Stop Kony - what can e-campaigners learn?

Invisible Children's StopKony campaign triggered the eCampaigning Forum's hottest debate yet, both in terms of numbers, and of passion. Below are just a selection of the insightful and interesting comments made during the ECF email discussion, plus links to online commentary.

To get up to speed about the campaign, check some of the links at

With over 100 posts on the subject I won't try and fully summarise the discussion, which centred on three themes:

1/ The video is a remarkably effective piece of storytelling, aimed to convince a specific audience to take a set of specific actions. There is plenty for us to learn here.

2/ Many people expressed considerable anger at the way that Ugandans' experience is shown wholly through the lens of Western interest and Western power to act, and the gross simplification of the situation to create a compelling narrative.

3/ What are the wider implications for digital campaigning? Does this set the numbers bar so high nothing else can compete? Will it put people off participating in online action in future, or prompt them to inform themselves better before they do so? Is there a need for a stronger code of ethics for campaigning? Or for 'minimum standards'?

This link stack profiles some links on the subject, mostly drawn from those posted to the list – thanks to all who shared. Do continue to add to the stack.

Delicious link stack: Kony 2012

You can also use the tags to dig into particular themes:

What makes it so successful?

– “In my opinion the film takes the viewer in because the story starts very close to the daily life of the audience. right at the beginning it even talkes about the very situation most viewers are in, right the moment of watching, which is "being on facebook". This way the content of the story is very relevant to most viewers - which makes them keep watching. Later on the story becomes more general - talking about love and birth and relatives. but these topics are still very relevant to most viewers - and they lay a very emotional ground for the rest of the story - and frame the content of the story as something personal. If viewers have a conception of personal relevance of something - they keep watching. Later on then the directors use ...suspense to make people keep watching: they keep a little secret viewers want to know. In this case the secret is: how are they planning to stop kony? what is it that I can do to help? They don't tell the viewers until the end. Every thriller works like that.”

  • It's very heavy on empowering digital zeitgeist rhetoric from the outset, telling a grand story about how society has changed to enable this kind of action  it directly addresses the context that the video is being experienced in - ie facebook, social media.
  • its very personal - very much from the campiagners point of view, not so much the "victim's" - though there is a clear victim.
  • We are encouraged to empathise with the activist, as much as the victim
  • The campaign has a visionary activist leader - The narrator describes a sudden vision where the solution becomes clear
  • its unusually long, and self consciously so. The meta-message in the length is "I am confident that this is important", it is unashamedly grand and ambitious in its aims.
  • it invokes celebrity throughout, a shortlist of celebrities and policy makers is drawn up. The theory of change more or less stops here (presumably because that is where it gets messy!)
  • It is not that heavy on the issue. This has been widely criticised. The issue is framed to highlight the injustice in the most basic terms - ie bad guy narrative
  • It uses questions throughout - Who is kony? What are we going to do to stop him? - to keep viewer interest
  • It contains a mixture of trendy visual elements and more traditional documentary footage to good effect
  • There are several "heart" moments, there are emotional highs and lows throughout.
  • It is very heavy on organisational detail (the last third) - It launches suddenly from a personal story to a dubstep driven plan of global action, delivered in prophetic terms.
  • From a values perspective, the rationale for focussing on visible activities (ie postering, tweeting) and stuff/action packs, is that with these things/actions come "cool" and social prestige. Their merchandise page says" People will think you’re an advocate of awesome"
  • Judging by the music and the medium the targeting is clearly at teens to mid twenties.
  • I'm guessing the PR on this was heavy. It is obvious that celebrity outreach work was done before the video, since George Clooney is in the video already talking about it.
  • the organisation has been around for some time, and was active on social media since myspace. Similar organising tactics may have been employed to launch the video.”

–  “I think that one of the primary reasons for the video's success was that the Theory of Change (TOC) and stated goals of the video ("make Kony famous") were explicitly designed to make sharing the single number one thing you could do to accomplish that goal. We all try to say things like "the more people who see this the better" or "share this with your friends so that they can take action too" -- but I've never seen any advocacy media where sharing and community and collective efficacy were so explicitly woven into the fabric of the TOC.”

