Why Did “Kony 2012” Fizzle Out?



The “Kony 2012” video became YouTube’s most-watched video ever. Upon its release, it drew rapid promises of activism, reportedly from millions of people who pledged to get involved in local activities for Invisible Children’s “make Kony famous” campaign, which was set for April 20, 2012. That date has now come and gone, and the actual turnout—almost everywhere—was lackluster and desultory. Some 3.5 million people had pledged or signed up with Invisible Children to participate in “cover the night” activities, but the planned blanketing of communities with Kony posters, murals, and stickers doesn’t seem to have happened on the massive scale first expected, as the enthusiasm waned after the release of the video on March 8, 2012.

Like many people, if we looked (and we did, both in Washington, D.C. and Boston, Mass.), we could find the occasional poster stapled to a lightpost or some sidewalk chalking, but not much else. Reports from around the world—in the U.K., Canada, Australia, and elsewhere—indicated pretty sparse showings, although there must have been some communities which drew a little more turnout. In Seattle, one report detailed a few dozen teenagers putting up Kony 2012 posters in Pike Place Market only to have a trailing security officer pull them down.

Why did this extraordinary campaign sort of peter out? Something complex happened, and there is likely no one explanation as to why. As such, we offer some commentary within that is not meant to serve as a definitive explanation, but rather to suggest a variety of themes that merit more attention:

Video Killed the Activist Star?

Invisible Children cannot have expected to garner the hits that the Kony video got. Who in the IC shop would have had the temerity to predict 88 million views on YouTube alone, with estimates topping 105 million views overall for the original video? It was a stunning number, but as it focused attention on the advent of viral videos, the video itself became the event. While the video made Kony famous, as IC had wanted, the actions on April 20th were unlikely to make Kony any more famous than he was through the video. In that sense, the video was a huge success, but one which also sucked much of the energy out of the organizing, which may be one reason why online views didn’t translate to action on the street.

Some of the press coverage of the lackluster Kony turnout implied that the results should have been anticipated. This wasn’t the use of social media by Arab Spring protesters or by Occupy Wall Street activists. It was a click-and-send-your-money approach, which much of the press seems to have concluded attracted people who could be active using a mouse on the computer, but not in going to the streets in the model of more traditional mass activism. Many have referred to this phenomenon as “slacktivism” or “clicktivism,” “the modern tendency for people to ‘engage’ in a social action that involves clicking on a web page but then doing nothing more.”

Did Invisible Children fail to capture the names and contact information of the viewers of the videos in a way that allowed them to effectively organize during the period between the video’s release in early March and the turnout event in April? Did they follow up to make sure viewers would do more than click? Was the two months between the video’s release and the day of action too long to wait? Or was it too short for IC to come up with compelling ways of translating 3.5 million online pledges of support into people marching for action against Kony?

Ugandans not on Board

Not long after the release of the original Kony video, a counter-narrative began to emerge. Kony’s heyday, it seems, was long ago, and his Lord’s Resistance Army was now a couple of hundred renegades operating in the corner of Uganda and the Congo, on the run from the Ugandan army. The presence of Kony and his army in that little corner of Africa is a nightmare for the region, but his influence is nothing like it once was. Ugandans reacted quite negatively, both to purported errors of fact and analysis in the IC video and to the implicit portrayal of them as helpless victims unable to deal with Kony unless Americans came to their rescue. Some clearly felt used and abused by Invisible Children, as evidenced by the reactions of Ugandans who found themselves filmed for Kony Part II. For some, it was a matter of, “Why Kony now?”  If IC were concerned about horrible conflicts in Africa where communities are terrorized, they could have picked from several of more recent vintage, particularly as Sudan (Khartoum) dispatched Russian-made helicopter gunships to bomb communities along its border with the recently independent South Sudan (Juba) and threatened all-out war.

Where Is the Money Going?

Little plastic or rubber wristbands are now commonplace in many charitable campaigns. Invisible Children offered viewers a $30 Kony 2012 action kit of various materials, posters, and wristbands or a $10 wristband. How much did IC get from the sales of these kits? Until the information is released in IC’s Form 990, there’s no really verifiable number, but Kony 2012 skeptics have charged that IC made tens of millions. For its part, IC says it will not provide information on how much it has raised through Kony 2012 until the summer at the earliest. Still, we can assemble enough information to get some rough sense of how much money IC took in from Kony 2012.

