Lessons Learned and Best Practices: #Kony2012

OK, I know – you are probably sick of reading blog posts about Kony 2012, there are a lot of them (I previously wrote on the campaign, trying to find a balance between skepticism and constructive action). But since I participated in TechChange‘s Twitter Chat on Digital Activism a week or two ago, there have been a few linger questions for me. Whether you list Kony 2012 as a raving success or an utter failure – I think its important to understand what it’s taught us about the world of online engagement.

The biggest overarching question, which I will come back to, is how you determine the success of something like this. What are the measures of success not only for an online campaign, but a promotional video, a viral internet phenomena, or an advocacy stunt? Here are a few possible suggestions:

Did the online campaign spark real world action? 

Kony 2012 prescribed some specific actions for its followers, culminating in ‘Cover the Night‘ on April 20th. Posters were put up in cities around the world, and supporters were asked to spend some time volunteering around their communities. Much of the coverage of this event had declared it a flop as followers opted to stay home (and some may even have partook in less savory 4/20 activities), raising accusations of ‘slacktivism.’  So is an online campaign a failure if it doesn’t translate to the streets? How can an online campaign inspire real world action? There are a few components which are important for this translation to the real world.

  • Encourage followers to take small, do-able actions that don’t require an inordinate amount of time or effort. People will click the ‘like’ button, but will the attend a rally? Will they volunteer for your cause? While it is understandable that Invisible Children didn’t hold any organized rallies – the last thing they needed was more controversy if it had gone south – having a more structured series of activities could have helped bolster involvement.
  • Harness the enthusiasm of followers. It’s complete speculation that if ‘Cover the Night’ had occurred closer to the release of the video, there would have been a bigger ground swell, but Kony saw its fifteen minutes come and go long before people were supposed to take to the streets. Timing is everything.
  • Consider the many other external factors. In a recent blog post, Mary C. Joyce notes the work of Clay Shirky and David Faris, and the multi-causal political sphere. People lost track of Kony 2012, or their opinions changed, or hey – maybe they were smoking pot.

Its probably also worth mentioning that things *did* happen after Kony 2012. The US Congress passed resolutions condemning the man, and the AU did commit 5,000 more troops to the cause. Whether these, particularly the last one, were directly linked to the video is hard to know for certain. But, if nothing else, Africa became a cool topic to talk about in the US – not an easy task to accomplish.

How did Kony 2012 change the expectations of online advocacy?

No one doubts that the Kony 2012 video attracted far more attention than anyone was expecting. This was abundantly clear through the response of both the critics and Invisible Children themselves. The bar for advocacy videos has very solidly been raised, with over 90 million views. Even the far less successful sequel has been view more than 2 million times. How can an organization be prepared for something like that? Obviously Invisible Children had a plan of action for this campaign – but it became so overwhelmed by the publicity that it was nearly impossible for the rest of the campaign to succeed. Invisible Children also wasn’t prepared for the backlash and criticism that comes along with viral popularity.

  • Maintaining expectations is essential at all stages of a campaign. It doesn’t help to go in expecting millions of views on your video – that occurrence is still few and far between. But millions of views also doesn’t automatically mean millions of activists. Understanding the reasonable outcomes of these events is important to keep a success from becoming a failure. It is even more important to maintain appropriate expectations for followers and critics of a campaign – the people who can make or break it.
  • In his blog, Anthony Kosner hits elegantly upon a great point – when campaigns gain viral status, they need to evolve their strategy. While Kony 2012 took a small turn – adding a community service call to ‘Cover the Night’ – they didn’t keep up with the tide of interest. Kosner suggest that Kony 2012 could have become a great source of information on this conflict (a topic I will touch on a bit later), but there are many other avenues they could have gone down.
  • It would also seem essential to have a back-up plan. Or at least anticipate some of the outcomes and act preemptively when things seem to be running out of your control. This will give you a second to take a deep breath before forging on.

What is the audience for an online campaign?

Something that I think Invisible Children did remarkably well is connecting with their audience. They knew how to pull at the heartstrings of American youth, and tell a compelling story that would resonate across the internet. What they didn’t anticipate was everyone else. We all know the internet isn’t private – but the internet isn’t only 16-25 year old Americans either. Kony 2012 was not meant to engage young Africans or international development experts, but it was only a matter of time before they came across it. So how do you address that? How do you target an audience while still accounting for everyone else?

One of the biggest failing of Kony 2012 – the reverse side of this coin – is the omission of the African voice. While Invisible Children tried to make up for it in the sequel, the damage was already done. For far too long, the story of Africa has been told by white westerners, and no matter how well meaning they are its impossible for them to tell the story properly. We should spend more time listening and less time assuming. While not all advocacy campaigns will run into this problem, it is important to consider who you are trying to please – and more importantly who you are morally obligated to please.

Is ignorance better than partial knowledge? 

I think the most interesting part of the TechChange discussion for me was the discussion around whether or not a little bit of education is worse than complete ignorance. I’m firmly of the belief that the more people know the better, that advocacy has to start somewhere even if it is with semi-informed American youth. But the argument was made that content like Kony 2012 reinforces harmful stereotypes and leads to the wrong kinds of advocacy (advocating for military intervention in Central Africa, for example). I still feel really conflicted about this – if people are left in the dark, how is anything going to change? But at the same time, how can you avoid stereotypes, generalizations and misunderstanding when you only have thirty minutes to explain decades of marginalization and conflict.

  • Like I mentioned above, one of the things Invisible Children *could* have done, but didn’t do was turn the campaign informational. While they tried in the sequel video to tell a more complex story – they missed the boat on informing the public. They could have linked to resources, got experts on their side, and generally been the go-to organization for information on the LRA.
  • Alternatively – and again this is my humble opinion – external actors could also have taken up this opportunity to really educate the public about what is going on in Central Africa, either by partnering with Invisible Children, or steering the conversation to this end. A lot of time was spent tearing down Invisible Children – with legitimate concerns mind you – but that effort could have been used to teach. (Of course, this is a grave generalization – some of the experts I respect most got together a produce this e-book for exactly that purpose). But it does beg the question, what role do experts have in advocacy campaigns and the fall out of things like Kony 2012?
So in the end it all ties back to the question of success – and what the measures of success are. Kony 2012 managed to engage audiences, spark conversation, and encourage millions of people to think about the world for at least half an hour. But, it also promoted antiquated, harmful stereotypes, encouraged military action in yet another place in the world, and arguably dehumanized further the victims of a terrible conflict – with style. There are real lessons to be learned from all this – and that’s what I want to focus on.


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