One Week After The #Kony2012 #StopKony Video Launched, Questions Still Remain

Just five days ago (has it been that long?), we posted an initial piece about the social media phenomenon of #Kony2012 and #StopKony. It was our most visited blog post of 2012, earning unprecedented interest worldwide. We think this interest was caused by the fact that as with any Internet phenomenon, while millions of people instantly reacted and saw things as valid (and in the case of the Invisible Children viral video, no one here is questioning the content's brutal and horrific authenticity), we questioned why. Why would did this video all of a sudden become part of the online world, so much so that in only a week of releasing the video, Invisible Children had made Joseph Kony a name most people in the United States and the Western world now know?

We also covered what Invisible Children had to say about its critiques and have seen hundreds of posts, videos, and memes about the entire topic of #Kony2012.

Nonetheless, questions still remain, and as we have said before, sometimes it is better to pause and look at the whole picture to confirm that your initial gut reaction was true.

Which leads us to a post we read today from Conscience Commentary, entitled #StopKony #Kony2012. The author makes several points within the context of the mission's public policy objectives, its philanthropic mission, and the strategy behind it all. We won't go into each point here (you can click on the entire blog here), but we would like to focus on the author's final point, which he elaborates in the context of why going "viral" on the Internet can be a Catch-22, and then informs us about some of the people behind part of the funding of IC:

…I think the #Kony2012 campaign was both strategically smart, but I also think it will be a victim of its own success.  Cause-marketers and strategists cannot argue with 70 million streams.  Less than 40 million tuned into the Oscars this year.  The viral success of this video is unparalleled.  However, I would rather have 700,000 watch 10 of my videos and react to 10 calls to action, than 70 million hit Like on Facebook.  Why?  Everyone has seen this video.  The story started, and it ended, in less than one week.  There are no legs to exploit.  And, unless Invisible Children has another viral video sensation up its sleeve, which it may, I don’t see how they recapture and re-engage an American who wants to be on the bandwagon.  In fact, I worry that the story, given its epic proportions, because a parody at some point soon. I can already see the SNL or Onion video.

There are a handful of operational critiques I would add to the discussion.  If you may go viral, prepare for the PR before you launch.  The CEO, the Communications Director, surrogates were bombarded for interviews.  And, in many they appeared defensive and unprepared to answer the standard list of critiques. By day 3 this had been remedied.  But, lesson learned by the rest of us.   And, from a production standpoint, I am torn on the pros and cons.  Production quality was high.  The form of the narrative and aligning the viewers values as the protagonist of the video was wise.  The use of the CEO’s child was, on the one hand, a sign of the simplicity of the issue.  But, on the other hand, it is slightly condescending to a viewer: “Even a Child gets it…” doesn’t always play well with audiences.  They seemed to pull it off in a genuine way, but be careful should you attempt something similar.

Within the 30 minute video, #StopKony did a few smart things, but I would posit that they did TOO MANY.  There are four distinct calls to action. (1) Share. (2) Buy a Kit. (3) Blanket the Night Campaign and (4) 20/12 initiative.  Because of the length and the overwhelming menu of options presented to the viewer, most just hit ‘share’ and felt their moral duty for the day had been complete. Some will buy a kit, like the guy at my gym who had a shirt by Wednesday (?!?). But, I fear the Blanket the Night campaign may not have enough engagement to succeed.  Unless the organization has strong and experienced field professionals nationally, it will inevitably fail to meet the expectations of a video that had 70 million streams.  And, while I believe the 20/12 concept is simple, smart and brilliant, amidst all the other calls to action, and without a clear ask for the viewer to help on this particular path, I don’t know how it easily translates into successful action.  Again, I could be wrong. The video and I.C. seem to have captured the zeitgeist of the 2008 Obama campaign.  The zeal and youthful energy seems similar to the call for Hope and Change to Believe In.  In addition, I noticed a pastor on the organization’s board. If there is a strong network of America’s super-Churches, anchored by strong evangelists with big audiences and institutionalized youth groups, then Invisible Children could have a built in field operation that politicians would envy.  Time will tell.

