A Fleeting Focus

Throughout the first week of March, KONY 2012 found its way into tens of millions of Facebook newsfeeds and teen consciences. #StopKony reigned above all other Twitter trends. Students around the world were captivated by Invisible Children’s documentary about the Ugandan warlord and war criminal Joseph Kony, and they used social media to educate and galvanize their peers en masse. With platforms like Twitter, people spoke out against Joseph Kony with such force that they caught the attention of celebrities and policy makers. The producers of KONY 2012 seemed to have mastered the use of social media in promoting awareness and activism. But did Invisible Children really make the best use of social media possible? Four weeks after the release of the viral documentary, Facebook feeds are mostly devoid of KONY material–excluding, perhaps, articles about producer Jason Russell’s recent public meltdown–and #StopKony no longer dominates Twitter feeds. KONY 2012 experienced an incredible rise and fall and in the process became a case study for the strengths, limitations, and challenges of using social media to incite activism. By examining the successes and faults of KONY 2012, we can all learn valuable lessons about the use of social media in advocacy efforts. So where did Invisible Children succeed with its use of social media, and where did it make mistakes? And most importantly, what can students and future activists take away from the course of KONY 2012? Invisible Children’s largest success with KONY 2012 was its ability to not only produce a 30-minute viral video but also to encourage viewers to share the documentary with their friends on popular sites like Facebook and Twitter. The viral nature of this video can be attributed to its aesthetically pleasing production, complete with stylish cinematography and music, and its simplified message–that Joseph Kony is an awful criminal who kidnaps children for his child army and continues to threaten Ugandan civilians. While the simplified message in KONY 2012 made its content more tangible for teens, it also led to plenty of criticism from people more familiar with Joseph Kony and his past crimes. International politics publications like “Foreign Affairs” have pointed out that in the past few years Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have lost considerable power following peace talks and foreign intervention. They’ve also pointed out that there are other, more dangerous militias operating in the LRA’s former stomping grounds. Indeed, factual inaccuracies and outdated information abound in the documentary. Revelations like these certainly diminish the potency of a movement like KONY 2012. The message from this is that activists should be accurate with their portrayal of information in order to preserve their credibility–especially when the information is disseminated through a large public platforms like Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter. Truthfulness is vital. But KONY 2012 did not lose traction simply because of accusations of factual inaccuracy. Invisible Children, in an attempt to make its movement as accessible as possible, made social activism too easy. As a result, KONY 2012 lost its ability to hold the attention of the millions of teens for more than a few days. The end of KONY 2012 instructed viewers either to tweet #StopKony to a celebrity or policy maker or to buy an action kit whose proceeds would go to Invisible Children. The KONY 2012 website contains links that let viewers immediately tweet figures ranging from Oprah to Nancy Pelosi, which makes KONY 2012’s first viewer instruction very easy to follow. Invisible Children even provides the text for a #StopKony tweet, thus reducing online activism to a two-click process. As a result, Invisible Children promoted ‘slacktivism,’ or the practice of minimum-effort activism. The documentary persuaded its viewers to engage in simple and short-term activism, by either tweeting at a few famous people or by donating money, and did not give teens any long-term goals in regard to combating Joseph Kony and the LRA. Many students performed the short-term actions Invisible Children prescribed, felt contented with their work and soon lost interest in the KONY 2012 campaign. KONY 2012’s quick rise and decline occurred because Invisible Children did not create plans for continual student engagement. Finally, KONY 2012 exposed arguably the largest pitfall that all online social activists face: the tendency of online movements and trends to become Internet memes, popular one week and forgotten the next. The Internet is a chaotic swirl of information, and keeping a specific social media cause trendy on social media is undoubtedly difficult. Invisible Children could only captivate the information-overloaded public for so long. The question of how to maintain online interest is a complex one with no clear answer. Future online activists will have to address this issue creatively if they truly want any chance of enacting significant change. Indeed, one of Invisible Children’s greatest failures was its decision to focus on engaging teens quickly and easily instead of building a long-lasting movement that could appeal to a broad audience. As teens and perhaps, future social activists, our generation has much to learn from KONY 2012. As social media becomes increasingly important in advocacy efforts, future activists can look back to efforts like KONY 2012 to better understand the power and caveats of Internet activism. Gabbi Fisher is a two-year Upper from New York, NY.