Exploring Konyism

Exploring Konyism

Chris Rose, May 2012  chris@campaignstrategy.co.uk

This blog explores the story, marketing, communications structure and wider issues surrounding the controversial Invisible Children ‘Stop Kony’ video released in March 2012.  It concludes that while it is almost impossible to say whether the video did more good than harm, campaigners should evaluate it as a movie, and a movie marketing exercise, not as a campaign.


A great deal has been written about the Invisible Children (IC) campaign video released earlier this year about Lords Resistance Army leader, Joseph Kony.  No doubt there are PhDs on the way, and books.  Kony’s top commander was recently captured, so it may all be back in the news again soon.

At the beginning of March, the record-breaking  Kony video obviously succeeded in attracting a huge online audience, way beyond the expectations of IC.   In so doing it brought attention, scrutiny, admiration and criticism to IC, and in particular to the film-maker Jason Russell.  He had put himself in the starring role in the video but became the story himself in a different way, when he was arrested for running around San Diego in his underpants and ‘masturbating in public’  on March 16.

IC runs a cultish project called the ‘Fourth Estate’ and is accused by some of links to right wing American evangelical efforts to introduce anti-gay policies in Uganda.  Some wonder if IC is whether it is using its skill and investment in producing charismatic, emotionally compelling videos aimed at impressionable young viewers, to extract funds and recruit supporters for a quite different agenda from the development-aid, and the benevolent helping of children, which it undoubtedly pursues.   This impression is reinforced by Russell’s own explanation to a Liberty University Convocation (an audience of young American evangelists), recorded on Youtube,:

“the trick is, to not go out into the world and say, ‘I’m going to baptise you, I’m going to convince [convict ?] you, I have an agenda to win you over.  Your agenda is to look into their eyes, as Jesus did, and say ‘who are you, and will you be my friend ?’”.

Is that what the Kony video was really all for ?  I don’t know but the threads and fingerprints of IC and its projects are all over the internet so there is plenty of scope for researchers to look into it.  The Kony2012 project though, put that tactic into practice in a way that would stand comparison with the most skilled propaganda.

Impressions of the Kony Video

You can view the video here  and read the transcript, here:

I’ve not made an exhaustive study of any of the aspects that are relevant to campaigns and the work of NGOs in general but for what it is worth, here are some of my impressions.

I’ve drawn on some email traffic on the ECF campaign list, used by people working on digital campaigns for NGOs, where there were extended debates about the pro’s and con’s of many aspects of the film, although I’ve removed reference to individuals or authorship except where people had already gone public with their thoughts.  Thanks to all those ECF-ers who wrote about  it.  There are links to some of the many online analyses of Kony2012 at the end of this piece.

The first email from an ECF member  that I saved on this read simply:

“KONY 2012 is a film and campaign by Invisible Children that aims to make Joseph Kony famous, not to celebrate him, but to raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice.

I thought you would like to see it. I think it’s one of the best campaign mobilization videos I’ve seen.


And if you can, help the campaign. It’s a good cause too.”

Given that it’s going to be hard to argue that the attention generated will not have played a part in efforts to capture him, my guess is that if Kony is finally caught or killed, then at least at the ‘top level’ the campaign will go down in history as a success.  Only if there is some very clear and equally simple negative reaction or side-effect, with attribution receiving equal attention, will it be seen otherwise.  It is possible though, that IC may itself inadvertently provide that.

What To Discuss ?

There are many aspects to the Kony 2012 campaign phenomenon, such as:

1. The structure of the film, including its audience targeting, the story format and how it worked  motivationally.

2. The spread or marketing of the film, especially online.

3. The offline, on the street actions called for on 20 April.

4. The wider context of human rights campaigning.

5. The nature of power, influence and the role of online mobilisation and attention.

6. The purpose: was it a campaign video or recruitment  for an evangelical group ?


1. The Structure of the Film

A lot has been written about this.   It undeniably ‘worked’ and so there’s a natural tendency to identify content factors which we think we know can help explain this.  A lot of the why-it-worked also has to do with what is off-screen, such as the ‘marketing’, including the role of supporters of IC and their communications strategy.  More of that later.

IC also got lucky: you or I could repeat a similar formula and many, many external factors could lead to a different result.  As you can’t control those factors, or even necessarily identify them, one has to take care not to spend too long seeking to identify a magic formula, which doesn’t exist.  On the other hand, the researched and tested, and tried and tested factors, are worth identifying.

The film starts with an emotional ramp up that signifies to Facebook users that they are important because online is powerful and you are part of it.  It flatters the anticipated audience.  In effect it says “I like you, you are important”, which will trigger the Liking Heuristic (see last Campaign Strategy Newsletter for heuristics).  It implies that this is a film by people who are like you (Facebook users), for people like you (so triggering the Similarity Heuristic).

So the film undoubtedly ‘starts from where the audience is’.  As one ECF film maker commented:

“In my opinion the film takes the viewer in because the story starts very close to the daily life of the audience. right at the beginning it even talks about the very situation most viewers are in, right the moment of watching, which is “being on facebook”.  This way the content of the story is very relevant to most viewers – which makes them keep watching.” 

later on then the directors use common dramaturgical means of suspense to make people keep watching: they keep a little secret viewers want to know. in this case the secret is: how are they planning to stop kony? what is it that I can do to help? they don’t tell the viewers until the end. every thriller works like that.”

The video opens by informing us that nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come, and that time is ‘now’.

Near the start, sweeping the viewer in from space over the night-time lights of North America, it announces:

“Right now there are more people on Facebook, than there were on the planet 200 years ago”.

That’s us.

Over pictures of parents and children greeting and hugging each other it states:

“Humanity’s greatest desire is to belong and connect” and in a sentiment that is repeated over and over again which echoes the look-me-in-the-eye and be-my-friend evangelism,  “ And now we see each other, we hear each other…”

This is straight in under the emotional radar: for example in CDSM’s (www.cultdyn.co.uk) values surveys in the UK, ‘Being A Parent’ is the no.1 identity factor.  Almost any viewer but especially children and young people still dependent on their parents, will feel this is true.

Social media users are shown connecting, face to face, online: “Grandpa, I love you” says a little girl “I love you”.   “Why won’t it take a picture?” asks the grandmother figure:  the take-out is that the old can’t do this, the young can. You can: this is your idea, your time has come.

