Almost anyone tapped into social media has likely been exposed to the viral digital video “Kony 2012″ that has garnered an astounding 80 million views in a relatively short period of time. The 25 minute video created by the non-profit organization “Invisible Children” has received a great deal of attention, both positive and negative, and many have speculated as to its peculiar power to reach young people long assumed to be self-absorbed and alienated from geopolitics in general and the suffering of those in the poorest countries in particular.
How did the video’s creators reach this demographic where so many others have failed? How were they able to entice so many young people to watch a 25 minute long video about child soldiers in Uganda when the average attention span is just over 8 minutes and dropping? I believe the key to the video’s success is its appeal to personal narrative and the identity of its viewers.
The video opens not with a scene of carnage in Africa but the birth of a child in the United States. He is Gavin, the son of the video’s director and co-founder of “Inivisble Children” Jason Russell. Gavin serves as a narrative device throughout the video, connecting the American children (and young people) to the children who were abducted by the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony and forced to commit atrocities as soldiers in his rebel army. Gavin’s birth is also an important touchstone of Russell’s personal narrative, which he relates to the viewer in some detail. He discusses his early work in Uganda, his relationship with a young former child soldier named Jacob and how the goal of preventing the suffering of these children became the mission of his life.
Throughout, Russell adds personal touches – handheld video footage, photographs, family movies, etc. in order to provoke the viewer to identify with his story. Ironically, Russell spends more screen time on his own narrative than the narrative of Jacob, the boy who had actually experienced the wrath of Joseph Kony firsthand. At one point, Russell awkwardly attempts to explain his work and Jacob’s story to his young son, only to find that he can’t go into detail. His emphasis in this scene is on Gavin’s intuitive moral response that Kony is a bad man and that he is saddened by Jacob’s plight. The message is clear; even a child understands that this is wrong. This is not a complicated issue. We need to act together to stop it! The fact that Kony has been in hiding and his army largely disbanded is not addressed. Why should the objective of capturing him be the top priority of Americans trying to address suffering in Africa? It seems that it is more important for Russell to keep it simple and avoid nuance. This may explain part of the movie’s appeal, but is also one of its weaknesses as a strategy for meaningful social action.
Presenting a powerful personal narrative is only one half of the video’s persuasive power. The other is to actively construct a personal narrative for the viewer as well. Footage of individuals clicking links on computer screens and engaging with digital media is linked to uprisings in Egypt and Iran. The message is that the casual user of social media is part of a larger movement that can address oppression abroad. Slick footage of attractive, young, white activists “making a difference” takes up more screen time than footage of the Ugandans themselves. Ironically, they are almost invisible and their voices are largely silent. The implicit message of the piece is that young westerners are special and they have the power to “change the world.” This clearly has an appeal to many who feel atomized and alienated from the world and want to feel a part of something larger.
Unfortunately, in crafting the video to appeal to young westerners and give them a sense of purpose, it strips the events in Uganda of any context. Structural causes are ignored and the events are presented as a simple matter of good vs. evil. Joseph Kony is evil – you are good. What could be clearer than that? Many have criticized the simplicity of this message and its exclusion of African voices as part of the narrative. Some have argued that the video merely reinforces a sense of western privilege and masks the root causes of such events. In response, many counter-narratives have emerged, many of them Ugandans expressing their reactions to the video and the issues it purports to address. Here is one strong example: Response to Kony 2012
Kony 2012 has, perhaps inadvertently, provoked a dialogue about western approaches to Africa. It has also shed light on the power of viral videos and the use of digital narrative to open avenues for discourse.