KONY 2012: What Made It Work?

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KONY 2012 Campaign

KONY 2012, a 30-minute video produced by the nonprofit organization Invisible Children, calls for the capture of Joseph Kony, the Ugandan leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The video that went viral in the past weeks has now received almost 100 million views on YouTube and Vimeo.

Since March 5th, #stopkony, the campaign’s hashtag, Invisible Children, and Uganda have been trending on Twitter worldwide. I, for one, had my Facebook feed flooded with the same link shared by more than 25 of my friends.

The advocacy group “aims to make Joseph Kony famous, not to celebrate him, but to raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice.” While the video has received widespread support and international attention, at the same time, it has also garnered a fair amount of criticism.

Despite the oversimplification of the complex issue at hand, and whether you support the campaign or not, Invisible Children achieved a goal which documentarians strive for, raising awareness and visibility for an issue they care about.

So what made this particular video immensely popular? Here are some takeaways for documentarians hoping to duplicate the virality of Kony 2012.

Targeting a Pre-Existing Social Network

An analysis by SocialFlow showed that, by March 5, Invisible Children had already cultivated a network of high-school, college-aged and churchgoing youth that would seed the social media explosion.

“We had already an army of young people who’d been supporting us for years,” former Invisible Children chief operating officer Margery Dillenburg told Boston University. “They’ve been fully aware of this date and they were ready to jump… and make it go viral.”

The initial spread, according to SocialFlow, was thanks to Christian youth in small-to-medium-sized towns (Birmingham, Pittsburgh, Oklahoma City and Noblesville, Indiana). The video resonated with youth — The Wall Street Journal notes the average viewer was 24 years old — and it was constructed as such.

Invisible Children’s chief executive told The Wall Street Journal they asked themselves, “How do we make this translate to a 14-year-old who just walked out of algebra class?”

As social media researcher Danah Boyd points out in a Huffington Post blog post, “If you’re a teen, you see this and realize that you, too, can explain to others what’s going on. The film is powerful, but it also models how to spread information.”

A Clear Call to Action

What sets this self-professed documentary apart from others is its specific and direct call to action.

The video begins with a theme of online sharing, illustrating the act of clicking on “Share” and “Send” buttons, laying the framework for how Invisible Children will ultimately be asking for support.

By demonstrating groups of hundreds of people coming together for the same cause, it brought the audience from all different parts of the world as one community. This sense of collectivity encouraged people to take action and to be a part of something bigger than themselves.

Then, much of the last quarter of the video is devoted to the request to make Joseph Kony famous and the various ways the viewer can help. We aren’t left wondering, “What do we do next?”

We are told that there is a bad guy named Joseph Kony, and we can stop him by simply sharing the video, purchasing an action kit or signing an online pledge, or taking the leap to participating in a “Stop Kony” postering campaign offline on a specific day (April 20, 2012). One of these actions is sure to resonate with a viewer.

And to give viewers another push, there’s even an expiration date for action — December 31, 2012.

Celebrity Outreach

Invisible Children already listed celebrities such as Kristen Bell among its supporters, but it sought more stars by asking video viewers to flood a defined list celebrities and policymakers with pre-made tweets, an approach termed “attention philanthropy.” Celebrities started to take notice, including Oprah and Rihanna (both on Invisible Children’s “Culturemakers” list), as well as Kim Kardashian and P. Diddy, which only served to accelerate interest in the video.

Visual Variety

“No one wants a boring documentary on Africa… Maybe we have to make it pop, and we have to make it cool,” Jason Russell, the director and narrator, told The New York Times.

Motion graphics and a variation in editing style maintain interest over the course of the video, even if it didn’t create fans.

In a criticism of the video on the Huffington Post, college senior Patricia Vanderbilt wrote: “There’s a toddler! A dramatic voiceover! Shots of the earth from space, neat graphics, a catchy tune — even a couple of explosions make it in. The formula is working really well, but the approach is almost insulting and cheap.”

A Compelling Narrative

KONY 2012 is an expository documentary that employs a powerful and compelling narrative that resonates with viewers. Russell, also a co-founder of Invisible Children, uses a fundamental narrative based on the story of our generation and the influence of social media to mobilize action.

In addition, he uses the prime archetypes of good versus evil in his storytelling. In one scene, a newspaper headline states, “The World agrees Kony is the ‘Worst.’” There’s no mistake that Kony is packaged to be the ultimate enemy, comparing him to pictures of Hitler. In turn, this heightened image of him urges viewers to participate in the mission. When we simplify the characters into those terms, it is no longer just an ordinary mission, but it becomes a mission of our responsibility to capture THE baddest guy in the world.

As Alicia Eler has stated in Read Write Web, it’s a “classic narrative that America buys into and loves,” in which we follow the white American male who saves the poor and helpless, and becomes a hero that provides a safer and better future for children.

More than anything, this documentary is centered around Russell’s life, from the moment his son was born following his journey to meeting one of the children named Jacob in Uganda to discussing with government officials in the United States of his plan to arrest the Ugandan warlord.

In essence, he transformed his own personal story into a story of common humanity. “Nothing is more powerful than an idea,” the video states in the beginning. Stories can inspire, empower, and create change and his message is clear.

Though making a trendy video is what gets the message across, it also misleads the audience and doesn’t paint a complete picture, including the historical context of the political conflicts in Uganda, as has now been written about at length. However, we can learn that the video took off due this capability to communicate a convincing story and encourage the effective use of mobilization to promote justice and peace. In the end, the story that was conveyed was the key to spreading its message rapidly over social media.

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Anne Zhou
Anne Zhou
Anne Zhou is a Spring 2012 intern with POV Digital. She is a double major in media studies (documentary production concentration) and Chinese at CUNY Hunter College.
  • Softy001

    I was so happy to see Cutie And The Boxer get nominated. I haven’t been so moved by a documentary in a long time and the editing was butter smooth.

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