[narrator] “We share what we love, and it reminds us what we all have in common” – on Youtube we see foreign rescue workers holding aloft a beaming little black boy in Haiti, plucked from earthquake wreckage. “Dug out alive and well after 7½ days” says CNN.  We are being primed for what is to come: North Americans will rescue African children.

A little American boy shouts to the camera  “If you believe in yourself, you will know how to ride a bike! Rock and roll!”  We can do this stuff: more priming.   The emotional intensity increases as we see a girl crying with delight at getting connected to the internet.  “It’s exciting” a woman confirms.

Back to space looking down on the planet, the narrator intones: “and this connection is changing the way the world works”.   We see the Arab Spring, twitter,

“Governments are trying to keep up… “

“Now we can taste the freedom. [crowd shouting]”

“[narrator] and older generations are concerned”.

“Many people are very concerned about tomorrow” [tv presenters and old politicians saying so]. “They could get worse next year”.

Back to the God position hovering over the earth:

“ [narrator] The game has new rules.”

And now as a digital clock runs rapidly down, the narrator explains that “the next 27 minutes are an experiment. But in order for it to work, you have to pay attention.”

As he says: “pay attention” a series of images flash past much too fast to pay attention to, although they do include running figures and the IC’s bizarre red inverted triangle which later symbolizes the new power paradigm.

Our Promise

So the video makes a promise: that you are going to be able to do something good and great with your power.  It will explain how.  If you give 27 minutes.  It’s a deal, an exchange (triggering the Exchange Heuristic – I do something for you, so you will do something for me).  And if you keep watching at this point, you have committed to that exchange – you are ‘in’.  The Commitment Heuristic: this means that we tend to develop opinions consistent with our behaviour, and that we tend to go on doing something once we have started.  Later the film will deploy to Confirmation Heuristic again, by asking you to share the video.

There’s been a lot of discussion about the length: conventionally 27 minutes is ‘too long’, in fact much too long.  Lots of NGOs and others have measured responses to online videos of different lengths and seen a dramatic fall-off as pieces get longer.

One ECF member wrote:

“The major lesson I take away is actually nothing to do with slick websites and beautiful videos, but that:

– attention spans for online content are about 17x longer than we thought;

– the Kony video shares and justifies on detail the strategy and theory of change behind the actions, including Facebook sharing — we don’t do nearly enough, not nearly enough, of that in most of our campaigns;

– we should give our constituencies far more credit for their attention to strategy, and explain to them from the beginning of a campaign the higher barrier asks we will make later” 

But is this true in this case ?  How many people leave a cinema because the movie is too long.  Probably only if the movie is really bad.  It is also much easier to leave if you are on your own but mostly we go with friends.  Here the movie makes you feel you are not alone – it’s already done that – you are part of Facebook, a new, young generation.  I also agree with the ECF-er who wrote:

‘The meta-message in the length is “I am confident that this is important”, it is unashamedly grand and ambitious in its aims’

For this young, mainly female audience, Kony2012 is probably the first and only time they’ve engaged with a ‘human rights’ issue.  So the ‘too long’ effect which plays strongly amongst audiences considering a ‘repeat action’, may have much less effect.  And the gamble of the movie is that this is a special moment for you, and the intended audience actually does have more time, fewer responsibilities than say their parents, and spends ages online.  The intention is that they will have been asked to look at it by a friend.  So they’ll want to say they have, and are likely to even if they skip to the action, which is first and foremost to pass it on.  Which lots did.  Very few took any ‘higher barrier’ actions.

Above all, this is not a campaign video in the sense that most campaigners imagine.  It is not trying to explain how to make a difference to ‘an issue’.  It’s an entertainment, a morality play, more like a video game or an adventure movie, and perhaps, one which seeks to make us all missionaries in the guise of going on a human rights mission.

Having established that you, the viewer, are both good and important, the film next shows the joyous birth of a baby.  This is a huge emotional trigger for any women watching but also for men.    For young women and teenage girls, it touches a massive aspiration.  The baby is of course innocent, blameless and an ideal way to remind the audience that human beings deserve sympathy.

As it turns out that this child is the narrators’ son Gavin.  We start to like the narrator: more alignment.   The narrator and the little boy he has grown into, then populate the story, along with Jacob, a former victim of Kony’s who we are introduced to through the lens of Facebook (reinforcing the importance of this channel), and his relationship with the author, a story within the story.

Gavin acts to exonerate the viewer from their ignorance because he personifies it.  He’s good an innocent and so he makes it ok to be ignorant.  He hasn’t heard of Kony but he gets to find out.  He doesn’t know any history but that doesn’t matter.  He later reconfirms the logic – you can solve the problem because you can now recognize Kony.

The Plight of Jacob

We see a version of Jacob’s plight through his testimony – faces and real voices, not arguments or issues – and are reminded that this would not happen or be tolerated in the US.  Clearly, the audience for the Kony film is taken to be American, just as in Hollywood movies designed for worldwide distribution but often market tested to ‘fit’ the US as the most important single part of the market,  and sometimes only tested in California, or even Southern California.  IC is based in San Diego.  We feel good as Americans and primed to extend that goodness to Ugandans.

This is reinforced when Jacob tells us his dream was to become a lawyer – something we can identify with.   But now he’d rather die and be in heaven (a Christian ‘like us’) because of his plight and fear of Kony, as he won’t ever get to school: something which ‘we’ the audience take for granted.  By now we are flattered and a bit excited and a bit guilty and apprehensive.

The Inciting Incident

Jason Russell, the film-maker, makes Jacob a promise. This,  fairy-tale wise, is the inciting incident.  You are now in the morality play of the fairy tale format.  Your role and the rest of the campaign flows from this promise.  “We are going to stop them”.

The film flashes back through nine years of the IC campaign and lets us know that this is the year – it signals “why now”.  It creates urgency and a time limited opportunity:  ‘time is running out’, we are going to ‘change the course of human history’.  Dramatically, as in a movie sending a heroic protagonist on a mission, with a video message “that will self-destruct in twenty seconds”, Jason Russell lets us know that “this movie expires on 31 December 2012”.  If that seems familiar, it’s intended to be.  Russell himself likens IC to Pixar.

