Kony 2012: A Civic Lesson in Marketing and Activism


The Kony 2012 saga is a lesson in the potency and perils of social media activism and what happens when ensuing virality brings unexpected backlash. 

Kony 2012, the first film from Invisible Children, highlighted the plight of children kidnapped by Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony. It became the most viral video ever, garnering over 100 million views in less than a week. But the extraordinary attention also brought a hue and cry that the film oversimplified the longstanding human rights crisis in Uganda and surrounding regions, as well as criticism of the nonprofit’s business practices, culminating in a very public breakdown by co-founder and director Jason Russell.

The newly released Kony 2012: Part II — Beyond Famous (above) offers a closer look at the Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistant Army (LRA) and potential solutions to the violence being perpetrated. Ben Keesey, CEO of Invisible Children, said in a statement, “We want people to dig deeper into this conflict and actively engage in the solutions.” Part II is “a call to turn global awareness into informed action.” [more]

The first Kony video was so slickly produced it prompted charges that the spotlight on the filmmakers overshadowed the evils of Kony, as it focused on Russell’s seemingly saintly commitment and passion. Talk to Action claimed Invisible Children and Russell have “extensive institutional and social ties” to the “global evangelical network” known as “The Fellowship” or “The Family,” described as “a secretive U.S.-based brotherhood of international political and business leaders.” In the interim between the two films, Keesey used this video to explain his group’s finances and address charges of “slacktivism.”

Part II shows Invisible Children learned some lessons. Ten minutes shorter, and absent Russell altogether, testimony from real families affected by Kony returns focus to the cause. “We just thought it was going to be a lot harder to make people care,” said Jedidiah Jenkins, Director of Idea Development. “Most 16-year-olds do not want to hear about warlords in Africa.

“When you see something slick, when you see something that feels like propaganda, we’re used to thinking that its selling something. You can sell something that is actually good and intelligent. It doesn’t have to be a trick.”

Margie Dillenburg, a Boston University doctoral student who was movement director of Invisible Children for six years, writes in a Boston Globe op-ed: 

Invisible Children films are the new textbook of civic engagement…Invisible Children’s long-term educational goals are much more ambitious than merely promoting “awareness” of the conflict in central Africa…The overlooked part of our mission is the thoughtfully developed, and pedagogically sound, interactive experience designed to reintroduce a civically cynical generation back into democratic engagement.

On April 20, Invisible Children is sponsoring a “Cover the Night” day of activism. Supporters are asked to volunteer for five hours in their communities and promote the anti-Kony cause.