PLAYBACK: How to Tell a True Activism Story: Teachable Moments of Kony 2012


3.18.12 | For the past two weeks, the media has chronicled, from nearly every angle, the viral video sensation “Kony 2012.” The 30-minute film about Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, has surpassed 100 million online views, prompting many important discussions about truthiness and transparency, along with whose stories get told, and why.

There are numerous takeaways for those of us interested in youth, technology and global citizenship, including confirmation that ‘tweens and teens will enthusiastically share information with friends, teachers and family members if they feel a connection and purpose, and if specific action steps are provided. (See Pew Internet’s report on how news about the video spread among young adults.) They will also donate money and convince their parents to do the same. And yet the simplified you-can-change-the-world message that is so successful at grabbing attention remains a sticking point in discussions about how to engage people around complex and nuanced issues.

“[W]e made it quick and oversimplified on purpose,” said “Kony 2012” narrator Jason Russell, the head of the Inivisible Children organization that produced the video. “We are proud that it is simple. We like that. And we want you to keep investigating, we want you to read the history.”

The video makes that difficult, though, since it mixes up timelines, acknowledges only the IC’s own efforts to bring Kony to justice, and aims more for viewers’ hearts than heads. On both YouTube and Vimeo, all the links provided for more information were developed by Invisible Children. Independent resources are not included.

No one expects a nuanced, in-depth report on Kony and the LRA (pdf) to inspire the masses, but linking to such a report by the well-respected International Crisis Group—encouraging the newly inspired activists to educate themselves more—would raise the level of the conversation and provide avenues for young viewers to turn their immediate energy into a more informed commitment.

Paring down complex stories into digestible nuggets is not unique to social media, but its egregious use in this case, coupled with an absence of local voices, prompted a swift and deserved backlash. As Breakthrough president and CEO Mallika Dutt wrote, “KONY 2012 makes for a powerful meme, but at a terrible cost.”

So how can “Kony 2012” serve as a teachable moment? The easiest way to see through the medium to the message is to expand digital and media literacies. When students become media creators, they learn what it takes to tell a story, including the importance of factual information and the power of multiple voices and experiences. They also learn how to sell an idea.

Below are a number of stories related to the role of young people and youthful idealism in the spread of “Kony 2012.” In tomorrow’s post, we’ll look more closely at incorporating and expanding media literacy.

Unpacking “Kony 2012”: Ethan Zuckerman has written a powerful, comprehensive analysis of this media moment, including background on both Invisible Children and Joseph Kony, and a study of the complexities of oversimplification.

“I’m starting to wonder,” writes Zuckerman, “if this is a fundamental limit to attention-based advocacy. If we need simple narratives so people can amplify and spread them, are we forced to engage only with the simplest of problems? Or to propose only the simplest of solutions?”

Activism or Slacktivism?: The New York Times Learning Network put together a lesson on “Kony 2012” that aims to “engage students in thinking deeply about the Kony2012 phenomenon and taking it further — including researching the situation in Uganda, reflecting on activism, examining criticisms of the ‘Kony 2012’ film or making videos about issues and causes that they care about.”

For more discussion on the downside of simplified messaging, see this Room for Debate segment, “Fighting War Crimes, Without Leaving the Couch?

Reclaiming Narrative: As a counter-measure to “Kony 2012” news, Semhar Araia, founder and executive director of the Diaspora African Women Network (DAWN), started a campaign to encourage people to post to Twitter about “what they love about Africa” with the hashtag #WhatILoveAboutAfrica. Read more about narrative at Global Voices.

The Power of Youth and Invisible Networks: Gilad Lotan, vice president of research and development for SocialFlow, explains how the “Kony 2012” video exploded with the help of pre-existing networks and strategic targeting of celebrities on social media. 

“Invisible Children has already been building an on-the-ground network of young supporters across the United States, activating them all at the same time, as the campaign began,” writes Lotan. “The data makes this clear.”

According to that data, the movement took root first in small- to medium-sized cities across the United States and was heavily supported by Christian youth.

Media researcher danah boyd, writing at her blog, picks up on Lotan’s research and takes a closer look at the efforts involved in targeting culture makers and youth:

The stories that Invisible Children create in their media put children at the front and center of them. And, indeed, as Neta Kliger-Vilenchik and Henry Jenkins explain, youth are drawn to this type of storytelling. Watch Kony 2012 from the perspective of a teenager or college student. Here is a father explaining to a small child what’s happening in Africa. If you’re a teen, you see this and realize that you too can explain to others what’s going on. The film is powerful, but it also models how to spread information. The most important thing that the audience gets from the film is that they are encouraged to spread the gospel. And then they are given tools for doing that. Invisible Children makes it very easy to share their videos, republish their messages on Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr, and “like” them everywhere. But they go beyond that; they also provide infrastructure to increase others’ attention.

Her conclusion raises more difficult questions about access and agency:

The fact that privileged folks – including white American youth – can spread messages like this is wonderful, but my hunch is that they’re structurally positioned to spread information farther and wider than those who are socially marginalized. What happens when they try to speak out on behalf of marginalized voices instead of helping marginalized voices be heard? [...] So I can’t help but wonder… with the rise of attention philanthropy, are we going to see a new type of attention colonialism?

Why Youth are Drawn to Invisible Children: The post by Kliger-Vilenchik that boyd references is well worth reading in full; it focuses on Invisible Children’s history of engaging young people by building on the strengths of participatory cultures to further its civic goals. The Civic Paths research group, working with Henry Jenkins at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism and supported by the Spencer Foundation, has made a case study out of Invisible Children. Here, Kliger-Vilenchik explains the researchers’ framework:

Our analysis of Invisible Children’s model of youth engagement began with the lens of “fan activism”: forms of civic engagement and political participation growing out of experiences of fandom. We were examining Invisible Children as a parallel to another case study of Participatory Culture Civics: the Harry Potter Alliance, a non-profit organization that mobilizes the Harry Potter fan community toward civic action, using metaphors from the popular narratives. In comparing the two organizations, we found that while the Harry Potter Alliance built on an existing fan community and harnessed a pre-existing content world (a powerful narrative that strongly resonates with members) toward its civic goals, Invisible Children began with a goal—ending the use of child soldiers in the civil war in Uganda—and built a content world around it.

Continue reading here. The post also reviews how the group’s filmmaking approach has changed since 2004, when it released its first film, “Invisible Children: The Rough Cut.” And it provides a closer look at young IC members’ narratives of self-transformation, complicating conversations about slacktivism.

The blog entry is based on research with Invisible Children members and builds on the article “Experiencing Fan Activism: Understanding the Power of Fan Activist Organizations through Members’ Narratives,” which will appear in the journal Transformative Works and Cultures in June 2012.


Picture of Carla Saunders
Carla Saunders


Thanks for such a comprehensive and balanced collection of resources to explore this issue with our students.

Picture of Christine Cupaiuolo
Christine Cupaiuolo


Glad it could be of use! We’d be interested in hearing about your discussions.


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