Golden Dreams

We are not joining a long struggle or a long campaign. We are not, as it will say later, having to study history, we ‘are changing it’.

This is classic Golden Dreamer content (see guide to Prospector Values Modes at www.campaignstrategy.org ): we will gain the esteem of others with one simple easy act.  Many of the young, mostly female audience, will share exactly these values.  For them things are not all connected or joined up (Pioneer thinking, typical of human rights professionals and supporters).   Many criticisms of the film focus on its incompleteness but for this audience, that would be simply irrelevant.

In the Golden Dreamer world, there are discrete, immediately actionable opportunities with no strings attached.  This is one.  It plays to Prospector (Outer Directed) values.   Don’t ask how campaigns work in order to evaluate this video – ask how spam works.  Spam works because some people are persuaded not that the offers are probably true but they hope that they could be true.  One of my favourite offers being “Get A Degree Without All the Bothersome Studying”.

The film indicates who “you” are with a mosaic shot of grainy self-portraits drawn from something like facebook: mainly young, almost all female.  This means me but I won’t be alone (implicit recommendation, reassurance, important for Prospectors, especially Golden Dreamers).

The narrator explains that he will show us exactly how this change is going to come about. We see  a burst of activism such as putting up posters: quick, uncomplicated, social.

The Proposition

Next we start to establish the elements of the campaign Proposition.  We already have a victim and a villain; now we establish the action that can lead to the solution. (See RASPB proposition).  It’s so simple a child could understand it, so young Gavin gets the task.   An innocent (like the audience) he’s never heard of Kony and the capturing of children.  His reference point for ‘bad guys’ is “Star Wars”.   He quickly identifies the required result – stop Kony.

Gavin is spared the details but the audience gets to know that Kony is wholly bad because he enslaves young girls for sex, turns boys into soldiers who are forced to kill their parents – surely one of the worst things the youthful audience can imagine – and mutilates people.  He’s interested only in power: “he is not fighting for any cause, but only to maintain his power”. It helps that nobody likes him: “He is not supported by anyone”.

It’s not quite the sum of all fears but we have established that force would be justified.  Kony is one dimensionally bad, as in a fairy tale or Hollywood fantasy movie.  There will be no complexities to introduce doubt or awkward and hard to resolve dilemmas.  This is all communication in Daniel Kahneman’s ‘System 1’, the easy, intuitive way, not System 2 which he calls ‘effortful’ and requires analysis.  [Many of the criticisms of the video for example focus on whether Kony is actually the worst, and he’s certainly not the only perpetrator of murder and abduction in the region].

Just at the point where we might possibly question the analysis, an authority figure from the International Criminal Court appears and explains that of all the bad people, Kony is number one on the list.  The ‘only way to stop him’ is to show he is going to be arrested.  The problem is that people don’t know who he is, and therefore there’s a deficit of political will, so the deficit to be made up is public attention.  This becomes the difference we are going to make: our vision.  The problem is so defined that it fits our means to solve it: we, the networked audience, have the means and the motivation.  We feel agency.  The jigsaw pieces of problem and solution fit together.

Ugandan politicians appear on screen and endorse such a mission.  We learn that back home, IC visits to Washington DC have confirmed the parameters of the problem.  The audience are let in on the mechanics from a political insiders viewpoint, and so, why their intervention can work – values expectancy.  Politicians explain that although the US could do something about this, it won’t unless there’s enough public opinion for it.  The solution lies in our hands.


We are beginning to see that the three elements required for the three-legged stool of feasibility are in place [1]: an objective matched by activities and by resources.   Not only should this be done, it can be done.  It’s not a tragedy but a scandal that it isn’t being done [2].

IC explain that they’ve already tried.  They got ‘loud and creative’ and lots of young people like you demanded action.  They are pictured: the Social Proof Heuristic, lots of others are doing this too, and (Similarity, Liking) they are like you.   Kony moved out of Uganda into another country (here the film manages to skip over a potential problem of logic), and the Ugandans called for American help.  IC gets results: you would be getting onside with a credible operator.

We see IC’s good works (donate) in building schools and giving hope to victims.  All funded by young people using their own meagre resources: more flattery.  They begin to make the invisible, the unseen, visible.  Cue upbeat Mumford Brothers music (the Bros come from an evangelical family).

More pressure as IC meets DC politicians one by one and then a breakthrough moment as Obama sends US Military Advisers to help the hunt.   It’s another Hollywood format of good guys (ours) and bad guys, and the chances of us becoming the heroes of the hour are increasing by the minute.  The goal looks more achievable, the odds shorten in our favour.

Yet (and here the film could maybe do with a bit more editing) it all hangs in the balance.  Sen Inhofe reminds us that people forget.   It’s got to be 2012.  Sombre music and the lessons of history, pictures of Hitler and other bad people.  “We cared but we didn’t know what to do”.  The audience is unrelentingly painted in a positive light.  Simple stuff, easily verified by the audience’s own experience – until this moment most hadn’t heard of Kony and wouldn’t, indeed, have known what to do.  Even if that doesn’t quite tally with historical reality, such as why it took so long for America to go to war against Hitler, now we will know what to do.

Our Mission

Anyway, this isn’t a history lesson.  ‘We need to start somewhere and this is it’, with Joseph Kony.  Such a ‘beating-complexity’ offer is classically motivating to a Prospector audience.  21 minutes into the 27 minute film the narrator announces at last that we have a game plan, and asks if we are “ready”.  He signals that we are entering the final act.  This part of the quest is our mission.

Now we see that even Gavin could do what’s required.

Jason Russell: “Here’s the biggest problem. Do you want to know what it is?”

Gavin “Yeah”.

Russell: “Nobody knows who he is”.

Gavin: “But I know who he is because I see him on this picture right now”.

So that’s all you have to do – see the bad guy.

Next, the film provides us with a why-it-will-work causation, a critical path which shows how our role will make the difference.   The players we have been introduced to are brought together.   The military has to find Kony.  To do that they need technology and training.  The US Advisers will only stay if the US Government wants them to.  If they are not to ‘cancel the mission’ the ‘people must know’.  That will only happen if his name is everywhere. (Cue uplifting music).  This is (again) the dream (newspaper headline about Kony captured).  Young people: “I know who he is, I see him”.  Repetition of simple call and action.

