Students at the College of William & Mary are talking about a big extracurricular event being held on their campus on Friday. Organized largely through social media, more than 600 students at the prestigious Virginia campus have signed up to participate.
It’s not about Joseph Kony. It’s an attempt to break the world record for spooning, set by Carleton College back in 2010.
Friday was supposed to be the night young people across America and across the world would devote to spreading the word about Kony, a Central African warlord who has killed and abducted thousands of people over the past 25 years.
A video called “Kony 2012,” drawing attention to Kony and his crimes, was released last month by the San Diego-based nonprofit Invisible Children and became arguably the greatest viral success in Internet history. It drew more than 100 million viewers on YouTube and Vimeo within days of being posted.
The video called on young people to “cover the night” on April 20, putting up posters wherever they lived, to sear Kony into the nation’s consciousness.
But almost as soon as the video reached mass attention, a backlash set in. Invisible Children was criticized for simplifying the issues involved and for how it spent its funds.
The campaign to “stop Kony” may have briefly captured their attention, but it appears that most students have moved on.
Kaveh Sadeghian, a former student assembly president at William & Mary and an organizer of the spooning event, says that the video was widely watched and discussed there, but that students greeted it with a good deal of skepticism.
Students have largely forgotten that Friday was supposed to be about Kony, Sadeghian says.
“That kind of illustrates our strategy,” he says. “We didn’t start advertising this until this week, because we didn’t want to kill the buzz. So many things are so viral and go by so quickly, it’s harder than ever to keep people’s attention.”
Apathy And Rolling Eyes
Invisible Children sought to deflect the criticism “Kony 2012” engendered by releasing a second video that spoke more to the complexities of the geopolitics of Central Africa and highlighted the group’s own projects in Uganda.
But compared to the earlier release, it was barely watched. And while Kony had dominated the Facebook walls and Twitter feeds of young people for a few days last month, now he’s barely mentioned on social media, except as a joke, or when people ask what ever happened to that cause.
“Just a few weeks ago, students were ready to participate in fundraising efforts or the Cover the Night event,” says Alison Decker, a 19-year-old sophomore at Northwestern University. “Unfortunately, most of the fervor has seemed to change to apathy or eye-rolls about the legitimacy of Invisible Children.”
It’s not just that some of the group’s claims and strategies drew criticism. Ten days after the release of “Kony 2012,” Jason Russell, a co-founder of Invisible Children and leading character in the video, was hospitalized by police in San Diego after he stood naked and screaming on a street corner.
He was the apparent victim of exhaustion and dehydration. But a video of his breakdown — which was itself widely disseminated and viewed — undermined his group’s credibility.
Part of the power of “Kony 2012” was the way Russell was able to personalize the cause, showing how he and his young son had come to understand the menace and impact of Kony and his group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
But having made himself central to the film’s message created a public relations crisis when Russell was caught acting out on tape, says Marcus Messner, a communications professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.
The incident was parodied in a recent episode of South Park that showed a character named Stan stripping his clothes off in San Diego after an anti-bullying video he directed becomes a huge success but then is roundly reviled.
“What was really a turnoff, particularly for young people, was the amateur video showing the [Invisible Children] organizer dancing naked on a street corner,” Messner says. “While most people did not personally hear the criticism of the [“Kony 2012″] video, they did see the video of the breakdown.”
‘Some Lasting Value’
The chapter of Invisible Children on Messner’s campus broke its ties with the group, changing its name and deciding to donate funds directly to children’s programs in Uganda.
But not everyone has given up on the cause. Around the country, thousands of young people will still turn out on Friday to placard Kony’s image and stencil his name in chalk.
“At least on our campus, interest appears to be relatively strong,” says Christopher LoCascio, editor-in-chief of Highlander, the student newspaper at the University of California, Riverside.
Even at the height of the video’s popularity, there were questions about whether teenagers tweeting it would turn awareness into action. Still, the amount of attention it received arguably worked as intended, making Kony and the LRA something policymakers had to address in places like Washington and Brussels.
Last year, President Obama dispatched 100 troops to Uganda to help with the hunt.
“Certainly, the video raised the issue of the problem with the LRA to a much higher level than it had been for quite some time in Washington, D.C.,” says E.J. Hogendoorn, Horn of Africa project director for International Crisis Group.
Its message may have been “simplistic,” he says. But, he adds, “The fact that this has increased the U.S. administration’s focus on this issue probably has some lasting value.”
Teenagers Have Moved On
But for American youth, the cause has been tarnished and, for the most part, forgotten. It’s the nature of an issue that explodes into consciousness through social media, says Rayyan Najeeb, a 20-year-old junior at Northwestern.
He says that a focus on wanting to appear “cool” created an obstacle against college students remaining deeply engaged.
“What ends up happening, we have people sending out the Kony video, creating awareness and support,” Najeeb says. “But then it reaches a critical mass and it creates a backlash — and the haters end up reaching a critical mass.”
But Messner, the VCU professor, suggests that Invisible Children may have been, to some extent, undermined by its own success. Because the video succeeded beyond the group’s own expectations, it was not equipped to cope with the onslaught of questions and skepticism it provoked.
“The lesson for other organizations is that if you do it in the right way, you can have a tremendous public reaction to a viral campaign,” Messner says, “but you have to make sure that all your facts hold up, because journalists are going to go after you if you get this widespread attention.”