Kony & Kardashian 2012: Viral, Vital, Virile?

The Kony2012 campaign pledged that the scourge of Joseph Kony would be eradicated by the moment we’d all be celebrating New Year’s 2013. Despite the massive media frenzy prompted by the “viral video” that launched the campaign ten months earlier, this very deadline passed nearly unnoticed. But as the year ended, another human rights issue was viral. Reality television mega-star Kim Kardashian’s celebrity prowess drew the world’s gaze to a glittering shopping mall in—and with activists’ encouragement, to the restive streets of—the repressive Persian Gulf Kingdom of Bahrain.

Let’s call this Kardashian2012.

“If Only They Know… They Will Do Something”

As surely as day follows night, the bright light of awareness will expunge evil’s darkness. Were it ever so… and were it ever so simple. The Kony2012 campaign, launched by the group “Invisible Children” with what is described as the most viral advocacy video in history, was apparently premised on the deeply flawed assumption that awareness leads automatically to action. It is an immensely naïve, profoundly attractive, and potentially distracting and dangerous proposition.

Kony2012 emphatically disabuses us of any such notion. Awareness is a crucial first step in promoting change. A lesson I began to learn as a journalist covering terrible human rights abuses in Uganda in 1981 was that witnessing and reporting is essential, but very rarely sufficient to bring change. [Please see If Only They Knew, They Would Do Something…FAIL!”, below] The most significant result Kony2012 produced was many many many MANY people saying “J.Kony is bad”. An early and cogent critique of Kony2012 came from Human Rights Watch researcher Ida Sawyer, who appears in the video, and very quickly urged the sort of practical actions that experienced human rights advocates employ in efforts to affect policy. A viral video, even history’s most viral, and concerning an issue as grave as pervasive abuse of children and others in conflict, may leave behind little than the clamor of its own echo chamber. Disconnected from viable solutions and actions to realize them, awareness of abuses may prove little more than voyeurism gilded in the clothes of concern.

Kony2012Children Sell

Kony2012 was nothing less than a virtual Children’s Crusade. It reminds us that in advocacy [as in most marketing], children are a good “sell”—and can also be easily mobilized. Youth “fads” long preceded the Internet but their virtual vectors of contagion are today far swifter and broader. The emphasis on child victims and survivors of Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army offered the most innocent and “worthy” subjects for our attention and concern—as do many appeals from long-established and highly reputable rights and aid groups. And some organizations, like War Child, are aimed directly at ameliorating the impact of conflict on children.

The video’s use of Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell’s young son furthers the narrative arc of innocence, connecting online first-worlders to the suffering of children in Africa through an affluent—and super-cute—blond California kid. The 29-minute film, stupendously long for an Internet advocacy pitch, is indeed well constructed. It opens with views of earth from space, inspiring new age music, and jump-cuts of social media featuring children, their rather out-of–touch elders, and a baby’s birth. Pop culture icons get screen time. The video’s Ugandan “star”, Jacob Acaye, puts a human face to human rights abuse. The suffering of children depicted is heart-rending. Heartfelt pledges are sworn. Virtual bonds are sealed. Yet Kony2012’s simplicity seems most attractive to naïve audiences, and appears to have resonated most successfully with younger teenagers—in part because of the simplistic depiction of a problem [J.Kony] and its solution [kill him], and because the action demanded of viewers to write their favorite pop stars in earnest hopes of enlisting them to STOP EVIL was to youngsters an enormously exciting and ennobling proposition.

The video’s massive appeal evoked a commensurate tsunami of commentariat reflection on the merits of its videography, numerous factual errors, its creators’ assumptions, the demand for a military solution in an evangelical Christian context [please see “Messianic Foes?”, below], the roles of social media, the roots of “badavocacy”, and most usefully, reporting on the actual situation on the ground in northern Uganda and neighboring countries. Even China’s state-run Xinhua News agency joined the fray. On 05 March 2013, exactly a year after it was launched, Kony2012 had garnered 96,687,788 hits on YouTube, and 18.4 million more on Vimeo. A Google search for “Kony2012”, also on 05 March 2012, returned “about 6,230,000 results”.

But Kony today remains free to kill, and LRA depredations continue. As a small and nimble [and well-funded] NGO, Invisible Children appears to have done some good work on the ground in Uganda and Congo, including previously setting up early warning radio relays in areas then threatened by the LRA. It now co-sponsors an interesting LRA abuse-tracking website. But the hunt for Joseph Kony and the scattered LRA bands he nominally leads did not intensify because of the Kony2012 video or the massive attention it generated. It was earlier lobbying by a constellation of groups (including Invisible Children) that encouraged the 2009 deployment of a small force of US advisors tasked with helping local militaries pursue Kony.