Assume that there were at least 106 million online views of the first Kony video (88 million on YouTube, 18 million on Vimeo), though we suspect that number is conservative as the viral video was shown in a variety of other venues. Fundraising experts might anticipate a one percent response to this kind of pitch, and though we think that is also conservative based on the emotional reaction the video sparked among many people, we can use a lower fundraising response rate of 0.5 percent in order to be absolutely conservative. One half of one percent of Kony video viewers buying $30 action kits is a gross of $15 million. Remember that last year, before the Kony 2012 video, Invisible Children had revenues of nearly $14 million, $10 million of which came from contributions.

IC had expected 500,000 viewers of the video, not 200 times that many, and after the video, IC itself claimed 3.5 million people had pledged to join in the cover the night actions, many likely to have donated money or purchased kits. Additional institutional contributions in response to Kony 2012 would have added to the take, including a gift of $2 million from the Oprah Winfrey Foundation. $1 million came in toward helping make the video from JP Morgan Chase, the result of Invisible Children’s winning the Chase Community Giving popularity contest on Facebook. A big supporter of Invisible Children, Humanity United, says that it has provided more than $1 million to the organization.

Despite what appears likely to be an impressive financial haul, there is a sense among some that they are not sure what Invisible Children was doing with the money, or if it was putting it to worthwhile use. As questions emerged about the prospective IC financial haul, doubts built concerning the IC tactics, strategy, and objectives. One Ugandan critic was quoted saying, “We expect the money they are using for making videos and organising for us to watch it, to be given to us for business. We have children to feed and provide them decent shelter. Life is difficult but can the video solve it?” Another, who was in the film, likely because her face was mutilated by the LRA, said, “I became sad when I saw my photo in the video. I knew they were using it to profit.” Those nonprofits that are building schools and training teachers in areas of Uganda where Kony is only a nightmarish memory will probably look to IC for an accounting of how it spent or will spend what is likely to have been a remarkable fundraising haul. That such critics do not know how Invisible Children is spending the money may have been another factor in slowing the group’s momentum.

Satire—or Cynicism—Sets In

Live by the YouTube video, die by it. As criticisms piled up about Invisible Children and its strategy, so did the satires and lampoons. Among the most watched and devastating were parodies shown on Comedy Central’s “South Park” and “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” as well as HBO’s “Funny or Die” (which featured “Law and Order SVU” star Christopher Meloni plotting to hunt Kony in a “Dog the Bounty Hunter” outfit). Those were the mainstream parodies, but there were also many other satirical videos on YouTube, the medium in which Kony 2012 caught fire, that may well have received as much attention as the satires on U.S. television, including one that had 4.3 million views that went beyond satire into outright cynicism as to IC’s motives.

Who Are These Guys?

Initially, the reaction to Kony 2012 among some was, “Who are these guys?” This question came up not in reference to Kony or the LRA, but to Invisible Children. They weren’t very well known among activists of all sorts, and were not particularly well known in international NGO circles for the most part. As the skeptical started digging, they discovered some religious evangelism underpinning IC and even charges that IC was hostile to LGBT populations (including reported connections to an anti-LGBT group called “The Family”). This is an important issue in dealing with a country like Uganda, in which evangelicals had been promoting horribly anti-gay legislation (under the direction of Uganda’s less-than-gay-friendly autocrat, Yoweri Museveni). IC did issue a statement on April 9th opposing Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill. While there may be issues here with IC’s political and religious affiliations and motivations, the critics have to realize that NGOs that operate in conflict areas are often religious NGOs—to their credit. Faith-based NGOs that will dive into areas where few others will go to provide needed services. Nonetheless, Invisible Children’s limited previous visibility within international NGO circles probably didn’t help it much, as there was no coalition to come to its defense when things got rough.

And things did get rough, particularly when, around the mid-point between the release of the video and the scheduled global day of action, IC co-founder Jason Russell had a disturbing and sad public incident involving nudity and other troubling behavior. It would too easy, snarky, tragic, and plain wrong to simply attribute the Kony 2012 event as having flopped because one of the top people at Invisible Children had something of a meltdown on the streets of San Diego and was subsequently hospitalized. But up to that point, the narrator of the Kony 2012 video, Russell, was positioned as something of a hero, counter-posed against the anti-hero Joseph Kony. With the public incident, the heroic narrative cloaking Russell frayed. Russell took on more of the character of a Shakespearean tragic hero—a little like Brutus in Julius Caesar or the titular character from King Lear—perceived by some as well motivated but weakened by a tragic flaw that, in this case, undermined the Invisible Children story. Unlike those in Shakespeare’s day, however, that tragic moment was magnified by the viral video distribution of the Russell incident.

