Three months after the infamous youtube clip went viral, the T-shirts are still selling, the website still live and the chatter on twitter trickling in, but to most, the end-focus of Kony 2012 was not an murderous warlord, but a naive charity which bore the brunt and furious backlash of an oversimplified message.

On April 20th, the world was supposed to wake up to city centers plastered with bright red posters telling us to STOP AT NOTHING.

‘Cover the Night’, the Kony 2012 event  that aimed in one night to plaster “every city, on every block” around the world with posters, stickers and murals of Kony to pressure governments into hunting down the guerrilla leader, who has waged a brutal, decades-long insurgency in central Africa was, in not so many words, a dismal ‘flop’.

Low turnouts  at locations across north America, Europe and Australia left cities largely unplastered and the movement’s credibility damaged. “What happened to all the fuss about Kony?” said one tweet. “Kony is so last month,” said another.

Why Kony 2012 and ‘Cover the Night’ didn’t quite work has spawned a plethora of fascinating theories.

The Atlantic put it ever so delicately:  “The hyped event’s meager turnout could have a number of causes: our fleeting digital attention spans, or viral content’s fireworks-to-fizzle trajectories, or the challenges of translating online activism to real-world change, or Invisible Children’s failure to capitalize on the attention it had once it still had it, or Invisible Children’s own pivot when it came to the stated goal of the event, or the widespread backlash that brought phrases like “the white savior industrial complex” newly, and powerfully, into the mass consciousness.”

The fact remains that Joseph Kony is a extremely dangerous warlord who, according to a recent (June 2012) UN report has kidnapped nearly 600 children in the past three years, forcing boys to take “magical potions” and turning girls into sex slaves.

Between July 2009 and February 2012, Kony’s group kidnapped at least 591 children – 268 girls and 323 boys – in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR), the report found.

The LRA continues to perpetrate grave violations against children some nine years after it was listed in the UN’s report on children and armed conflict. “LRA continues to pose a significant threat not only to children, but also to the civilian population at large and has forced 45,000 persons in the region to leave their homes.

More importantly, the long manhunt for Kony continues. Three countries – DR Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic – are preparing to join an African Union coalition to intensify efforts to capture Kony and hand him to the international criminal court, which has issued a warrant for his arrest.

The UN has said that Kony, a self-styled mystic leader who at one time was bent on ruling Uganda by the Ten Commandment, sappears to be increasingly nervous as a result and is now changing his location every few days and  might have recently slipped over the porous border into Sudan’s troubled western Darfur region.

Another recent report by Human Rights Watch said the LRA has increased its attacks in the CAR since the beginning of 2012, putting civilians in affected areas in need of urgent protection. “The increase in LRA attacks shows that the rebel group is not a spent force and remains a serious threat to civilians,” the watchdog said.

“Stop Kony 2012, yes. But don’t stop asking questions.”

While there are, in short, PhD dissertations to be written about the Kony campaign and the way it exploded, what lessons though can we learn from Kony 2012, three months on?

1. Bad guys are bad guys and we ought to call them out for being bad guys but …

… When we provide a one-sided, simplified uninformed, blanket solution about how to approach the bad guy, the fingers suddenly turn and point right back at you. “Invisible Children’s campaign became not just about Kony, and not even just about Invisible Children, but about the guy ultimately informing us of Kony’s evildoing: Jason Russell, the Invisible Children co-founder. Partly, of course, things got personal because the video made them personal: ‘Kony 2012′ starred not only Kony himself, and not only Jacob, one of the Ugandan children affected by the warlord’s tactics, but also – famously, infamously – Jason Russell and his son. The video forced viewers to see Kony’s story as an extension of Jason Russell’s story, and of Jason Russell’s organization’s story, and of Jason Russell’s kid’s story. That was supposed to be what made the thing ‘relatable’. That was its power and its pitfall.”

But it also meant that the campaign’s fortunes were connected to the person — which is to say, the persona — of Russell himself. When he fell, publicly and embarrassingly, the campaign fell, too.

2. We absorb information on social networks with a social filter and elevated hype that may not necesarily paint the full picture.

When our information is increasingly mediated through the filters of our friends, we are taught to treat information itself as a function of the person who has delivered it to us. This is how we make sense of the Internet; it’s how we know what to trust and what to dismiss, what to click and what to ignore. Our friends are our filters. And that’s a good thing: It helps us to know and to navigate the chaos that is, almost literally, the free flow of information.

3. The web’s ever-expanding social layer is that layer’s tendency to hype knowledge, indiscriminately and alternatively leave out the boring, factual truths.

It socializes us to assume that all information is social – that all information can be judged according by he or she who passed it along. It authorizes information, in the sense that it assumes that information has an author – and that the author has a direct effect on the value and actionability of the information that’s conveyed. And it insists that it’s fair to dismiss Kony 2012 not because of the message, but the messenger.

4. The success of social sharing is not always directly proportional to the issue itself, but more than often to how much you want to show people you are a caring, wonderful person …

Jonah Peretti, a social media expert, founder of the social publishing site Buzzfeed, said Kony2012′s success was due to its focus on social media itself rather than gruesome images. “The horrific stuff is only shown very briefly. And then the video quickly transitions to inspiring things you can do to change the situation. There’s this upbeat music and … an emotional high.

“People care about these tragedies but they also want everyone to know they care. Sharing the Kony2012 video is a great way to tell all your friends that you are someone who cares about the world, wants to make a difference, and is participating in fighting evil personified.”

5. When a campaign negates, ignores or unconsciously leaves out the voices of the very people it claims to be helping, then that campaign is null and void, to a point.

While Invisible Children crows about the 42 US Senators and 62 US Representatives who cosponsored Kony 2012 resolution and the Leading Congressional appropriators have pledged to include an appropriation for between $10-15 million in the FY2013 budget bill for programs to improve civilian early warning programs, they’re still AMERICANS, far removed from Africa. Where are the statistics, insights and reports that show how many Africans became advocates of Kony 2012,  and what their views and opinions were? Sadly again, the hype of  ‘let’s save the Africans’ became more of a focus than Africans themselves.

Short and long of it: There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make a difference, or telling people about it; just make sure you’ve vetted the message as well as its messenger.

NB: Kony 2012, was not an entire failure. It led, in some twisted fashion, to the increased pressure on the hunt for said warlord , albeit by those who should have been hunting him all along – Africans.

NB 2: Afritorial.com was launched in late March 2012, partly because of the frustration of watching the Kony 2012 campaign unfold; the constant disregard in international media and social networks who promoted it to listen to Africans as they expressed their anger, and its peculiar lack of inclusion of African voices to balance out the arguments/message. Prior to Kony I was a passive, ‘let them say whatever they want to about us, sticks & stones, etc’ African citizen. Thank you Invisible Children and Kony 2012, for riling me up enough to wake me up into an active, vocal daughter of Africa and turning that into a burgeoning media brand; one that has resonated with thousands so far!

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Sources:

The Atlantic: ‘How Kony 2012′s Big Event Fizzled Out’ (the atlantic.com)

The Guardian newspaper – Guardian.co.uk

About The Author

Afritorial

Neva is a storyteller and media strategist with a background in PR, film, advertising and digital marketing who is passionate about technology, new media and the endless possibilities of the social and mobile sphere. Read more about her on our 'About Us' page.

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