– “Above all else, it shows that in the many different contexts of the new media economy community is an essential concept for all. Far from simply being the poster child for a new generation of social media activism that overtakes and replaces more conventional campaign strategies, the Kony2o12 campaign collapses boundary between new/old modes of activism.”

– “OK, a lot of it made me feel a bit nauseous but seriously people, that is little short of a masterclass in campaign storytelling and movement building. Ignore the issue for a second and you can't fail to be impressed, can you? Even when you consider the issue and its bland western-centric oversimplifications it's still got a compelling human message at its centre, that all kids are born equal. As a parent of a young kid that talks to me. ”

What's wrong with it?

--“OMG. Please. A piece of pernicious propaganda and "badvocacy" - worst I have seen in a long time... propaganda and poor, unknowing, condescending, and ultimately harmful 'advocacy"...”

– “I’m interested in hearing how this film and associated wristbands etc increases the chance of Kony appearing before the ICC (leaving aside the whole ‘justice vs peace and reconciliation’ debate!) or child soldiers being released and reintegrated etc. Does it really put ‘victims’ (although many will not like that term) at the centre? Does it respect the agency and leadership of those on the ground struggling with this?  …It occupies the space that could instead be used to develop intelligent advocacy as well as perpetuating damaging stereotypes. … if we drop our principles, or our strategic nous, to get viewers (or a higher click-through rate) then what have we achieved? I hope that’s a false dichotomy and we don’t need to. But it’s not easy!”

– “Fools ignore complexity. Pragmatists suffer it. Some can avoid it. Geniuses remove it” – I want to replace “Geniuses” with “good campaigns”. But be careful that’s what we are and not the fools.”

– “I feel like this is doing what 'An Inconvenient Truth' did for climate change. It glossed over the complexities. Everybody got it, though, and everybody started talking about climate change, whereas for the previous 30 years there was precious little movement. BUT when the watercooler chatter turned from 'we've got to do something' to 'hmmm, this is more complex than I thought' the public lost hope, and the hunger for change died a little.

I don't know what is better - having Kony off the world news radar and letting grassroots tackle him (too) slowly, or having Kony on the radar, tackled faster, but with the potential for yet another foreign interventionist cock-up.”

– “ For x million people to be badly informed is more damaging than for 100,000 people to know what the real situation is. As mass communicators we have a responsibility to frame things right and also to be able to communicate complex issues in an understandable way. Invisible Children have failed to do this - they managed to communicate hardly anything accurate at all about this situation apart from "Kony Bad, YOU can stop it" and "poor Africans really need your help".”


What can we learn from this?

  • “- attention spans for online content are about 17x longer than we thought;
  • - the Kony video shares and justifies on detail the strategy and theory of change behind the actions, including Facebook sharing -- we don't do nearly enough, not nearly enough, of that in most of our campaigns;
  • - we should give our constituencies far more credit for their attention to strategy, and explain to them from the beginning of a campaign the higher barrier asks we will make later; and
  • - although the bloke in the video is an insufferably earnest wanker, the personal narrative about his journey inspires people to want to be more like him and change their lives - in our efforts to be the invisible stewards o our online movements (many of us actually ban certain pronouns in our email communication) we miss this important opportunity for leadership.”

–  “yes, the video is massively neo-colonial, lacks nuance, self-aggrandizing, and has all the messaging bugbears about international involvement in African issues good globalists love to hate. [But] I'm sure the folks at Invisible Children would look at lots of NGO videos and say they are un-engaging, overly complex, and not empowering to the primary audience of the video. Rather than diminish their efforts - I'd prefer to recognise that the video does exactly what they wanted it to do (make Kony famous), and it is doing it exceedingly well. ”

– “I still think the video is efficient in mobilizing the desired audience to help the campaign, by getting people involved in spreading the word online and offline. It's not like we can find campaigning videos as popular as this one every day. I also think that in matters of life, death and extreme suffering the victim's urgent problem comes first. Being inefficient and fail to obtain results as quickly as possible in those cases is also very very wrong, and it can cost human lives.  And I've seen too many campaigns with extremely important causes and well explained issues be ignored by "the masses" (and the politicians) that could make a difference by supporting them with their voice. And in some cases I've heard communicators blaming their audiences for "not getting it", which does not help at all.”