At the end of the day, all the criticism aside, I echo what many seem to believe: it is a story that needs to be told; it is an issue that needs to be addressed; and I am glad that the topic is now elevated to a level where Americans are aware of it.  I hope that the concern for this issue continues, until we can work with our partners across the world to end this terrible practice.

UPDATE: Truth Wins Out just posted a story that questions major funding sources for Invisible Children. I am with holding judgment until more is known, but it is concerning. This raises a critical and salient question: does the funding source matter if the ends are good in and of themselves?   Or, do we have to assume that a dubious source of donations implies something morally corrupt about the organization itself?  I don’t have the answer, but I think it is an important consideration for organizations and issue campaigns.

Obama Administration Acknowledges Power of #Kony2012 Viral Video and Says It Has Raised Awareness

Sometimes getting your news from outside of the United States helps. We got this post from the Telegraph in the UK. The piece quoted White House Press Secretary Jay Carney and his thoughts about #Kony2012.

Jay Carney, the White House Press Secretary, congratulated the "hundreds of thousands of Americans who have mobilised to this unique crisis of conscience."

Mr Carney said: "I think this viral video that you mentioned is part of that response, raising awareness about the horrific activities of the LRA, and consistent with the bipartisan legislation passed by our congress in 2010 the United States continues to pursue a comprehensive multi-faceted strategy to help;p the governments and people of Central Africa in their efforts to end the threat posed by the LRA and reduce the human consequences of the LRA's atrocities."

Invisible Children’s Financials Are Public: Ask Questions Before Donating to #Kony2012

Yesterday, we were one of the first independent media outlets in the world to raise questions about the two sides of the #Kony2012 controversy. By continuing to ask questions about a viral campaign that literally set the Internet on fire, we were commended by many. To all those who dig deeper and look for facts, we hope this type of online behavior continues to become second nature to many. The Internet is a powerful place, but it is still a human invention and both the good and bad of humanity lives on it every day.

Here are the latest statement of funcitonal expenses for Invisible Children.  Bottom line: close to 9 million dollars of expenses and only about 2.8 million given to direct services. You decide. But there are other great organizations that are doing similar work.

As Fast As It Went Viral, the #StopKony and #Kony2012 Questions Begin to Emerge

UPDATE: Invisible Children has addressed the questions and critiques listed here as well as other critiques.

When something goes viral as quickly as the #Kony2012 video did, the initial reaction is to share. Millions and millions of people online did just that over the last two days, creating a topic that, quite frankly, was not a part of the global dialogue before March 5.

Now that the Internet is settling a bit from the initial reaction to the 29-minute video, the questions about the organization that produced the piece, Invisible Children, and the current situation in Central Africa have begun to emerge.

Invisible Children is a tax-exempt organization (according to its tax returns and their financials are listed publicly on their site. (Click here to download the PDF). Their latest tax returns are also publicly available and can be downloaded here. We took screen shots of two of there graphs from their 2011 annual report, and have posted them here:

 

Their bottom line financials for 2011 are listed as follows:

 

We were drawn to checking IC out some more since several of our members posted the following link on our FB page this morning:  We Got Trouble. It states:

For those asking what you can do to help, please link to visiblechildren.tumblr.com wherever you see KONY 2012 posts. And tweet a link to this page to famous people on Twitter who are talking about KONY 2012!

I do not doubt for a second that those involved in KONY 2012 have great intentions, nor do I doubt for a second that Joseph Kony is a very evil man. But despite this, I’m strongly opposed to the KONY 2012 campaign.

KONY 2012 is the product of a group called Invisible Children, a controversial activist group and not-for-profit. They’ve released 11 films, most with an accompanying bracelet colour (KONY 2012 is fittingly red), all of which focus on Joseph Kony. When we buy merch from them, when we link to their video, when we put up posters linking to their website, we support the organization. I don’t think that’s a good thing, and I’m notalone.