After issuing Kony2012, Invisible Children was lauded with rafts of supportive statements by politicians and officials. Yet by the moment the video went viral, the Lord’s Resistance Army had been reduced to little more than ill-organized bands of thugs roaming remote forests in Central Africa. It posed no strategic threat to the United States, or indeed to any African country. There would be no massive multinational offensive to eliminate these brigands. On the ground, nothing really changed.

Kardashian2012—Celebrity Sells

Reality TV fixture Kim Kardashian’s visit to the Persian Gulf Kingdom of Bahrain to promote a milkshake franchise evoked fan hysteria. This was certainly a publicity stunt; whatever Kardashian offers the public is calculated to promote her personal brand. Perhaps of the “any publicity is good publicity” school, she seemed supremely indifferent if not utterly oblivious to the Bahraini regime’s ongoing human rights abuses.  “I just got to Bahrain!” she tweeted on arrival, “OMG can I move here please? Prettiest place on earth!” If Kardashian’s celebrity would sell milkshakes, it could also be courted to create controversy. Democracy activists and human rights groups seized the moment to swing the media spotlight to abuses in Bahrain.

Leading Bahraini human rights activist Maryam Alkhawaja’s warning to Kardashian that her celebrity status was being used to whitewash the repression in the oil-rich autocracy was picked up by various YouTube pundits. Her visit was met by what Western media described as “Islamist” opposition demonstrations, as well as mocking re-tweets. The blogosphere was abuzz… perhaps especially after recent revelations of top stars raking in despots’ dollars more ready to disparage celebrities consorting with dictators.

And of course, media love controversy, especially celebrity controversy. Even New York’s Daily News and the New York Post, tabloids that typically offer scant international coverage unless Americans are killed far from home or Israel is affected, gave the story play, albeit with little context of the Kingdom’s ongoing human rights violations.

Arguably, human rights groups and activists who seized upon Kim Kardashian’s Bahrain junket to highlight abuses and US support for its ruling family were more effective in raising genuine awareness of a human rights issue than the makers of Kony2012. Similar efforts have focused on the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix [no worries, says its boss] and the football school run by the world’s most popular sports franchise, top English side Manchester United; teenager Ahmad Shams was reportedly wearing a Man U jersey when he was shot dead by police during March 2011 protests in Bahrain\’s capital, Manama.

But even compared to fast cars and football champions, Kim Kardashian is a tabloid titan. Unlike her, however, Bahrain’s ruling family understands that not all attention is positive. Reputational risks [e.g., killing unarmed demonstrators and torturing detainees, including journalists] might undermine its standing with European and American publics, and so has sought help from richly-paid PR touts to polish its global image. [J.Kony, we can guess, would not grasp this—or simply rely on divine guidance.]

Kardashian2012 might have been a net minus to Bahrain’s international reputation. A Google search for “Kardashian Bahrain” on 05 March 2012 returned “about 3,800,000 results,” few of them only about milkshakes. Yet on the ground, nothing really changed. [And a wtf aside: Kardashian also found time—a paid endorsement?—to tweet glowingly about some dentists in Kuwait.]

Disregarding the Pain of Others: Strategic Dis/Interest

The NY Daily News’s short article on Kardashian in Bahrain closing sentence plainly soft-pedaled the regime’s abuses: “Bahrain, where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based, is trying to overcome nearly two years of unrest among its majority Shi\’ite Muslims demanding political reforms and equality with the Sunni Muslims who rule the kingdom.” Writing that Bahrain is “trying to overcome…unrest” rather that “brutally seeking to suppress…dissent” is a typically passive and euphemistic formula America’s mainstream media often apply to repression by America’s more reliable allies—or, for that matter, to torture committed by the U.S. Government.

And these few words in the Daily News: “… where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based….” capture why persuading US leaders to pressure their Bahraini counterparts to respect human rights is so very difficult. United States strategic interests in the Persian Gulf and its continuing confrontation with Iran plainly trump any putative American commitment to protect rights and promote democracy in Bahrain, or in Saudi Arabia, etc.

These twin eruptions of mass issue awareness instruct us that “viral” may be neither “vital” to public debate, nor “virile” in moving matters from the public record onto the policy agenda. Mass awareness absent effective policy advocacy typically achieves little. And strong national security interests—in the Persian Gulf per Kardashian2012—or strategic disinterest in Central Africa regarding Kony2012—can each in their own way raise formidable barriers to convincing governments to act against human rights abusers.

