The rise and fall of Kony 2012

 Cynics call it clicktivism; believers say they can change the world. Natasha Smith asks how much further the Kony 2012 campaign can really stretch before it reaches its glass ceiling.

“We will turn this digital revolution into something more”. The words of San Diego-based charity Invisible Children (IC) in its latest video on the Kony 2012 campaign, ‘Part II: Beyond Famous’.  The question is, what is that “something more”? With global support already dwindling, how much more can this digital movement really achieve?

Only one month ago, the internet was swarming with links and references to the Kony 2012 campaign video. It landed more than 100m views in less than one week, becoming the most viral video of all time. Yet according to YouTube the second video, released last week, has barely exceeded 1.5 million views – despite winning round former critics with its more balanced, in-depth portrayal of the situation in central Africa.

“Clearly even a viral success (in large part spurred by controversy) does not translate into sustained online engagement or offline action”, said Katrin Verclas, co-founder of internet activist group Controversies thwarting the campaign so far include the public mental breakdown of the former President of IC Jason Russell, and reports in the Huffington Post that the charity has accepted funding from anti-gay Christian groups.

So, in the face of widespread criticism and controversy, just how much has Kony 2012 managed to achieve? The overwhelming global response to the campaign indicates it has fulfilled its primary objective of raising awareness of Joseph Kony and his crimes. “I’m very impressed with this worldwide effort”, said Jason Farr, Councillor of Hamilton, in Canada. “I hope it achieves what it intends to achieve: to make Kony famous.”

Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony is wanted by the ICC for abducting and conscripting children into his ranks as leader of rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and selling young girls as sex slaves. According to the BBC, the LRA is accused of the rape, mutilation and murder of thousands of civilians across central Africa. The group was active in Uganda until forced out due to international pressure in 2006. It has since been carrying out attacks in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan, which Invisible Children hopes to stop once and for all through global advocacy and awareness.

Value of awareness

On April 20, IC invites the world to ‘Cover the Night’, decorating the streets with imagery promoting the campaign. However, many remain critical, suggesting that such events will bring minimal long-term results. “Clicks and views do not equal action, and particular actions, like their “Cover the Night” event, do not equal the desired change,” said Kate Otto, founder of Everyday Ambassador, a group promoting global citizenship. “These things in fact can be a distraction that pushes us away from understanding the roots of the problem.”

Jedidiah Jenkins, Head of Ideas Development at Invisible Children, defended the value of spreading awareness. “That’s the challenge: awakening people to global empathy and then providing thoughtful action, steps, and tangible results,” Jenkins told me via Twitter. Invisible Children’s team at the University of Southern Indiana explained that organising local events helps spread “awareness and compassion”. “The more both are spread, the more we can affect action”, a group member tweeted to me.

TMS Ruge, the co-founder of Project Diaspora, a scheme to engage and mobilise young Africans to social action, disagrees. “I wish we wouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking awareness fixes problems”, he explained. “It doesn’t. Action, by the right actors – civil society and local government – does.”

Since the Kony 2012 campaign began, the international community has responded with increased efforts to bring Kony to justice. The African Union, in conjunction with the UN, has now committed a 5000-strong military force to capture Kony. In the US, senators and congressmen and women have put forward bi-partisan legislation to catch him. Additionally, the ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo has assured the public that Kony will be arrested in 2012, thanks to the global interest generated by the campaign.

The UK Foreign Office is supportive of these efforts. “Kony2012 has achieved its aim of raising awareness of Kony/LRA”, a spokesperson told me. “The AU, UN and US military effort is appropriate at present.”

But a whirlwind of scandals surrounding the campaign have also provoked widespread scepticism about Invisible Children’s ability to solve this problem. “They lack credibility among the press, NGO community, and African experts”, said Mary Joyce, founder of digital campaign group “If they retain credibility with their young American base that will allow them to mobilize in the US and to raise money, but it is unlikely to be enough to actually capture Kony.”

Kate Otto feels the charity should shift its efforts to target more achievable aims. “I wish that the IC team would leave conflict-resolution and development in Uganda to the professionals”, said Kate, “and instead form a socially-minded film company, applying their communication skills to issues like halting global warming or ending AIDS – issues that do require participation of the masses to achieve.”

Domino effect

Kony 2012 has fuelled media interest in another African war criminal:  Bosco Ntaganda. The Congolese army general and former rebel group leader was indicted by the ICC in 2006 for conscription of child soldiers and the rape, murder and mutilation of civilians allegedly carried out by his forces, but, according to Channel 4 News, has not yet been arrested due to fears of jeopardising a fragile peace agreement in the DRC. “Interestingly, the ICC is getting renewed attention, as well as other elusive war criminals under indictment – both by the public and lawmakers”, says Katrin. “So maybe the attention given to Kony 2012 is yielding something.”

However, with the Twitter hashtag #BoscoNtaganda2012 receiving far less attention than #Kony2012, the chance of copycat digital campaigns against other tyrants appears unlikely. “It was just a perfect storm of conditions that allowed the first video to go viral, and it would be hard to replicate”, said Matt Brown, Associate Director of Communications at the Enough Project – one organisation collaborating with IC on the campaign.

Digital activism has become increasingly powerful in its reach and potential to enact change. Recent examples include the online blackout held in protest against the SOPA/PIPA legislation in January, the online petition urging Florida police to arrest the killer of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin – which has secured more than two million signatures – and the Arab uprisings of 2011. However, with Kony 2012, digital activism may be receiving a reality check.

The fall in the campaign’s popularity could signal its demise, and ‘Cover the Night’ may prove to be its swansong. As new footage of Invisible Children’s Jedidiah Jenkins joking about keeping $900,000 of a $1m grant sweeps the internet, IC appear to be dangerously close to isolating former supporters through a barrage of irresponsible mistakes. Internet activism through social media has yielded spectacular results, yet resolving an African conflict that spans a quarter of a century is perhaps beyond the capacity of a relatively immature charity struggling to handle such unprecedented publicity. Kony 2012 has been phenomenal, but with popularity sliding, it seems doubtful that it will be either sustained, repeated, or that Kony will be caught in 2012 at all.

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