Here’s the script of this sequence:

“because now we know what to do.

Here it is. Ready?

In order for Kony to be arrested this year,

the Ugandan military has to find him.

In order to find him, they need the technology and training to track him in the vast jungle.

That’s where the American advisors come in.

But in order for the American advisors to be there,

the US government has to deploy them.

They’ve done that, but if the government doesn’t believe the people care about arresting Kony, the mission will be cancelled.

In order for the people to care, they have to know.

And they will only know if Kony’s name is everywhere”.

It’s beautifully done. It has the reassuringly childlike rhythm of a nursery rhyme reprise like ‘The Spider Who Swallowed A Fly’.  It bring certainty, causation, and people like that.

Next comes the “here’s how”, in the style of how-to-use-a feature of Google video.  Posters will show 20 “culture makers” and “12 policy makers”.  A doable few to contact.  Celebrities, billionaires – people in the twitter world.  George Clooney, who has already been interviewed, says we will shine a light and make Kony as famous as him.


It’s a barn-raising feel good vision, the community coming together and setting aside differences.  The Democrat Donkey and the Republican Elephant symbolically meet on screen generating a dove symbol where they overlap.  A politico explains that just twenty-five phone calls on a topic are enough for it to be “noted” in the office of an American politician.  Your route to power is open.

An artist explains that lots of people feel powerless – more self-recognition – but its been made easy and “demystified”.  The audience is reassured that they don’t ever had to have done anything like this before and it does not matter that they’ve never thought about it before.  25th minute.

Fortunately, the tools for changing the course of history will be everyday ones: ‘yard stickers, posters, fliers’.  An Action Kit offers a bracelet, one for you and one for a friend, each with a unique tag id to enter at the website.  It will all culminate on 20 April when overnight, the world will be changed (‘cover the night’ – a cultural reference that escaped me ?).  Next day people ‘all over the world’ will wake up and see Kony’s name on ‘every’ street corner.  It is visualised.  Reprise of the world changing power of Facebook, which is a ‘global community’.

Finally, (a) sign the pledge (2) wear the bracelet (3) donate … but “above all” share this video.  Confirmation.

And share they did.  The rest is history, at least the history of social media.

In structure the film is a story and a story of a story, with a quest and obstacles to surmount, like any fairy tale.  It turns out we are invited to join in at the last stage, to help overcome the final obstacle, through actions which we know we can do, and which we now know, can work.  Complexities and esoteric knowledge (issues) have been rendered irrelevant by use of personification and symbols and frames that we already understand and recognize from movies.   There is going to be an outpouring of good action from people who, we have seen, are just like us.  We are about to do something great.  And we can do that immediately, using Facebook.

Facebook implicitly helps supply the reason why this can work: it is new, it’s made the world work differently, we are not bound by the means of the past, so it makes sense that we can now make history.  A self-validating proposition.

2. The Spread or Marketing of the Film

There were at least two important audiences for the film.  One was the uninitiated mass that the authors must have hoped to attract to provide numbers, contagion and signs of activity, and to whom the video is addressed.  The other was IC’s existing supporters, some of who would have been involved in the events shown in the video, which is perhaps why that part was reprised at such length.  These people were the vital ready-motivated instigators of networking.

Subsequent analysis by Social Flow found:

  • Having pre-existing networks in place helped the initial spread of their message. Our data shows dense clusters of activity that were essential to the message’s spread: networks of youth that Invisible Children had been cultivating across the US for years. When Invisible Children wanted to promote this video, deploying the grass-roots support of these groups was essential.
  • Attention philanthropy tactics activated celebrity accounts and drew substantial visibility. Invisible Children enlisted the help of their supporters in barraging celebrities to come out in support of the campaign, making it incredibly easy to Tweet at Taylor Swift or Rihanna within two clicks. Once celebrities came on board, the campaign was given multiple boosts. 

Where Facebook was important for establishing networks, twitter was the way that the campaign could focus attention on the conversation.   Social Flow reported that ‘#StopKony had 12,000 tweets per ten minutes at the height of the events’.  Far from being a ‘global Facebook community’, the pre-existing highly connected networks were centred on IC’s main organisers and campaign followers, with major nodes in Birmingham Alabama, Pittsburgh, Oklahoma City and Noblesville Indiana.  The Twitter hashtag #StopKony started trending in Alabama almost a week before the video was released.  Members of Christian student groups seem to have been amongst the most active twitter users.

Some of the celebrities whose faces featured in the video and on the IC website received tens of thousands of requests to tweet the campaign, and nine did, resulting in amplification of unprecedented proportions.   At least some of the celebrities actually viewed the video, which itself was credited as having the largest rapidly acquired viewership of all time (over 100m views in six days), and presumably found it persuasive enough to support.  You can think of a variety of reasons why.

A Talking Point

What must have then added to its political significance, although it is harder to analyse, was that the Kony video phenomenon itself became a major talking point amongst communicators, politicians, campaigners and decision makers interested in social media.  It rapidly became a thing to have an opinion about, amongst a much greater number of people than those who had watched it.  For many of these people, it triggered questions:  was it really the right thing to have done, could you identify why it worked, was it really effective, would it do more good than harm, did it call into doubt the effectiveness of their own campaigns, was it right that media and political attention could be affected in this way ?  And more besides.  Many of these questions were hard to answer and so it created hard-to-resolve dilemmas, which meant the conversations continued, passing what John Scott called “the chip shop queue test” [3].

The Usual Suspects

In this respect the buzz around the stop Kony video was like a classic movie marketing technique: get people to talk about it, and ask questions which demand viewing the movie.  It reminded me of the legend created around the film The Usual Suspects, a movie in which the audience is left hanging until the last minute to discover the identity of the villain Keyser Söze.  As Wikipedia notes:

Gramercy Pictures ran a pre-release promotion and advertising campaign before The Usual Suspects opened in the summer of 1995. Word of mouth marketing was used to advertise the film, and buses and billboards were plastered with the simple question, “Who is Keyser Söze?”[19]

In that case the audience conspired in not letting on to friends or relatives, as to the identity of the mysterious Soze.  In Kony’s case, we all knew his name but without ‘finding out’ about the video, we still didn’t know who he was.  In both cases friends passed on a recommendation to watch – a much more effective messenger than an organisation.