Invisible Children has been condemned time and time again. As a registered not-for-profit, its finances are public. Last year, the organization spent $8,676,614. Only 32% went to direct services (page 6), with much of the rest going to staff salaries, travel and transport, and film production. This is far from ideal, and Charity Navigator rates their accountability 2/4 stars because they haven’t had their finances externally audited. But it goes way deeper than that.

The blogger misses one point, even though the blog makes a good case against the intentions of IC. The tax returns of the organization are tax-exempt. They file as a 990 under the Internal Revenue Service. According to the IRS, a 990 form is used for the following purposes:

What is an IRS Form 990?

Form 990 is an annual reporting return that certain federally tax-exempt organizations must file with the IRS. It provides information on the filing organization’s mission, programs, and finances.

What organizations are required to file Form 990?

Most federally tax-exempt organizations, with the exception of churches and state institutions. All 501(c)(3) private foundations, regardless of income

Other posts that are being published talking about the situation in Central Africa. Here is one post we received from a reader: 

So far, this sounds good. However, there is a major, major problem. I’m going to compare what IC is doing to an analogy that I thought of this past summer when I was Uganda thinking about this issue. Imagine that today you heard about what happened in NYC and Washington DC on September 11, 2001 for the first time. You were shown a video of footage from that day. You saw the planes hit the towers, you heard President Bush’s address, you saw the Pentagon wreckage, you watch in horror as you see people plunge to their death, jumping from the burning towers. Now imagine that you are inspired by this disaster. You want to something to help. What if you went to NYC today, expecting to see piles of rubble to clean up? What if you went, expecting that there would be thousands of people in the streets crying, looking for loved ones? But what would happen when you arrived and discovered that there was none of this, but a whole host of other problems?

And back to Uganda. Uganda is no longer experiencing violence from the LRA. Yes, I said it. It’s an uncomfortable truth, but it is a truth. For about the last year, since before IC hit the scene, Kony and his troops have been pushed into Congo, into the Garamba National Forest there. He’s sick, starving, and on his last legs. For the first time, Uganda is in the middle of real peace talks and the rebels have laid down their arms and are assembling to make peace. Why? This is happening because Joseph Kony was defeated. The Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF) has beaten them back and Kony was sitting in Congo starving to death. Since March 2002, the UPDF has been allowed to carry out raids against the LRA into Southern Sudan and has even crossed into Congo, to the distress of most of the African community. Nonetheless, Operation Iron Fist, as this military offensive was called, has freed many child soldiers and sex slaves and brought them back to Uganda. The rebels again became very violent in 2003, but since 2004, the Ugandan government has been repeatedly beating the rebels and weakening them. Uganda is no longer allowed to enter Sudan or Congo to fight the LRA.

Invisible Children was founded in 2004, with the film crew filming in Uganda in 2003. Watching Invisible Children is watching old news. Will watching it alert you to what has occurred in Uganda? Yes, but it will not let you know what is happening there today.

Invisible Children is too late. It has taught us that MTV type media can get university students interested in a world crisis, the problem is it took too much time. Night commuting, outlined as one of the major problems in northern Uganda by the film, is practically non-existent now. Why? Peace is coming to the region. According to UN reports, children who still are commuting at night are not doing it because of safety concerns, but because they want to enjoy the amenities that NGO’s are offering in the towns, like Gulu, Kitgum, and Lira. At the peak of the commuting, there were between 30,000 and 40,000 children commuting. Now, estimates are below 10,000.