– “I'm proud. Simply, someone has put all our continued procrastination aside and taken an action to a situation that has been going on silently for the past 24 year out to the public. We must learn the lessons from this. Those of us on this list that have commented that this is undermining what is being done on the ground. Let me ask you. What exactly is that? Cause I've not heard about it.”

– “If people refuse to learn broader lessons - about "story of self" approaches, issues framing, values based mobilisation, word of mouth tactics for example - because they disagree with the detail, then that is their loss!

–  "Regarding the theory of change (ToC) - the issue of whether it is good or not or even accurate or not may be less relevant than the fact they have one and it looks/sounds convincing to someone who doesn't know much about the issue (99.9% of people). It reminds me of one social psychology experiment I remember reading about. The researchers were trying to test people's tolerance to queue-jumping (a line or line-up for fellow North Americans). At the university where the experiment was conducted, " students would queue to photocopy books and other documents.  They instructed experiment volunteers to attempt to jump the queue in a variety of specific scripted ways. Some just moved to the front without asking, others had a variety of reasons they used to ask to jump the queue.  Volunteers who gave a compelling reason (e.g. in a hurry) were, unsurprisingly, most likely to be allowed to queue-jump.  Yet even the ones who gave meaningless reasons (e.g. "can I go in front because I have to make a copy" or "can I go in front because I need to") were still allowed to queue jump almost as much as the ones with a convincing reason.

Essentially as long as people gave a reason, regardless of how compelling, they were more likely to be allowed to queue-jump. So in the Kony 2012 video, the fact that they have a theory of change, regardless of how realistic or compelling may be the most important factor. The fact that so many campaigning actions do NOT have any explicit theory of change should perhaps be more worrying and this is a powerful demonstration of the value of articulating an explicit simplified theory of change - and ideally one that is also justified :-)”

What should we do differently?

“There is a longer term issue of enforcing harmful stereotypes, and we should seek to avoid this. But equally there is a reason why texts throughout the ages have resorted to archetypes of one kind or another - because they are easily understood, and because people do (for better or for worse) identify with them, and face cognitive dissonance and comprehension difficulties if they are challenged.

– “The whole video would have looked pretty silly if it *hadn't* gone viral -- precisely because the TOC was so centered around it being something huge that everyone was going to do together -- but on the other hand that wouldn't have mattered because no one would have seen it to know that it looked silly :-) So one lesson to take away might be: Be willing to try things that might fail and that will look kind of silly of they do.”

–  “It is a truism that the world is complex. But as communicators, it is not our job to enforce that perception. There is evidence that perceived complexity may actually decrease  agency ..."education" is sometimes not only ineffective, but actually counterproductive.

–  “In terms of dumb vs smart, It is up to campaigners to ensure that the strengths of 'dumb' campaigning approaches for reaching some audiences are used to complement smarter policy based work or education done to reach others - practically that involves differentiated messaging and a strategy for sharing "campaign space".  This is possibly where KONY 2012 falls short (though experiencing this campigin as "consumers" do we know for sure that smarter work isn't being done behind the scenes?)”

–   "I would just like to point out that even if you put $200K in (the rough guesstimate I've heard for how much the video cost) and included every trick in the book, including the lessons we learned from this video, the odds that you're going to have something anywhere near as successful as this are extremely low. I'm not saying it's worth trying, but don't let people in your office say "hey we shoudl do this!" and then get upset with you when your video only gets 1 million views. Super-virality is essentially impossible to distinguish from just plain virality in advance, unless the video was made by Lady Gaga.

–  And what about an Online Advocacy Code of Ethics.

This article summarises a discussion on the eCampaigning Forum email list. Thanks to everyone who contributed.

by ECF Discussion Summaries published May 08, 2012,