Social media also enabled supposed viewers to share the video without having to watch it, and to tweet the campaign without doing anything more.   For example the Irish-born British comedian Jimmy Carr re-tweeted it to 1.9 million followers without having watched the video.  This enabled the rapid spread and the feeling, no doubt verified by doing it together and doing it online and doing it now on Facebook, that this was huge and historic event.  Such a ‘happening’ is a classic attraction to the Prospector Values Modes Now People and  Golden Dreamers, who will also make up a large proportion of the younger demographic targeted by the video and campaign.  It does not make them ‘stayers’ – until at least, the next time – any more than watching a movie does.  Though it might make them candidates for a sequel and prequel.

Once the video became newsworthy because of the scale of response, conventional TV news and print would have brought it to the attention of millions of parents, if they hadn’t already heard about it first hand from their children, or via other parents.  This would have created a slightly longer burning conversation, as they struggled to work out not just ‘Who is Joseph Kony ?’ but ‘what’s this have to do with our kids ?’.

For all these groups, the video created a ‘social object’, a thing to have a conversation around, to debate or discuss.   The term seems to have been borne out of social media or at least has found currency there.  As one blogger explains:

The most important asset you can have in a social media marketing program is something worth talking about – not a “message” to listen to, read or watch. There are no markets for messages … Social networks form around social objects, not the other way around. The value of a social object is that they are transactional – they facilitate exchanges among people who encounter them. People see or hear a social object (like a juicy piece of gossip, a cute animal video) and immediately want to share it with their friends who they believe will also find it interesting, useful or entertaining. But the point of a social object is not simply to have something to share; it becomes the centerpiece of a dialogue between people.

The Kony video succeeded in being a social object in multiple ways, from being tweeted and retweeted and watched and Facebooked, to being denounced and analysed and becoming the subject of seminars and debates.

3. The Offline, On the Street Actions Called for on 20 April

Not much happened on 20 April and ‘Cover the Night’.  It was widely reported as a ‘flop’.

Weeks later, in May an ECFer wrote:

Amusingly, I spotted my first (and only) bit of real-world Kony stuff  this weekend: ‘Kony 2012’ spray-painted on the side of a public loo  round the back of the coastguard station in my little town in south  Wales. Take it to the corridors of power, kids! (While vandalising your  local services.)

Another wrote:


I’m in Melbourne, Australia, and despite a huge ramp up (facebook event with 20 000 attendees etc which is reflective of a large event in oz) apparently a small handful of folk gathered and I saw a sprinkling of posters around town later that night. And a few down the coast the next day.

I grabbed one to have a look at it and was quite surprised there was no call to action or url – seems remarkably arrogant to me.

Also, in my view a truly global action wouldn’t be using symbology mainly relevant to the United States.

And a third:

I saw the posters in Canada and the message wasn’t clear and there was no call to action or url on the poster (it had the word KONY and a donkey and elephant with stars and strips). If you didn’t know anything about KONY then you would not get the poster message at all. There seemed to have been a bit of postering in University areas but that is it. Overall the offline action was very weak compared to the online interest in the video.

A fourth:


I was in DC on the actual night and saw a very small number of posters in the more studenty areas. Some chalk writing.

A fifth:


I saw a single poster on a light post just outside one of the main entrances to the UN HQ in New York.  No chalking.  No evidence of other posters in the vicinity.

I got the emails – they sent 5 that week. This is the last one: 

“MISSION #5: Cover the Night is happening all over the world. Right now.

Here’s the game plan:

  1. 1.       Watch the Congo / Uganda  Cover the Night launch video.
  2. 2.       Wear your KONY 2012 shirt all day. Make one if you don’t already have one.
  3. 3.       Serve your community. The human connection extends around the globe, but starts across the street. So do some good in your neighborhood.
  4. 4.       Hit the streets to promote justice for Joseph Kony. Keep it legal, and be creative.  Vandalism only hurts the cause – and that’s the last thing we want to do.  Cover the Night is about global justice, local service, and proving that the liberty of all people is bound together.

We want to see you and your team in action. Send photos and videos to ctn@ invisiblechildren.com. We’ll be sharing everything on kony2012.com all day.

Check back in at kony2012.com tomorrow to get a glimpse at what’s next for the campaign.

Now get out there and Cover the Night.

Over and out.”

Hubris or desperation, or maybe self-delusion ?  Who knows.  Many much duller campaigns have failed to turn high concept propositions into a matching reality, for example let’s all switch-off-our-lights-tonight (Earth Hour www.earthhour.org ) is only kept alive by established organisations channelling-in resources.

If you believe the current IC website, although its budget runs to some $14m, the organisation never allocated the resources to facilitate a poster on every street corner, even in California, let along ‘worldwide’.  It explains (May 17):

As a result of the widespread attention to our film, the amount of customer service inquiries that we are receiving has reached incredible proportions. Prior to the release of KONY 2012, the customer service department was one person. Former interns have answered our call for help and are now volunteering their time in our San Diego office, helping us answer your questions as quickly and accurately as possible. Please know that we are only human, and we might not get to your request right away. Your patience and understanding throughout this process is so appreciated, and we are truly doing our best to handle your requests as quickly as possible.

We are truly humbled by all the support and we cannot thank you enough for all that you are doing to help end this conflict. Seriously, thank you

So even if the project actually had rather more staff than one to do the ‘fulfilment’,  even the most logistically naieve film making storytellers must have realised that the Action Pack and putative street actions were there to facilitate a vision, not a reality.  They helped make a compelling story.   They weren’t really anticipating that they’d run a ‘movement’, and supply an army of Kony campaigners.   (Apparently their ‘dream’ was to get 500,000 viewers in 2013).


To create a physical presence on anything like the scale of a viral video, requires big organisation.  As campaigner Tzeporah Berman recorded in her autobiography This Crazy Time, when she targeted ‘Victoria’s Secret’ over old forest timber used in its lingerie catalogue, the company was printing a million catalogues a day.  North Americans read an awful lot of lingerie catalogues – they printed 400m a year.  Now that’s scale, even if they weren’t trying to ‘change history’.    In 2008 Obama had 400 teams in the state of Missouri alone, each supervised by paid staff, each team covering up to a dozen voting precincts and starting work weeks or months before the election.