YET… Witnessing Remains Powerful

The promise of Kony2012 was that by raising our voices we together could force the powers-that-be to hunt down Joseph Kony and end the terror visited over a quarter century on hundreds of thousands of innocent Africans—including many children— by the Lord’s Resistance Army. That estimable goal has not been achieved, and the campaigners seem never to have grasped the policy dynamics of US interests in that part of Africa.

In March 2013, Invisible Children released a new video marking the first anniversary of Kony2012. Its tone is akin to earlier productions, with a fair dose of self-congratulation and righteous self-promotion. It is more on target in praising the engagement of many young people than extolling its alleged accomplishments in helping contain [not kill or capture] Kony.

Yet witnessing is powerful and important in its own right. The first and imperfect awareness of a human rights issue that Kony2012 brought to many millions of young people might be formative to a sustained and more sophisticated appreciation of the wider world. And the social media tools many deployed in learning about and networking around Kony2012 may morph into future human rights campaigns.

Both Kony2012 and activism around Kardashian2012 mean that millions of people around the world can never again claim “they didn’t know” about these terrible abuses. But imagining that clicking ‘like’ or ‘share’ or sending a small donation is real action risks relegating our concern to what writer Lilie Chouliaraki describes as the solidarity of the “Ironic Spectator”. And being constantly urged “to care” can realize Marshall McLuhan\’s warning that, “the price of eternal vigilance is indifference”—unless genuine action that aims toward real goals is part of an empowering advocacy package.

The most viral video cannot be more than the initial rung on the advocacy ladder, placing events or issues on the public record and perhaps altering public perceptions. Viral communications can be hugely valuable to this first step. But to prove vital to the public debate, practical solutions must be offered. And to be “virile”, advocacy communications must offer meaningful participation in actions that can sustain commitment to address human rights abuses and social injustice challenges.



The Lord’s Resistance Army evolved from the messianic Holy Spirit Movement, which rose among Acholi people in northern Uganda in 1986. Its formation was similar to that of other millennial movements, such as those of the Xhosa in South Africa in the 1850s, New Zealand’s Maoris a decade later, or Native American Sioux at the end of 19th Century. The society in which it took root was under enormous stress, and some members perceived an existential crisis of alien domination and loss of both land and culture.

In Uganda, an Acholi-dominated military junta was in February 1986 defeated by rebel forces led by and mostly comprised of Ugandans from the south and west of their country. The diminution of Acholi power and privilege engendered some lingering armed opposition orchestrated by defeated politicians. But far more important to the creation of a new insurgency were abuses against Acholi civilians by some of the soldiers sent north to impose the new regime’s writ. This fed already existing fears of persecution and sparked a “legitimized resistance”—the surest base for a sustained guerilla conflict, as I have written of in the context of America’s war in Iraq.

The Holy Spirit Movement [HSM] was a new and initially small group led by a woman, Alice Auma, who took the name Lakwenya, whom she described as her spirit guide. Alice revealed that Lakwenya was demanding Acholi people purify themselves through a set of quasi-Christian prescriptions and prohibitions to be empowered to retake control of Uganda. The HSM advance toward Kampala was defeated in mid-1987, and Alice Lakwenya fled to Kenya. HSM fighters regrouped under the leadership of Lakwenya’s younger relative, Joseph Kony. Reporting from northern Uganda in 1988, I met Acholi guerilla fighters from the politically led Uganda People’s Democratic Army [please see PHOTO] surrendering to government troops. They said they could not face fighters of the rebranded United Holy Salvation Army [later rechristened the Lord’s Resistance Army], who were relentlessly attacking anyone who would not be “purified” and join their forces. Kony’s fighters were irrationally fearless, surrendering guerillas and government soldiers told me. They would sometimes charge enemies carrying sticks and stones they believed would turn into rifles and hand grenades. Many fell unarmed on the battlefield.

The late Alice Lakwenya’s missives from her spirit guide have evolved into LRA formal doctrine, enforced with great brutality. It is noteworthy that the LRA’s greatest nemesis, Invisible Children, has grown from a Christian-based group whose leaders’ religious fervor is perhaps no less deeply felt than Kony’s, and who loudly demand a demonstrably un-Christian militarized solution to a conflict that has long defied one. Invisible Children ignores Acholi cultural and religious leaders\’ arguments that traditional rites of healing and forgiveness are a better route to reconciliation. A compelling video that gives voice to this Acholi perspective has received less than 7,000 views….



