRA, turning the girls into sex slaves and the boys into child soldiers.

He makes them mutilate people’s faces and he forces them to kill their own parents. And this is not just a few children. It’s been over 30,000 of them.

MARGARET WARNER: Over the course of the week, the number of views on YouTube alone skyrocketed from a few thousand on Monday to more than 38 million today. It was most popular with young people ages 13 to 24.

The video features Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell explaining Kony’s actions to his son, Gavin.

JASON RUSSELL, co-founder, Invisible Children: Joseph Kony, he has an army, okay? And what he does is, he takes children from their parents and he gives them a gun to shoot, and he makes them shoot and kill other people.

BOY: But they’re not going to do what he says because they’re nice guys, right?

JASON RUSSELL: Yeah, they don’t want do what he says, but he forces them to do bad things. What do you think about that?

BOY: Sad.

MARGARET WARNER: The campaign against Kony is not new. In 2005, the International Criminal Court indicted him for crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Last October, President Obama sent 100 U.S. special forces to Africa to aid in Kony’s capture. But Invisible Children says it wants Kony and his crimes to be so well-known that global pressure will force the U.S. and other nations to do much more.

NARRATOR: We are targeting 20 culture-makers and 12 policy-makers to use their power for good. Let’s start with the culture-makers. Celebrities, athletes and billionaires have a loud voice, and what they talk about spreads instantly. Then we’re going after policy-makers, the ones that have the authority to see Kony captured.

MARGARET WARNER: It urges viewers to contact these 40 prominent people through Twitter, telephone and other means, and pressure them to speak out or act.

But the campaign also has generated an online outburst of criticism of Invisible Children for its fund-raising methods and its message, among other things. For example, a blogger in Britain’s Independent newspaper argued Wednesday that the group should also be concerned about government abuses in Uganda.

He wrote, “When a bad guy like Kony is running riot for years on end, raping and slashing and seizing and shooting, then there is most likely another host of bad guys out there letting him get on with it.”

In response, Invisible Children said it doesn’t condone human rights abuses by anyone.

And for more about the global phenomenon of this video and the larger story in Uganda, we turn to Emira Woods — she tracks Africa developments at the Institute for Policy Studies — and Dawn Arteaga, a digital strategist for the public relations firm Porter Novelli in Washington.

Welcome to you both.

Dawn Arteaga, beginning with you, how big a deal, how remarkable a phenomenon is this video in the world of social media?

DAWN ARTEAGA, Porter Novelli: I have to say, as far as we can tell, this is unprecedented.

Porter Novelli has a great metrics team in New York. We’ve been tracking this very closely. We can’t find a comparison video that has gone so big so quickly.

MARGARET WARNER: So, tell us the path this took. I mean it did go on another website, Vimeo, late last week, I think. . .


MARGARET WARNER: . . . but starting with YouTube just on Monday.


MARGARET WARNER: How has it moved around?

DAWN ARTEAGA: Well, it’s been on YouTube, as you said, about three days and, as we saw in the video, reached about 40 million views.

It’s been spread by celebrities, Facebook, Twitter. They have used every tool in the social media toolkit to get this out. And, again, it’s unprecedented, the growth that it’s had.

MARGARET WARNER: What is it — because, when you go on YouTube, you can see the ages that it most appeals to.


MARGARET WARNER: And there are girls 13 to 17 and 18 to 24 for boys and 13 to 17. What’s it about this video that appeals to teenagers?

DAWN ARTEAGA: Well, I think it’s simple in nature. What it’s asking is for people to spread the word, which is something that’s very suited to social media.

And it’s giving them a huge reward for doing that. By making Kony famous, as they say, they can stop children from being killed. So the reward is huge and it’s very well-suited to social media.

MARGARET WARNER: We’re going get back to whether that reward can really be fulfilled.

But, first, Emira Woods, tell us more about Joseph Kony. How did the liberation army start? What were its political aims?

EMIRA WOODS, Institute For Policy Studies: Well, the Lord’s Resistance Army started in northern Uganda.

And as is often the case, it is communities where people have been marginalized economically and politically. We have to keep in mind Joseph Kony came into power around the same time as Museveni, the president of Uganda, who has been around since the 1980s now.