Kony 2012 was the equivalent of a much talked about tv special or a movie, not a campaign to stay.  The fact that it caught light online and became the most watched online viral video within about three days, also meant that it burnt out as a mobilisation.  It exhausted the fuel of college students with something new to talk about in tweets and shares and likes:  after a huge spike from March 5 – 7, the tweets, as one commentator put it, had ‘flatlined’ by April.

So by the time the great day arrived  on 20 April, those who wanted to get the latest buzz had buzzed off, rather as happened with ‘Occupy’, only because that drew on more old fashioned networks and groups with a real life base which worked more slowly and in many cases were already people with a long-term view (in values terms mostly Pioneers) or a real-life direct connection to the problem, it was all, by comparison, slow-motion.

The stock of ‘Action Kits’ apparently sold out but that’s probably not very relevant.  Even if they had been available, the attention had moved on.  By inviting a single-action of ‘sharing this video’, the Kony campaign had enjoyed the fruits and the consequences of ‘single action bias’.  This is much bemoaned by campaigners who want people to do a lot but step up and step out to a bigger picture and you can see that the Kony singularity illustrates why that is not always such a bad thing.

There was no real prospect that the 80 million or the 100 million viewers would become committed ‘stayers’ and delve into the why’s and wherefore’s of a complex issue, as most human rights groups do, and as they ask of their supporters.  This is why such a group typically has 80 – 90% Pioneer paid-up embedded supporters (who are intrigued by complexity), and only 5 or 10% Prospectors (who don’t like complexity).

You only need look at the comparators to see that the Kony video did not mobilise or engage the sort of psycho-demographic engaged with ‘issues’.  Social Flow noted that it’s 100 million views YouTube in only six days was the fastest campaign ‘after Susan Boyle did it in 9, and Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance took 18 days… the video was heavily viewed from mobile phones and is most popular with 13-17 year old females and 18-24 year old males’.  These mainly young Prospector Now People and Golden Dreamers can be organised to keep with a campaign or an issue but it requires a regular supply of exciting new events: the next big thing.  IC couldn’t create that, although it may have aspired to eventually recruit them into a project like ‘The Fourth Estate’ camps.

The campaign question is not whether they should have been asked to commit and stay for the long term but whether engaging them this way helped do anything fundamentally useful, and what it may show about the future.

On 16 March Russell was arrested after suffering some sort of mental breakdown and running about in his underwear in the middle of Sand Diego.  This made the story all the more interesting to commentators and must have put a spanner in the works inside IC, and no doubt affected its organisers.  It would also have alarmed some who had initially supported the project (especially esteem sensitive Prospectors) but it is doubtful that it really made much difference.  By that time the video-fed online conversation had already dissipated.  That perhaps left a core support that could be relied upon (some US Evangelical Churches ?), which while big enough to help launch the video, was far too small to sustain a physical global manifestation.

In campaign planning terms, one technical answer to this is to say that the timing of the video should have been set so that the peak of response coincided with some critical decision, where the pressure of manifest opinion was most needed.  April 20th seems (?) to have been an arbitrary date.  In reality IC may have had no idea of what would happen, and so no such planning was done, or could have been done.   If the purpose was really just to create attention and a pool from which to recruit followers for IC’s projects, perhaps that did not matter.

4. The Wider Context of Human Rights Campaigning

The Kony event obviously has all sorts of significance for Human Rights, or perhaps, Human Benevolence campaigning.  The essential tactics, the emotional levers and cues used in the video are exactly those used by almost every human rights campaign, to one degree or another.  I have seen videos which were far more ‘extreme’ in their use of emotion than the Kony film, and in one case helped persuade a rather respectable NGO to drop a project after it had spent a large sum creating a ‘shock’ video.

Many of the welter of criticisms levelled at the Kony movie by other campaigners, were less about any misrepresentation of Kony’s crimes – they are undoubted and the film even received public stonings in Uganda for not showing the reality of them – but for taking up emotional space and political attention that could have been better deployed elsewhere.

Such criticisms can always be made but are often hollow.  Unless IC made a habit of this, and was able to keep ‘doing a Kony’, it is unrealistic to argue that the attention could have been better focused elsewhere.   Without the luck, which is not available on demand, and without the ingredients of the movie (which preclude trying to deploy the tactics against more complex targets and stories, and on more cynical audiences for example)  there would have been no attention available to focus elsewhere.

So what benefit has this blip of all blips created ?  For one thing, it briefly put concern about human rights, or care for our fellow human beings, at the top of political and news agendas because it was at the top of the public attention agenda as measured by social media.  For another, it engaged a whole new generation in such concerns.

As one blogger put it:

Kony2012 may be late, it may take rather too paternalist a tone and it may not fully understand how the history and politics of the region could bite those who take it seriously on the behind, but it is a good thing. Any campaign that can make middle-class Westerners care about Africans in countries they can’t locate on a globe has to be.

Especially, as most of those who engaged were young.  The main benefit may be then, that it has sensitized a youthful audience to human rights abuses for the first time, and, that it has shown American political classes that such causes are not just supported by the ‘usual suspects’ (ie organised ‘progressives’).

Any Human Rights organisation could now go back to that base of tens of millions, especially in the United States, and remind them that they were there, they signed up by tweeting Kony.   The ‘Consistency Heuristic’ means that they are then more likely to undertake a similar action.   That will be enhanced if and when Kony gets brought to book, and people want to feel that they can take some of the credit for that.  Presumably only IC owns the list but as Kony is now a cultural reference point, that problem is not insurmountable.

The other main criticisms levelled at the film concern what difference it has actually made, good and bad, in Africa.  Here there are friends and detractors on all sides, amongst NGOs, amongst Africans and non Africans, and amongst African politicians.  (See links at the end of this piece).

There seems no doubt that IC will continue its operations to collect evidence of abductions and aid the process of ‘hunting down’ Joseph Kony: see for example it’s ‘tracker’ of recent sightings and events in the region.