One late afternoon while I was reporting from Uganda in 1981, a man knocked on my office door in central Kampala. Simply dressed, he was middle-aged, and rather gaunt. He spoke English carefully and politely, if imperfectly. A few evenings earlier, he told me, he’d heard about my story on the BBC radio’s daily Focus on Africa program of a smuggled letter said to be from detainees in an army camp. The letter described torture and other abuses by the much-feared red-bereted military police; its writers pleaded to be saved. I had mentioned that the letter included a list of 32 people reportedly held at the camp.

With a great courtesy bordering on deference I later saw was more likely desperation, the man asked if he could see the list. We sat. His brother was missing, he explained, seized by plain-clothes security men two months earlier. I handed him a copy of the hand-written letter, the names in question appended in smaller script. He peered down and ran his finger along the list once, twice, then again as tears began to leak from his eyes. “Did you find his name?” I asked, as very gently as I could. Rising, wiping his eyes, he barely sighed “No”, and head still down started toward the door.

I said I was very sorry and reached to shake his hand. He turned and took my hand in both of his. They were  large, and rough. “Thank you for your work,” he said softly, looking me squarely in the eyes, then added in stronger voice: “Make sure the world knows. In [previous dictator] Amin’s time,” he nodded slowly, “people said they didn’t know. This time” —he now shook his head with angry conviction— “please do not let them say they didn’t know.

In the moment, I believed that my reporting would surely make the world know… and that this knowledge would make a difference. The UK, US, and global institutions that supported the murderous regime would change their policies! But in the policy and media world of the 1980s, few powerful people evinced much concern. Uganda’s civil conflict was no Cold War proxy struggle. Beyond coffee, the country offered scant easily exploitable export resources. In Britain, Uganda’s past master and colonial creator, there was sporadic interest, at least some the afterglow of media attention lavished on the past dictator-cum-buffoon Idi Amin Dada. But American media attention was minimal, even while as many as 250,000 people, most of them civilians, were butchered in a savage conflict from 1981-86. The Vanderbilt Television Archives show that the main US networks reported on Uganda only a handful of times during that period. “Anti-communist” wars—raging in Central America, in Angola, in Afghanistan—were many orders of magnitude higher on the policy and thus the media agenda.

So if events in Uganda were on the public record, if my witness helped “let the world know”, such awareness did little to push the conflict onto the policy agenda. My information helped Amnesty International and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights [now Human Rights First] to issue damning reports. But absent oil or ideology as compelling cause for intervention, Uganda’s civil war carried on largely unremarked by the wider world. If the strategic interests of a state in a conflict are either very small or very large, promoting policy action is exceedingly difficult.

Witnessing and reporting offered awareness; it did not move policy. To believe that I did my job as witness well [please see The Guardian clip: “Sad times, bad times, in Uganda’s capital of suffering” in the sidebar] is a cold and hollow comfort as I recall the bloody broken bodies, the piled corpses—the shattered lives—of everyday people suffering under a cruel dictatorship. But there is still genuine importance, and potential power, in witnessing by professional journalists, by citizen reporters, by human rights activists. It is the absolutely necessary first step, but first step only, on a path of awareness and advocacy and, perhaps, change.

And like the man who visited my office that day in 1981, I am glad at least that world leaders and others who did nothing to try to stem the mass killing in Uganda in the 1980s would never be able to clothe themselves in the hypocrisy of claiming they “didn’t know”.


Comments are welcome at trlansner@gmail.com


Near Gulu, Uganda, April 1988 Uganda People’s Democratic Army guerillas receive a chicken upon surrendering to government forces after being attacked repeatedly by fighters of the United Holy Salvation Army [later renamed the Lord's Resistance Army], led by Joseph Kony.  photo©TR Lansner

Near Gulu, Uganda, April 1988
Uganda People’s Democratic Army guerillas receive a chicken upon surrendering to government forces after being attacked repeatedly by fighters of the United Holy Salvation Army [later renamed the Lord’s Resistance Army], led by Joseph Kony. photo©TR Lansner

About Thomas R Lansner

Thomas R Lansner is visiting professor at the Paris School of International Affairs of Sciences-Po Paris, and taught on international media and communications at Columbia University from 1994-2011. From 1980-1990, he covered numerous conflicts, mostly in Africa and Asia, for the London Observer, the Guardian, and other media outlets. Lansner writes regularly on media/human rights/conflict issues, and offers media/presentation training for human rights and social justice advocates.

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