The Power of Youth: How Invisible Children Orchestrated Kony 2012

To many people unfamiliar with Invisible Children, the Kony 2012 campaign looked like a brilliant example of “viral” media spread. The center of the campaign is a compelling 30-minute film where a father talks to his son about the evil practices of the Ugandan war lord Joseph Kony. The father makes it clear that his number one goal is to make Kony a household name in order to “raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice.” In the days that followed, critics stepped up and critiqued the simplistic narrative (and colonial rhetoric) put forward by Invisible Children. (If you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend Ethan Zuckerman’s “Unpacking Kony 2012.”) Yet, what about the media campaign itself? Activists (and brand marketers) everywhere are in awe of what appears to be a magical campaign that came out of nowhere. But there’s more than meets the eye here.

Over at the SocialFlow blog, Gilad Lotan (my partner) analyzed two aspects of the Invisible Children campaign:

  1. how pre-existing networks helped create the viral spread;
  2. how people targeted celebrities to garner attention philanthropy. There are many important aspects of this blog post, but I want to focus on the role of youth in this process.

Invisible Children is not a new organization. They have spent tremendous effort over the last decade reaching out to youth. They have widespread reach in high schools, colleges, and churches throughout the United States. Many youth are (uncritically) committed to helping stop bad things from happening to other children in Africa. Invisible Children has focused for years on the value of attention philanthropy. They work diligently to do whatever it takes to get people to pay attention to bad things happening in the world. They raise money to raise attention. They leverage celebrities and Hollywood film tactics to reach wide audiences in a hope to activate them to create more attention (and, thus, both funding and political pressure). They engage directly with churches, where word-of-mouth networks in the U.S. are strongest. For the last decade, they have worked on creating films and bringing in celebrities to raise attention to what is happening in Africa, first in Sudan (Darfur) and then in Uganda.

Much to the horror of many human rights activists, Invisible Children is not known for spreading accurate information as much as it’s known for spreading information widely.

Most of how they’ve gotten the message out is by engaging youth. Earlier films have been shown directly to youth (in schools and churches) and youth are actively encouraged to join the organization and participate in their campaigns. They provide toolkits for participation with the primary goal being to amplify attention to a particular issue.

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.

Invisible Children knew that it was targeting culture makers and youth. And Twitter users no less. Indeed, check out the list of “culture makers” that they encouraged youth to target. It’s an interesting mix of liberals (George Clooney, Ellen Degeneres, Bono), conservatives (Rick Warren, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly), geeks (Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg), big philanthropy names (Oprah, Angelina Jolie, Warren Buffett), and pop stars (Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Jay-Z, Justin Bieber). Plus others. They also recommended contacting political figures. (Interestingly, they start with G.W. Bush and Condoleeza Rice and don’t list Obama at all.) As Lotan points out, these celebrities got pummeled with thousands upon thousands of messages from fans, predominantly young fans. And many of them responded.

When celebrities receive this kind of onslaught from their fans – and, especially their younger fans – they pay attention. And so they post out about this. This is exactly where the fuzzy feelings towards attention philanthropy kick in. Young people feel like they did something by getting a celebrity to pay attention to a cause. A celebrity feels like they’ve done some by talking about the cause to a wide audience. And, voila, Invisible Children taps into the attention economy to get their message out.

Yet, there’s more to this. It’s not just anyone who’s paying attention or a small cluster of people that are paying attention from which things radiate. This tag cloud from the SocialFlow blog represents the words that were in the bios of the accounts of those who posted about #stopkony or #kony2012.

Now, check out this network graph of the tweets:

The initial tweets that came out came from seemingly disconnected youth living in Midwestern and Southern towns who frequently refer to Christian values in their bios. In other words, these tweets appear to be coming from communities that Invisible Children had already activated prior to launching Kony 2012. Not only did they then each turn on, but they spread the messages to their friends. This allowed the conversation to “pop” and then spread. The one profile that does have a lot of cluster is the Invisible Children profile, highlighting how their audience was indeed ready to respond to them. But you also see tight clusters that geographically disparate who bridged from the organization and then spread in their local community with a level of intense density. With this kind of graph structure, it’s not surprising that it quickly became a trending topic on Twitter. And then, it could easily spread. Attention begets attention.

I’m especially intrigued by Gilad’s note on the role of religious youth in all of this. Gilad has only begun looking at the data so he doesn’t have a good scope on all of what’s happening, but I’m not surprised by the presence of religious language in the accounts of those who tweeted this message. I very much suspect that a lot of what made this pop has to do with strong pre-existing Christian networks. I’m always surprised at how often people in the tech community regularly underestimate the power of religious networks.

Architecturally, this is a brilliant campaign. It’s really too bad that the message is so deeply flawed. (Again, if you haven’t read Ethan’s post, read it now.)

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? I’m really bothered by how Kony 2012 is all about white people – and primarily white Americans – talking about what should be done in a foreign country to help “poor black people.” I’m glad that NPR and a few other news organizations have sought out Ugandan/African perspectives, but none of those perspectives have broken through the tornado of chaos that has followed this event. So I can’t help but wonder… with the rise of attention philanthropy, are we going to see a new type of attention colonialism?