5. The Nature of Power, Influence and the Role of Online Mobilisation and Attention

I’m not sure that the Kony video really shows anything completely new about power, influence and mobilisation.  The video’s claim that the world is fundamentally different because of online – the Facebook world – may work for an audience in thrall of the story but is belied by the role of pre-existing networks and the very limited follow through.

The 27 minute attention span was devoted not to ‘campaign issues’ but to an immersive, ego feeding emotional movie.  The audience was not analysing a range of political options or sampling the news, a context in which reports and asks and offers have got ever shorter but experiencing an filmic event, more like a blockbuster movie or new video game, things which have been getting longer.

Kony 2012 does raise interesting and, for democracy, important questions about the relationship between mass online expressions of opinion aimed at twitter celebrities, and their consequent use of attention-directing power towards political ends.  The relationship between culture makers as it called them, and decision makers.  That is not new but in this case it happened more overtly, obviously and on a bigger scale than ever before.


The Kony video may have recalibrated expectations about what public concern looks like online.  That may work for, or against the interests of campaign groups who try similar exercises in calling on supporters to get ‘culture makers’ to amplify their ‘messages’ in the form of attention to ‘social objects’ like a video.

Purely from their age, their use of Facebook and Twitter and mobiles, and the nature of their attention (short lived, episodic) and the match to the offer of the video (instant, sensational, power-getting, while looking good and having a good time), the audience does look primarily young and Outer Directed (Prospectors).  These are not people normally engaged by ‘human rights’ campaigns, with their ethical framing.  Indeed they are attracted, in the case of Golden Dreamers, to getting power (and material wealth), which is usually opposed  to universalism and the values around it.

The content of the video is entirely consistent with that: power is not distributed to ordinary Ugandans or any one else, it is acquired by ‘us’ the Kony campaign actors, and directed through an army, including the US Army, shown complete with flag.

IC itself appears to be an organisation heavy with ‘Golden Dreamer’ values.  Esteem-seeking to the point of narcissism, and perhaps ready to use almost any method to get what it wants, so long as it is inside whatever rules apply.   It looks like a power-seeking organisation, paradoxically working in a universalist field.  This in itself is a change to the usual politics of the human rights field.

So one thing that Kony 2012 did do, is to demonstrate what can happen when young, time-rich, mainly Outer Directed audiences connect with the world of campaigns and politics.  Normally they may be taking very similar actions to do with movies or music events but this time it was not the latest Lady Gaga moment but a human rights ‘campaign’ that they swarmed to.


One of the values Attributes measured by CDSM on which Golden Dreamers score highly is ‘Distracted’.  Here’s the description:

Distracted:  These people are open to seeing things that are not necessarily really there and enjoy being able to escape into the world of make-believe. They want something but do not know what it is and sometimes they find it hard to tell where daydreams end and reality begins.

In other words, they are not too bothered about the difference between fantasy and reality, or whether or not a movie is ‘true’.   This is the mindset which sees nothing wrong in adjusting history in an ‘historical’ Hollywood movie, to make a better story [4], with ‘better’ defined by pleasing the audience.

Here’s Power:

These people need to be on the top of the heap. They have a strong sense that they know better than others. Money and expensive things demonstrate their qualification to lead.

Here’s some more that are also shared by the ‘Now People’ Prospectors –


People who are aware of their persona tend to think that it is better to work out their own values and beliefs. They seek to stand out in a group through their dress sense or the way that they talk. They choose products that match their personality.


For these people, it’s important to do things that give them pleasure. They seek every chance they can to have fun

Achievement (Visible Ability + Visible Success):

These people look for visible opportunities to demonstrate their abilities and success. What they value most is the opportunity to impress others and to be admired

Apply these motivating factors to what a young middle class American evangelist might do about abducted children in Africa, and you get a very different emotional logic to that of many other campaigners.  From that perspective IC’s activities and Kony2012 make perfect sense.

The African writer (and critic of IC) Tms Ruge commented:

“They are not selling justice, democracy or restoration of anyone’s dignity. This is a self-aware machine that must continually find a reason to be relevant.”

So campaigners should be careful about what lessons they draw from the Kony video because the motivational values of the audience it attracted, and quite probably the film makers, may be very different from their own.  In this case the Golden Dreamers engaged in a ‘campaign’ and experienced a brief shared rush of power, being there ‘in the moment’.  As Pat Dade of CDSM has shown, this is the self-same reflex which in other circumstances fed the London riots:  the buzz, the excitement, the short-cut to a big result.

6. The Purpose: Campaign Video or Evangelical Recruitment ?

On 15 March, British TV presenter Charlie Brooker showed part of the Kony film on the programme 10-o-clock-live and stated:

“In summary, Invisible Children are expert propagandists with what seems to be a covert religious agenda, advocating military action in central Africa, while simultaneously recruiting an “army” of young people to join their cause and their weird “Fourth Estate” youth camps… “

Brooker’s report includes excerpts from several previous IC videos which apparently show IC ‘supporting’ human rights in Uganda by dancing in the street in California, riding on top of glossy people carriers or jumping into the sea and waving flags, and a mass youth rally with a host of identically dressed young people and raising one arm in a ‘salute’.  It certainly looks like a charismatic cult (see also http://bit.ly/GTLXpk)

Whether or not Kony was a genuine campaign or a recruitment exercise may be a false question for IC itself.  For them the cause and the means may be one and the same thing (see ‘distracted’ above).  What makes Russell look disingenuous though is his tactical explanation of evangelical recruitment at ‘Liberty University’.  The University’s slogan is Training Champions for Christ since 1971’.

It is worth watching the whole thing to get his explanation of where the campaign came from and how he saw it:  “we can have fun while we end genocide … it’s an adventure … we’re going to have a blast doing it … God calls us to be joyful”..    Russell decries the desire to be centre-stage, saying “God called us to be anonymous extra ordinaries”, which sits oddly with his role in the Kony film and some of his other statements.  When it comes to “the trick” of the Liberty University interview he is actually answering a question about how to motivate ‘hypocritical and apathetic Christians’.  I found it hard to work out what he really meant.  At any event, shortly after the March 14th Brooker broadcast, he had what seems to have been some sort of mental breakdown.