Another post from the UK Independent written by an author of Ugandan descent, counters the previous post (titled: Stop Kony, yes. But don’t stop asking questions). Here is an excerpt:

Invisible Children has had some success already: late last year, President Barack Obama committed 100 US troops to provide “advice and assistance” to the Ugandan army in removing Joseph Kony from the battlefield. The President’s move came in part due to the NGO’s tremendous advocacy efforts.  Everyone agrees that this a hugely important issue, but Invisible Children’s methods have come in for searing criticism; most scathingly, they have been attacked as “neo-liberal, do-good Whiteness”.  Elsewhere, Foreign Affairs has provided some important context on this matter, in relation to Uganda’s strategic importance to the USA.  I would also recommend the  Twitter feed of Laura Seay, who was moved to comment this morning that “[Solomme Lemma] is tweeting links to great community-based organizations working in Northern Uganda.  Give there if you really want to help.

I understand the anger and resentment at Invisible Children’s approach, which with its paternalism has unpleasant echoes of colonialism.  I will admit to being perturbed by its apparent top-down prescriptiveness, when so much diligent work is already being done at Northern Uganda’s grassroots.  On the other hand, I am very happy – relieved, more than anything – that Invisible Children have raised worldwide awareness of this issue.  Murderers and torturers tend to prefer anonymity, and if not that then respectability: that way, they can go about their work largely unhindered.  For too many years, the subject of this trending topic on Twitter was only something that I heard about in my grandparents’ living room, as relatives and family friends gathered for fruitless and frustrated hours of discussion. Watching the video, though, I was concerned at the simplicity of the approach that Invisible Children seemed to have taken.

The thing is that Joseph Kony has been doing this for a very, very, very long time.  He emerged about a quarter of a century, which is about the same time that Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni came to power.  As a result the fates of these two leaders must, I think, be viewed together.  Yet, though President Museveni must be integral to any solution to this problem, I didn’t hear him mentioned once in the 30-minute video.  I thought that this was a crucial omission. Invisible Children asked viewers to seek the engagement of American policymakers and celebrities, but – and this is a major red flag – it didn’t introduce them to the many Northern Ugandans already doing fantastic work both in their local communities and in the diaspora.  It didn’t ask its viewers to seek diplomatic pressure on President Museveni’s administration.

The point is this: IC made something go viral. Millions are now aware of the situation. Questions are being asked, and that is a good thing. Individuals will decide whether to act or not. The Internet is an open democratic forum. And this topic is much more tangible than other viral videos that speak to our silliness as humans. More serious topics can indeed go viral, and so can the dialogue surrounding them.

We leave you with a comment one of our Facebook members posted this morning that got us thinking about all this:

Latino Rebels Sure, it is definitely a testament to the power of social media. It’s also a serious issue that needs to be addressed and talked about. My problem is the White Man’s Burden attitude of people in the West who become outraged at Africans killing Africans as a humanitarian issue, but won’t look at the roots that these conflicts have in western colonialism AND continuous imperialism… So we end up seeing the situation as one of savage people in the third world who need the enlightened West to come and solve their problems for them.

When the Internet Raises Social Awareness: The World Responds to #Kony2012 and #StopKony

For all the Friday videos, 'Sh*t" memes, and images of dads shooting their laptops, once in a while good happens on the Internet and injustices become part of the global consciousness.

That is the case of #Kony2012 and #StopKony.

KONY 2012 from INVISIBLE CHILDREN on Vimeo.

The campaign launched on March 5 and it has gone completely viral on the Internet. And that is a good thing. For more, here is the official page: Kony 2012. As for the story behind the story, this post from the UK says it best:

The non-profit company, Invisible Children, Inc. released a video on March 5th, 2012 to start their "Cover the Night" campaign. The aim of the campaign is to raise awareness and support for the arrest of Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in central Africa.

The "Cover the Night" campaign involves people either buying or printing off posters and covering the area they live in with them during the night on April 20th, 2012.

Invisible Children, Inc. hope that the volume of people getting involved in this will stop the US government from pulling out US forces which were deployed to Uganda on October 20th, 2011.

The organisers underestimated the support, their goal for the video was 500,000 shares and they have already received 1.5 million views on vimeo version alone, and is now rising at an exponential rate.

UDPATE: The whole campaign has cuased a buzzstorm of questions. Here are some facts about them.