Why Kony 2012 Went Viral

On social media sites, Kony 2012 was most viewed by people ages 18-29 years, quickly becoming a trending topic on Twitter. Younger adults were more than twice as likely as older adults to watch the video on YouTube or Vimeo. As of March 13, it had 76 million views on YouTube and 16 million on Vimeo. Today it has more than 83 million total views. Yet the narrative is problematic.

The video has also been criticized by Ethan Zuckerman, who states that the message is overly simplified – and that doing that to such narratives can actually be more harmful.

“The Kony story resonates because it’s the story of an identifible individual doing bodily harm to children. It’s a story with a simple solution, and it plays into existing narratives about the ungovernability of Africa, the power of US military and the need to bring hidden conflict to light.”

What Zuckerman did not explicitly point out – and what Colorlines completely nails on the head – is the narrative’s heavy reliance on the white patriarchal father figure, who is literally out to “save” Africa. It’s an old story with a new twist. It’s the while male hero complex at its finest.

“Despite the group’s best efforts, the campaign is still taking heat over its portrayal of Africans as victims whose only hope lay in the actions – and wallets – of white saviors,” writes Colorlines’ Jamilah King. “And critics say it’s that centuries-old narrative that’s in part responsible for the campaign’s viral success.”

Breaking Down the Narrative: Glorifying the “Hero,” Turning Evil into Celebrity

“We come here to save our life,” says Jacob Acaye, the only Ugandan child who has any voice in this video says. The imagery of him at the beginning of this video is in fact old footage – Jacob is now a 21-year-old law student living in Kampala. (In the video he looks like he’s about 12-years-old.) He was picked for the video because of his English-speaking capabilities.

Russell is understandably moved by Jacob’s honesty about his dire situation. You’d have to be a robot not to be. He responds with something both dramatic and heartfelt: “Jacob, it’s OK,” he says with reassurance. Then he tells the viewer: “Everything in my heart told me to do something.”

That something was to become a hero, to get serious about capturing Joseph Kony and freeing the children who are under his reign. And he’s doing it all for his five-year-old son, Gavin, who makes an appearance shortly thereafter.

In a questionable move which undermines and potentially threatens the innocence of his five-year-old child for the benefit of social media celebrity-dom, Russell films Gavin as he asks him about “what his daddy keeps doing by going to Africa.” Apparently, he and Gavin had not discussed this up until right that moment.

“You stop the bad guys from being mean,” says Gavin.

Yet who are these bad guys? Gavin thinks it’s “the Star Wars people.” But now Russell corrects him, explaining what Joseph Kony – whom Gavin can identify visually – is actually doing.

“This is Joseph Kony,” he tells his five-year-old son, “and this is Jacob [a former member of the LRA]. Joseph Kony…he has an army, and he takes children from their parents and he gives them a gun and he makes them shoot and kill other people.”

“But they’re not going to do what he says because they’re nice people?” replies Gavin.

In a hushed, perhaps guilt-inducing narrative twist that elicits empathy from the viewer, Russell says that he “couldn’t explain to Gavin the details of what Joseph Kony really does, because the truth is that Joseph Kony abducts kids just like Gavin.”

Wait, what? Come again? No, Joseph Kony does not abduct kids like Gavin, a white, five-year-old boy who appears to live quite comfortably with his filmmaker dad in Los Angeles. The children in Uganda are nothing like Gavin, save for the fact that they are also children. And Gavin’s dad is anything but the parents whose children have been abducted and harmed by Kony. But the narrative works – the Internet loves a hero.

This is not to say that what Invisible Children is doing is wrong. In fact, quite the opposite – it’s empowering to many, and has the potential to create real change. But the narrative is the same – it is condescending, all-American, and quite reminiscent of Christian missionary ideologies, suggesting that the white savior must come out and save the non-Western people.

Nevertheless, the fact that this video has 83 million views is not only shocking but hopeful – and proves that this sort of narrative is what most resonates with a social media audience that just wants to feel… something, under the pretense of a familiar narrative structure. And who better to play the all-time evil villain that Joseph Kony, who is listed as number one most-wanted by the International Criminal Court. In 2005, he was indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands. He might just be the most evil man that the world doesn’t even know – and he is thus the perfect character for Russell’s white hero narrative.

After introducing all of the characters in this narrative – Joseph Kony, bad guy; Ben Russell, white American male savior; little Gavin, innocent child who we viewers need to “make the future better” for; Jacob, Ugandan child soldier survivor; and many nameless children soldiers – the video lays out exactly how Invisible Children is going to capture Joseph Kony. Like everything, it will start with the help of celebrities, athletes and billionaires like Rihanna, George Clooney and Mark Zuckerberg, Russell says. What better patrons than the rich and famous? Ryan Gosling, the Internet’s dreamboat, and Oprah are already in. Next up is the politicians – that’s where *you* come in, Internet user. And everything will be shared and spread via social networks. Sounds like a hero quest? Care to join?

Fame as a Weapon: Killing the Bad Guy on the World Wide Internet Stage

There’s nothing worse than being famous before you’re ready to be seen. Kony is a celebrity that no one knows about – and this campaign aims to change that. Again, Russell pivots back to innocent Gavin – the beautiful blonde-haired blue-eyed boy who he uses as an example of “the future.” That’s exactly what Russell aims to do with his viral video campaign.

“If my son were kidnapped and forced to kill, it would be all over the news,” says Russell’s voice over a shot of his adorable blonde-haired blue-eyed boy. “When I die, I want the world we leave behind is one that Gavin can be proud of. Says Gavin adoringly, to his dad: “I’m gonna be like you dad, I’m gonna come with you to Africa.”

The only imagery of actual Africans that we are shown is Jacob, at the beginning, random children who have been implicated in Kony’s evil doings, and plastering of Kony. By the end of the video, Kony’s face is burned into our brains – we fear him, we hate him, we want to make him famous and then murder him.

To make that happen, all you need to do is send a tax-deductible donation of at least $10, buy a $10 Kony bracelet or buy a $30 action kit that makes you an official Internet-ed activist. Then go forth and share the 30-minute Invisible Children video with the world.

Next page: The White Savior Complex, The Hero Falls

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