A Runaway Train?

IC must have sensed that something might be going wrong when the Kony 2012 Part II video garnered less than one percent of the viewership of the original, a pretty clear indication of a significant loss of momentum in the campaign. Maybe if IC wasn’t so tied to a video strategy that it became resistant to editing and change, it might have been able to redirect the energies it wanted to channel into April 20th events elsewhere. When it began to appear that April 20th was going to look weak, some redirection might have been in order, but it may it may be that IC had unleashed a movement that couldn’t be re-corralled and IC couldn’t extricate itself from an agenda that needed to be reshaped. Perhaps it was on an inexorable path toward April 20th, whatever it might turn out to be. However, armed with lots of money and high name recognition, Invisible Children might have been able to revise its agenda to do something else.

Measuring the Success and Evaluating the Lessons of “Kony 2012”

If Invisible Children’s measure of success comes down to the number of people putting up posters, IC’s “Make Kony Famous” rallies of last week don’t measure up. The less than fully organized and underfunded Occupy movement spread virally throughout much of the world, accomplished much more with much less, and has changed the narrative not on one man like Kony, but on the entire structure of economic inequities in our society. On the other hand, IC and the Kony 2012 campaign got the endorsements of Hollywood celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and George Clooney and, more importantly, the approval of President Barack Obama.

It also spawned a rare bipartisan initiative in the U.S. Senate, introduced by Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), to condemn Kony. How many initiatives, viral or otherwise, garner explicit commentary from the president and move the U.S. Congress into action within less than a two-month period? Perhaps more substantively, within a short time after the launch of the video, the African Union offered 5,000 soldiers, with U.S. logistical support, to join the hunt for Kony.

The story of Kony 2012, like a mix of Shakespearean tragedy and farce, may yet have several scenes, or perhaps an entire act, to go. The San Diego-based nonprofit launched an event that took on a life of its own in which the serious task of taking on a heinous criminal like Kony mixed with the absurdity of South Park parodies and the choice of 4/20—the annual “Weed Day” celebration of marijuana in the U.S.—as the “cover the night” day of action. The implications of Kony 2012, however, are much deeper than whether warlord Joseph Kony and the remnants of his army will finally be captured by Ugandan forces or brought to trial at the International Criminal Court. A major nonprofit sector discussion should be pursued to analyze what the Kony 2012 debacle has to teach about organizing, advocacy, social media messaging, and international aid.

  • Bruce Wilson

    As the journalist who has done a good deal (though far from all) of the research tying Invisible Children to the evangelical right, I would note that I have not, myself, charged Invisible Children with being “anti-gay”. Rather, the IC nonprofit was launched with “crucial” funding (IC’s own characterization) from a major funder of the push for California’s anti-same sex marriage Proposition Eight; during IC’s early years as a nonprofit it received heavy funding from the National Christian Foundation, which heavily funds antigay ministries (such as the Family Research Council, designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group); Invisible Children has extensive social and institutional ties to The Fellowship, and so on.

    But one very telling aspect that’s barely entered the discourse is this – Invisible Children is also listed as a dues-paying ministry in the evangelical Barnabas Group, a politically right-wing nonprofit which specializes in fostering promising, cutting edge evangelical ministry efforts, many of which engage in deceptive forms of “stealth” evangelism. Invisible Children’s CEO Ben Keesey’s name is on IC’s 2007 application to join the Barnabas Group, whose ministries include the Family Research Council.

    Invisible Children’s 2007 application to join the Barnabas Group stated that the “PRIMARY customer [of Invisible Children] is: The youth of America (age 15-25)”.

    Not all of the evidence has yet come to light, but from what we already know there is a very strong case that Invisible Children is deceiving young Americans it targets, by not informing them that one of the principle objectives is evangelizing: them.