Blogger Elliot Ross at Africascountry.com wrote:

“We view ourselves as the Pixar of human rights stories”, Jason Russell told the New York Times last week. But when he spoke last year at convocation at Liberty University (founder: Reverend Jerry Falwell, current chancellor: Jerry Falwell Jr.) he offered a wholly different model: “We believe that Jesus Christ was the best storyteller”

From Jason Russell’s standpoint, the whole enterprise no doubt ‘worked’ because he and IC are on a mission, and explaining that probably didn’t seem important, or maybe advisable.   He told the Liberty University audience:

A lot of people fear Christians, they fear Liberty University, they fear Invisible Children – because they feel like we have an agenda. They see us and they go, “You want me to sign up for something, you want my money. You want, you want me to believe in your God.” And it freaks them out.

Watch the Liberty University video and you get a sense of the standing of Jason Russell within the tight knit, somewhat self-regarding evangelical community.  It probably all seemed such a fantastic idea applauded by everyone he mixed with, only the scale of the video phenomenon provoked critical discussion far outside the bounds of American evangelism.

Russell has made some assertions in interviews which others might find bizarre, for example:

 “My middle name is Radical….

I am from San Diego, California, with an upbringing in musical theater. I am going to help end the longest running war in Africa, get Joseph Kony arrested & redefine international justice. Then I am going to direct a Hollywood musical  ….

If  Oprah, Steven Spielberg and Bono had a baby, I would be that baby.”

Apparently he wants to have nine more children with his wife so a film on over-population may be unlikely.  He says:  “I truly believe I am the luckiest person on earth because of my family, friends and the ability to go to a dream factory every day for work”.  Seems that he has already directed a Hollywood Movie, the only problem was that it was sold as a campaign.


Evaluate it as a model for a movie, and marketing a movie, not a campaign.  Personally, I don’t find any of the communications tactics used wrong in themselves.  They are common throughout advertising, marketing and political and other campaigns.  I do have doubts about the proposition and the campaign objective.  The significance of Kony is almost certainly exaggerated in the video, and if he is apprehended it seems unlikely to ‘redefine international justice’, though it could redefine the audiences for such campaigns online.

Even though bringing Kony to justice is undoubtedly a good idea, the way it has been attempted may have done more harm than good ‘on the ground’, although I am not in a position to judge that one way or the other.  At present it seems impossible to say.

Such doubts are compounded by the fact that IC and Jason Russell are quite obviously pursuing another agenda – of Christian Evangelism – which is hidden from the viewer.     The video is not transparent about this in the way that a promo by an oil company like Shell, or a campaign group like Greenpeace would be.  Given the young impressionable target audience, for me these doubts are magnified.  On seeing the Social Flow analysis one friend of mine who works in marketing said: “I’m not sharing this with my 18-year-old daughter, she thinks it was a spontaneous outpouring of compassion!”

So could other NGOs have done Kony2012 but better ?

Perhaps, if the main Human Rights NGOs had been engaged in pressing the case then there might be a strategic lasting effect on political mobilisation to put pressure on governments to enable to International Criminal Court to act.  Within narrow limits,  Invisible Children did have a viable critical path strategy and the same was actually available to other NGOs, who might have used it in a way that could lead to wider benefits.  Few of them though, have the expertise, or lack of self-doubt that IC and Jason Russell enjoyed, and by their nature, they operate mostly outside the dream factory, where many other factors need to be accounted for, apart from enthusing the audience.

Some Analyses of Kony 2012


Elliot Ross on why IC are latter day Christian Missionaries

http://www.suzannefishermurray.com/five-things-to-know-about-kony-2012/ – blog by Suzanne Fisher Murray at IIED [Africa relevant includes links to African sources]

The Trouble with #StopKony http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/blog/elizabeth-dickinson/trouble-stopkony  Blog by Elizabeth Dickinson [Africa relevant]

Values, story and strategy: Breaking down why Invisible Children’s Kony campaign hooks people:  http://www.mobilisationlab.org/values-story-strategy-invisible-children-kony-campaign/  Blog by Anna Keenan at Greenpeace Mobilization Lab

The anatomy of Kony 2012:  http://www.netrootsfoundation.org/category/case-studies/   Blog by Raven Brooks

http://www.kony2012-is-a-scam.org/:  Website with detailed reports on the IC ‘LRA Tracker’ and other issues from the region. The site says that UN and inter-government agencies have come to rely on the IC network data and take it at face value.  Some aid workers contend that it exaggerates LRA activity, converting presumed LRA incidents into definite evidence, and ignores atrocities by any other group. http://bit.ly/Kqk2rO

http://www.david-campbell.org/2012/03/16/kony2012-networks-activism-community/ Online media Blog, focus on spread of the video and links to social media analyses on community etc

http://narniansocialist.com/i-hated-kony-before-he-was-cool/  Blog – human rights activist perspective

http://www.fairsay.com/blog/1205kony2012 : Stop Kony – what can e-campaigners learn? Blog by Jess Day at E-Campaigners Forum

http://projectdiaspora.org/wp-content/2012/03/08/respect-my-agency-2012/ Blog by African writer Tms Ruge at Project Disaspora

http://boingboing.net/2012/03/08/african-voices-respond-to-hype.htm African comments

http://globalvoicesonline.org/2012/03/08/uganda-can-a-viral-video-really-stopkony/ African comments

[1] see p 51 How To Win Campaigns, (ed2) Earthscan, 2010 at http://amzn.to/xA291I

[2] see p 19  How To Win Campaigns, (ed2) Earthscan, 2010 at http://amzn.to/xA291I

[3] see p 111 How To Win Campaigns, (ed2) Earthscan, 2010 at http://amzn.to/xA291I

[4] see eg http://bit.ly/8raJz and http://bit.ly/owNzT0 )

A paper of the Campaign Strategy Newsletter – Copyright Chris Rose. You are free to reproduce all or any part of this newsletter if you credit the source. http://www.campaignstrategy.org is a non-profit website on campaign techniques & strategies, designed to help NGOs. To subscribe to the free newsletter visit http://www.campaignstrategy.org.  To offer contributions or comments contact the author chris.rose@campaignstrategy.org  By Chris Rose:  How to Win Campaigns: Communications for Change, (edn 2) Earthscan 2010 What Makes People Tick: The Three Hidden Worlds of Settlers, Prospectors, and Pioneers, Troubador (2011)



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