The Kony 2012 video went viral last week racking up 100 million views in 6 days. It took about a week before I finally had 30 minutes to watch this film. When I finally did, it fascinated me.
The video appealed to me on a multitude of levels. It appealed to the propaganda creator, the digital strategist, the social entrepreneur and the concerned citizen-of-the-world. There is a lot of backlash and criticism of Jason Russell’s over simplification of this complex issue. Ethan Zuckerman’s post provides more context on Joseph Kony, LRA and the situation in Uganda.
What interests me is how much more effective and captivating this short film is than the politics at hand. I believe we live in a complicated world. I believe Jason Russell and Invisible Children have the best intentions; they have generated a huge amount of interest and conversation on a topic that would otherwise go unnoticed by the core demographic that helped this video go viral (female 13-17, male 18-24). I think Kony 2012, both directly and indirectly ask a lot of very interesting questions. That is where I find the value of the video.
Now on with the propaganda ….
The video opens with black and white text that reads, “There is nothing more powerful than an idea.” Authority is established with that declarative sentence and the first words spoken in the narration (Russell’s voice): “RIGHT NOW.” He just communicated a sense of urgency and commanded your attention. This is followed by an image of the world, which automatically triggers association with existence, humanity, future, seeing the bigger picture, etc. We then immediately jump into the world of social media with mention of Facebook, a symbol of humanity’s desire for connection and belonging and how social media and technology have contributed to making the world more intimate.
The appearance of social media this early on in the video is pure genius because it has just embedded the thought that you should / could share this. Russell skillfully returns to screen shots of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and similar platforms through out the video to continuously remind you what you can do with it: share it. The final call for action to share the video doesn’t come until the last 30 seconds, but it doesn’t matter, he has repeated the request subconsciously from the first minute of the video.
We’ve set up a large premise, the future of humanity, with the image of the globe, and now it is time to get personal, get smaller, and get to something we can relate to. We move into the delivery room with Russell, his wife and the birth of their child, Gavin. You quickly grow emotionally attached to Gavin with a series of photographs and home videos. Gavin identifies Jacob in a photograph and you understand Jacob is “part of the family.” Russell than then takes us back to 2004, with the clever use of Facebook’s timeline and tells you about how he met Jacob and the issue at hand. Note in this first encounter with Jacob, Russell does not disclose the full details on Joseph Kony’s crime of kidnapping children to make them child soldiers for the LRA. Russell shows you trouble in a foreign land, a reality far from yours, humanizes Jacob, makes you emotionally attached to him first, before he gives you the nitty-gritty. The full story on Joseph Kony and the LRA does not begin until 11 minutes into this 30 min film.
Masterful! Had Russell put the crimes of Joseph Kony and the indictment of the International Criminal Court front-and-center, this video would not have gotten 100 million views.
Before we are introduced to the full extent of Kony’s atrocities and the ICC, Russell sits Gavin down to explain the facts to him. Russell actively engages in an oversimplification of the issue with this presentation but I believe he did it deliberately. I believe this moment is less about talking to the audience as a small child and presenting a worldview of good guys vs bad guys but it is used as another emotional appeal. No parents really want to expose their children to the realities of the world and the degree of violence and injustice that exists. The first instinct of any parent is to protect, to protect above all else. This moment calls upon parental nature and the desire to act, to fix, to change so their children will not have to grow up in a reality where awful things can happen.
By minute 11 when Russell presents you with the case, you are already invested. You are emotionally invested in Gavin, in Jacob, as a current / future parent, as a human being and you already know what you can do: share it all through social media.
The next nine minutes is of footage of the Invisible Children building communities and prevention measures in Uganda. Footage of youth being engaged in the issue, building community, working in collaboration, activism and it feels good. You think you’ve helped even though you are just sitting in your office watching a viral video, instead of working. These nine minutes makes you want to be a part of the community that seems to be bringing change and making a difference. You might even say, “F*ck! Where is the donate now button!”
But Russell is not quiet done with us just yet. He brings us to the verge of victory when the plot twist comes at minute 20. The US government might withdraw the 100 military advisors helping the Ugandan military capture Kony if we don’t keep pressure on Congress and keep the topic alive. Urgency! Must act now!
The wish is presented. We want the capture of Joseph Kony as the front-page headline of The New York Times. Victory and success can be had if we do the following. Tweet at culture makers and policy makers, ask them to take on the cause and engage in the conversation. From a digital strategist perspective, it is brilliant. It engages the core audience of youth who are media and tech savvy and it is so much sexier than sending snail mail to your local representative. The Invisible Children has set a simple and sexy way to tweet at these 20 culture makers and 12 policy makers; this feeds the immediacy our current media age demands.
There are more images that reinforce the sense of global community, youth activism and ongoing conversation… for crying out loud, they are actually doing something! Where as you, you are still in your office, procrastinating. Russell skillfully takes you on an emotional rollercoaster, presents you with a difficult problem in a far away land, solicits your desire to help and he empowers you to act. By the end of the 30 minutes you are ready to cover the town with posters to help bring Kony to justice.
Kony 2012 is the most skillful piece of propaganda I’ve seen in a long while.
Is it emotionally manipulative? Yes, without doubt. If the film only appeals to logic, it would never have gone viral and I certainly would not be spending my time dissecting it. There is nothing wrong with making an emotional appeal. All advertising appeals to the emotional. Dreft may or may not clean your clothes better than the generic brands but the reason you choose to pay a premium price for Dreft is an emotional one, not a logical one. You drive a BMW not because it is the ultimate driving machine; you are driving a BMW because it is a status symbol and it gives you emotional validation.
The capture of Joseph Kony and the surrounding dialogue are complicated. The implication and assumed alliances of US involvement is a tangled web that a 30-minute video is unequipped to address.
What is more interesting to me is how effectively Invisible Children has used social media and executed such excellent strategy to garner the amount of attention it has received. The better question is: what will they do with all of this attention? How can they best leverage it and capitalize on it so they can continue with their mission of redefining the propaganda we see all day, empower the individual, and change the conversation of our culture. All of these are worthwhile goals that have longevity beyond the capture of a war criminal.
In the meantime, it is time to wake up and act as a citizen of the world.
Participate. Join the conversation. Do. Something.
Critiques and related posts on Kony 2012:
Ugandan Woman Wish to Forget the Past
Invisible Children, Spreadable Media and Transmedia Activism