    There are also major human rights considerations – Uganda, with which IC has worked closely, has been implicated in a wide spectrum of human rights violations that, by some accounts, place it in the running as one of the bloodier of regimes in Africa.

    The 2010 UN Mapping Report suggested Uganda might be guilty of genocide in the DR Congo, a 2005 International Court of Justice Ruling at the Hague charged Uganda with systematically looting the DR Congo (and with a range of human rights violations), last year Ugandan troops and police forced 20,000 Northern Ugandans from their lands and burned their homes, in the late 1990s the Ugandan army violently drove hundreds of thousands of Northern Ugandans from the Acholi tribe into concentration camps (see Dr. Adam Branch’s new book from Oxford University Press), the government of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni is engaged in a brutal crackdown against his political opposition, Museveni routinely publicly claims rich Western gays are bribing young Ugandans into homosexuality (a quintessential antigay conspiracy trope of the US evangelical right), and so on.

    Northern Ugandans themselves don’t seem to want a military crusade to bring Joseph Kony to justice ; indeed, on April 13, 2012 ,during an IC-organized screening of IC’s two most recent KONY films in the Northern Ugandan town of Gulu, Ugandans at the screening became so enraged by Invisible Children’s videos that they began pelting Invisible Children organizers with rocks.

    Efforts such as the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative seek a nonviolent resolution, as do many former members and kidnapped victims of the LRA. It is horrific that Invisible Children, rallying young Americans to lobby for a military solution, is marginalizing such authentic Ugandan voices opposed to further militarization of the East/Central Africa region.

    Many critics of United States involvement in East/Central Africa would note that close U.S. allies in the region Rwanda and Uganda have been charged with massive human rights violations – on an epic scale, really – in the Democratic Republic of The Congo, and that underlying the conflict in the Congo, which has claimed millions of civilians lives, is the geo-strategic battle, between the U.S. and other Western powers, and China, for access to the Congo’s incomparably rich natural resources and mineral wealth. Human rights would seem to rank low in that equation.

    Why the bipartisan U.S. political push to build U.S. military presence in the DR Congo, ostensibly to “get” Joseph Kony? Cynics – or realists – might see something other than an impartial concern for human rights at work.

    Bruce Wilson

  • rick cohen

    Dear Bruce: Thanks for the extended comment, much appreciated, and I appreciate the clarification regarding your work. I of course saw some of your reporting on IC’s funding sources and I’m hoping to see more. And yes, I actually saw and cited the article from Uganda about the rock-pelting reaction to the showing of Kony 2012 Part II. I’d make three points in regards to your very interesting analysis:

    1. I am always concerned when I see organizations linked to groups such as The Family and the Barnabas Group, but I am also aware that some of the most active NGOs operating in developing countries are very strongly religious organizations such as World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse. In the NPQ Newswire, we have written about them and others, expressing deep reservations about their discriminatory employment practices and other factors, but I am also aware that many of the NGOs that go into conflict areas are the faith-based NGOs, and if it weren’t for the likes of some of them, some areas of the world would be getting much less assistance and development aid. But my question, much like that raised in the parody videos, is what is IC actually doing to provide assistance in Uganda? IC has issued a statement that it isn’t anti-LGBT, but what is it delivering as concrete assistance?
    2. Having talked to people who have recently returned from Uganda, it is clear that Museveni is an autocrat wrapped in an array of bad policies and practices. But do you think that the U.S. is really trying to get into Uganda (or the Congo through its military assistance to the African Union to track down Kony) with an agenda of getting to Uganda’s oil the DR Congo’s natural resources? One would hope that the Obama Administration, having seen the failure of its Afghanistan mission, would be chary of military missions in places which offer as little in the way of positive prospects as the U.S. military patrolling Kabul and Kandahar.
    3. What really struck me as disturbing in a way was a dimension of what you’ve cited as IC’s deliberate targeting of “the youth of America (aged 15-25).” That a video prepared and distributed by people of unknown provenance (to most of the 120 million viewers) on an issue completely foreign to their experience and past exposure would generate, at least initially, the huge outpouring of commitments of action is kid of scary. In the immediate days after the Kony 2012 video in March, I saw high school kids energized on this issue like nothing ever before. IC might have blown the follow-up in some ways, but it had at the outset quite an army of young supporters who had connected with it like they had connected with little before. Am I wrong to think that there’s a scary dimension to this? That a video that targets activism on Joseph Kony is perhaps all well and good, but the next such huge mobilization might be less than salutory?