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6 thoughts on “The Power of Youth: How Invisible Children Orchestrated Kony 2012

  1. Melissa Brough

    Thanks to both you and Gilad Lotan for these thought-provoking analyses about Invisible Children. Regarding your last question, I share your concern and discussed it at length in my chapter “‘Fair Vanity’: The Visual Culture of Humanitarianism in the Age of Commodity Activism” in Commodity Activism: Cultural resistance in neoliberal times (available here; and here In it I talk about the history of humanitarian campaigns that position white Westerners as the representatives (and saviors) of non-white others (particularly African others). I look at how Invisible Children often uses rhetoric that echoes colonial-era tropes. But I also look at what they are doing that is generative and innovative, including the participatory elements of their campaigns. Here are some relevant excerpts:
    “In IC’s media, emphasis is placed on the American donor/activist as much as, if not more so than, IC’s Ugandan beneficiaries. Invisible Children’s videos unapologetically embrace the opportunity for personal growth offered by entrepreneurial participation in the humanitarian adventure. IC sends the winners of high school fundraising competitions to Uganda to visit the schools and camps of internally displaced communities that their funds support. This is the topic of IC’s second documentary, Go; the film follows three U.S. high school students’ experiences in Uganda. The factors responsible for the IDP camp—including the Ugandan government’s discursive framing of the conflict to justify mass, forced displacement—go unquestioned by the students, at least on camera. Instead, the IDP camp serves as the setting for their emotional adventure into a dangerous unknown in an attempt to ‘save’ the Africans from themselves, echoing—indeed regurgitating—familiar missionary and colonialist narratives. This is exemplified when one of the American teenage girls seemingly saves a young Ugandan woman, by convincing her to continue taking her HIV medications; a resolution that, the film suggests, would not have come to pass had it not been for the American teenager. At the same time, the American humanitarian is ‘saved’ as a kind of virtuous, redemptive being.
    The youth’s discourses of personal growth in Go overtly express what more ‘adult’ humanitarians have been less willing to acknowledge: that, at its core, the humanitarian experience is one of finding oneself through the encounter with the (suffering) other—in a sense, a process of mutual saving… Narratives of distant humanitarian crises thus also play a critical role in the constitution of American subjecthood, as selfless and powerful donor, activist, paternal figure or savior.
    The IC Movement is, however, expanding the modes of participation in the international humanitarian sphere, traditionally dominated by elite philanthropists, for a younger American public… The IC “Movement” [the storytelling and advocacy as opposed to their direct aid and development work] encourages innovative fundraising, activist and lobbying techniques… Through organized competitions, IC challenges their student clubs to be entrepreneurial and creative in their fundraising strategies; participants have grown and shaved mustaches, convinced their teachers to shave their heads if a fundraising goal was met (a “shave it to save it” campaign), and landed “floks” of plastic pink flamingos in neighbors’ yards which were subsequently removed for a donation. Club members document these tactics on video and upload and share them on YouTube. IC is seen as a leader in innovate uses of Web 2.0 platforms for non-profit campaigning; their strategies have included an exclusive, semi-secret online social network called the “Vanguard” for young IC supporters wanting “a deeper experience.” Given their remarkable fundraising success, unprecedented U.S. student mobilization for Uganda, cutting-edge uses of Web 2.0 media tools, and unconventionally large proportion of their budget allocated to media production, IC’s claim that they have “redefined the concept of humanitarian work” as a “new brand of charity” may not be entirely unwarranted.
    [Many of IC’s] campaigns involve a degree of participatory spectacle unparalleled in the humanitarian sector… A strength of the participatory model for the production of humanitarian visual culture is that the conscious experience of performing spectacle could cultivate a more self-reflexive, critical practice of visual production and consumption. IC’s events signal the generative potential—and youth appeal—of collaborative spectacle. Yet on the whole, the production and packaging of IC’s media and events to date limit this potential… to meaningfully challenge existing power dynamics; conventional discourses of the relations between Africa and the West, and the role of humanitarian aid in helping to maintain these relations, remain intact.”

    (More on this at and other work on Invisible Children from Henry Jenkins’ research group at:

  2. Colin Creitz

    I’m always surprised at how often people in the tech community regularly underestimate the power of religious networks.

    You’d think that their amazing memetic powers of persistence and recruitment – wholly apart from their content – would make them among the primary objects of study for anyone thinking seriously about social network mechanisms, wouldn’t you? We struggle to retain users for days. Even small NRMs frequently have intergenerational retention. How does this keep sneaking up on us?

  3. Bev Freeman

    Danah, I appreciate your thoughtful writing. I’m a new follower. As for Kony 2012, we can’t overlook the “rightness” of the position. To protect children isn’t really disputable. Colonialism – I tend to think the people who are thoughtful in supporting this understand once free from fear, there is a raft of things to do to help the children have better lives. This will take a partnership – black-white, rich-poor, hopefully supported by philanthropies and NGOs and well meaning people. We can’t be so cynical as to call this type of advocacy “colonial.” I caution on the loose use of that term. One event and campaign like this one can’t cause civil discourse to expand – we have to keep working at it and find other ways to motivate it. This takes long-term commitment. Hopefully Kony 2012 has the effect of goading us all in to commitment. That’s where the real courage is.

  4. The Raven

    “Invisible Children Co-Founder Detained: SDPD,” link.

    I don’t think IC is a trustworthy organization. I suspect they are concerned trolls, rather than concerned.

  5. Piers Young

    Great post.

    And agree with the surprise at how often people in the tech community regularly underestimate the power of religious networks. Had an interesting conversation with a policeman the other day who was involved in fighting sex-trafficking. He was saying that Scotland Yard actively seek out help from the Catholic Church and others. It seems that those being trafficked often come from communities that are off the grid in lots of respects (no post office, no local police station etc) but that often these same communities will have a local pastor, vicar or religious. The police then try to work with the networks already in place. It’s a world away from Twitter.

  6. Bart Campolo

    I am wondering what you make of the apparent disconnect between the online response to the video and the on the street activity it was supposed to inspire. What do you think happened, and what do you think it says about young people and social media?

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