And it was really a quest for political power couched in, again, Lord’s Resistance Army, a lot of language around religion and around rights of people. But what we have seen is a real deterioration of rights, the abduction of children, as is, quite frankly, well-documented in the video.

I think what is not shown in the video is the other part of this picture, which is a Ugandan military that has also been tremendously abusive in terms of the rights of its own people.

MARGARET WARNER: As that blog said.

And how vigorous have the efforts been to capture him? Here’s somebody who was indicted, what, seven years ago by the International Criminal Court.

EMIRA WOODS: Well, I think we have to recognize that ultimately Invisible Children is calling for a military intervention by the U.S. and others.

And that military intervention was tried before.

EMIRA WOODS: It was tried before back in 2008. It was called Operation Lightning Thunder, reported well in The New York Times and elsewhere, where the U.S., using military forces, went in, and what we — working with the Ugandan military.

What we saw essentially was Ugandan civilians caught in the crossfire, huge escalation in deaths at that time, a military operation that, in fact, failed, was never reviewed, never scrutinized, and now a call for essentially young people to go all out and essentially support yet another attempt at a military intervention.

MARGARET WARNER: Tell us a little bit, Dawn Arteaga, about the criticism now online, because that’s one of the points of criticism, that you’re asking young people to call for military intervention. What else have people been saying?

DAWN ARTEAGA: Well, they have been criticizing that. They have been criticizing the transparency of the organization, whether. . .

MARGARET WARNER: You mean financially?

DAWN ARTEAGA: Right, where the money really is going that people are going to start donating now.

They have been criticizing this issue. Is this the right issue for so many people to focus on in a world full of other problems? But I think really at the root of this, what’s interesting is that we’re seeing that this criticism is leading to more interest in the video and in the organization.

MARGARET WARNER: Is this being seen by advocacy — other advocacy groups as some kind of a model?

DAWN ARTEAGA: Well, it absolutely should be seen as a model. I think we have looked at comparable campaigns.

We all remember the Old Spice commercials from 2010 that were hugely popular on YouTube. In the same period of time over the course of the first three days of that campaign launch, they only had half the number of views that this campaign has.

And this — we’re talking about a 30-minute video on YouTube. The sweet spot, we usually say, is around two minutes.

MARGARET WARNER: So where is this leading? That’s the question. Where is this going? I mean. . .

EMIRA WOODS: Well, it could go in many different directions.

Ultimately, the ask in Invisible Children’s video is for U.S. military intervention to support the Ugandan military in its operations, again, to apprehend Joseph Kony, whether in Uganda or in other bordering countries.

I think, ultimately, what we have to say is that there is an enormous opportunity when almost 40 million people have viewed this video. Is it possible to turn that around, to pivot somehow to have even, for example, attention paid on the International Criminal Court?

After all, the U.S. has not signed nor ratified the International Criminal Court.

EMIRA WOODS: … an opportunity to educate people on those basic principles of international governance, of international norms, rules of the road, however you call it, that bring about a better world.

MARGARET WARNER: And not to mention all the other just problems in Africa.

EMIRA WOODS: Well, problems, but also opportunities.

What we see, not only in Tunisia and Egypt, but what we see around the continent is people who are taking their destiny in their own hands. How can we use the technology, use the new media and social media in ways that help young people 13 to 24 reach out to support young people right there in Africa to have direct contact, direct dialogue and direct engagement?

MARGARET WARNER: So, Dawn, back to you, do you see a scenario for getting from this new awareness — I mean, they’ve already succeeding in making him way more famous than he was, certainly — to. . .


MARGARET WARNER: . . . actually action that in the end will affect the lives of young — of African children, which is the ostensible purpose here?

DAWN ARTEAGA: Well, it’s certainly possible.

We’ve seen social media be a huge catalyst for change in Egypt, where it brought down Mubarak.

MARGARET WARNER: But it got people into the streets there.

DAWN ARTEAGA: It did. It did.

And this is very different. When you’re talking about 13-to-17-year-old girls in the United States, you’re not going to possibly have the same result as in Egypt. But I think scale the this has reached in such a short period of time is promising.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, we have to leave it there. Thank you both very much.

EMIRA WOODS: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On our website, find links to the full Kony 2012 video, to earlier NewsHour reports on him and the Lord’s Resistance Army, plus criticism of the video and the response from Invisible Children.