    Thanks so much for your response.


  • Frances Post

    Simplistically this seems another example of where the tool overtook the strategy. Social media is an incredibly powerful tool, but it is a tool and its effectiveness is achieved when embedded within a robust overall strategy. Thanks for this fantastic overview!

  • a mom in california

    Is there no more religious freedom? Can an organization not be appreciated and allowed to support the values they hold dear while pursuing worthwhile advocacy for children? Yes… let’s mobilize and target the youth of America (15-25) to get involved in making a difference in the world and looking beyond themselves. Why does an organization have to be criticized because of it’s Christian affiliations? Why is being anti-Christian (proactively against Christians) ok? Is that any better than being anti-gay? Faith based NGO’s are doing a lot of good. They are not asking you to work for them and be forced into believing what they believe. Why has the good news of forgiveness, restoration, and redemption become a plague to society? Last I saw, caring for the poor, healing the sick, and standing up for widows and orphans in their distress is something we can all agree on. That is true evangelism. So what’s wrong with it? And if someone believes sex is intended for a monogamous marriage relationship between a man and a woman, why are they labeled as hateful? It’s their personal view of morality and sexual ethics based on their own faith.

  • Steve Maack

    Well, that explains the hand-written “Kony 2012” piece of paper that was scotch-taped under the four mailboxes of my neighbors and myself. I had no idea what it referred to, why it was there, whether it was an indicator that a party or event was happening at one of the neighbors or what it was all about. Now I at least know.

    Perhaps I’m in the wrong “demographic” (as market researchers like to say) but I only occasionally look at YouTube videos and had not heard or seen that one. Although I’m interested in Africa and am glad to hear stories about it, American media rarely covers things African. BBC, TV 5 Monde, and Al Jazeera do a much better job of covering African developments on American TV than any of the U.S. TV news shows that I watch. Was Kony the guy being interviewed on French TV that I only half paid attention to and didn’t listen to the whole thing?

    I had not heard of “Invisible Children” until today and given what Bruce Wilson wrote, if I had known that, I would not have supported them. Part of the issue for Invisible Children might have been over-dependence or sole dependence on social media — and if other media had been used then there would likely have been more “investigative journalism” into the organization — and I don’t usually watch Fox News if the story aired there. The news media itself seems to be split more and more into left and right wing factions with spin one way or another, and only a few sources offering more balanced views.

    Social media may be good at getting the attention of a certain segment of the population, but not everyone uses it. Like many things on the Internet, just because something is posted on YouTube doesn’t mean that it is true, valid, supportable, or worth supporting according to my values and mores — and many videos of questionable value for “serious” organizing are posted on YouTube. The “Occupy” movement succeeded partly because it had f-t-f meetings, people coming to those who knew how to organize people, and already established organizations showing up to support occupations, marches, etc. It is continuing because groups like “Move On” and “Rebuild the Dream” have taken up causes that the “Occupy” movement itself helped surface and crystallize as among the most important that middle class and lower class people are concerned about. From what I have seen, those are well-organized groups sympathetic to “Occupy” causes but very different from the amorphous, unstructured “Occupy” — which was a movement more than anything. I think it takes organized non-profit action, perhaps by multiple organizations, to move broad agendas forward. That doesn’t grow up overnight and some non-profits are less adept and handling and fostering widespread, national or international action than others. Perhaps that was the case with “Invisible Children”? And trust of any non-profit needs to be cultivated and fostered — or a YouTube generated “buzz” and good intentions will evaporate as quickly as it is created when internet afficionados with short attention spans move on to the next fad video.

  • Nessa

    Its just like your new years eve resolution you want to do it but you just cant find the time for it or some people just simply forget out it..

  • Dave

    “The “Kony 2012” video became YouTube’s most-watched video ever.” Umm, have you ever used YouTube, there are countless videos with more views. Classic journalism fail, don’t worry about the facts, focus on the opinions.

  • Ray


    What’s wrong with being anti-LGBT? Surely, following the rules of ‘liberalism’, there’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, only individual perceptions. Each individual makes their own choices, and no one value trumps another. That being the case – as it most certainly is in the Liberalism prevalent in US politics – on what possible basis should one deride someone is not pro-LGBT.