64 million views on YouTube, with over 1.2 million likes and counting. In just 4 days. Boasting an additional 15.5 million views on Vimeo, 625 thousand likes on Facebook and countless followers, retweets and mentions on Twitter, Kony2012 is without doubt a phenomenally successful social media campaign. And it’s only just starting.
What’s even more impressive about Kony2012, is that it’s in no way related to the usual memes and cultural stereotypes of online socializing. There are no funny kittens, no cool gadgets and no ill-mannered celebrities around. This is serious.
The core of the Kony2012 project is a 30 minute film about a documentary filmmaker’s pledge to stop the atrocities of an African warlord and bring him to justice. Because that’s who Joseph Kony is. A man who allegedly abducts children, physically abuses them and trains them to kill and mutilate people. A monster, who has been committing crimes against humanity for the last 25 years or so. A personification of archetypal evil, completely unknown to most of us until somebody decided that the only way to catch him would be to make him world famous.
During all these years, Joseph Kony had never threatened the lives and prosperity of the people addressed by this international appeal. The media never mentioned his name. He was invisible. But this time it’s different, and what makes it different is a story well told.
By contrasting the traumatic childhood memories of an Ugandan boy with the absolute innocence of his own son, director Jason Russell manages to emotionally trigger public awareness. Kony now haunts people’s dreams and makes them feel guilty. Internet users around the globe share his story and contribute in any way they can in order to stop him. That results in a build up of political pressure at an unprecedented speed. It remains to be seen if the popularity of this crusade will oblige the US government to deploy military forces in yet another war-torn and poverty-stricken country that just happens to have significant oil resources.
Having virtually no supporters apart from his own bloodthirsty companions, Joseph Kony is the perfect villain. Too perfect, to be exact. From the very beginning of this campaign, there has been a wide range of criticism regarding its motives. Some people offer no evidence to their claim that Kony is already dead and all the donation money goes to the pockets of greedy activists and corrupt government officials. Others say it’s a CIA conspiracy in order to find a good enough excuse to set a foothold in the region. And there are also people who argue this is all an Evangelist plot or a corporate media hype that aims to distract the citizens of the Western world from attending their own daunting issues.
To be honest with you, I don’t really care. Please don’t get me wrong on this one – of course I agree that child abusing warlords should be stopped at any cost. Preferably without resorting to military invasions and civil wars that inevitably lead to the creation of such warlords. Further than that, I consider myself far too unqualified to pass judgment on anybody involved in either the conflict or the debate about it. My gut feeling tends to support the arguments that this young lady presents, but I might as well be wrong.
What’s more important for me is the creative and ambitious use of the medium. Above all, Kony2012 is a methodically planned and skillfully produced cross media project, aiming to attract massive attention and support.
On a first level, it’s a mechanism that targets huge chunks of the international audience and tells them an appealing story. A story that involves a horrific past and the promise for a collective redemption. Not forgetting the merchandise, where an “action kit” translates to a couple of bracelets and a t-shirt. It’s all for a good cause.
On a second level, Kony2012 urges viewers to interact, collaborate and demand change; providing them with all the necessary infrastructure to do so. You can sign, donate, share, join or write a letter to famous pop stars and policy makers. You can take to the streets, stick posters on walls and protest for justice. Maybe you can even start a war. Against an unknown criminal who may or may not live in a far away country you know nothing about.
On a third level, Kony2012 is what Jason Russell, none other but the man who started it all, tells us in the very opening of the film: an experiment. A social experiment of mass manipulation to be precise, executed on a scale already nearing 1% of the world population. Whether this specific propaganda piece has a hidden political agenda or not seems to be secondary. The same goes for its ability to bring its story into an irreversible conclusion. What I find fascinating is that a) it works, and b) it’s open source.
Unlike electoral and commercial advertizing campaigns, this particular mechanism seems transparent enough for anyone to copy and repeat. Or even improve. The networking and information channels are free, crowd sourcing and crowd funding techniques are rapidly developing, potential human resources are limitless. For the first time in history, a worldwide movement of millions can appear out of nowhere within just a couple of days. All it takes is a strong narrative and a few years of painstaking preparation. Finding the truth, raising an issue, spreading the word and giving people a chance to participate in something they believe in. I can assure you it’s not as easy as it may sound. Organizing a campaign of that size demands expertise, diplomacy, talent and focus. Money and lack of sleep also.
Meanwhile, there is a global economic and political turmoil going on, which has caused the emergence of radical social movements and plenty of public debate. Perhaps the next meme will be to bring down a heartless banker. Or perhaps it will be to die for an oil company, misled to believe you are doing it to save children. By raising the bets, Kony2012 brings us a step closer to an adventurous future. A future where virally spread social influence and grass roots collaboration will eventually manage to bring change. For better or worse.