KONY2012 Roundup – an overview and evaluation

Mar 13, 12 KONY2012 Roundup – an overview and evaluation

Oxfam must be salivating at the marketing success that the Invisible Children (IC) organisation has created with its KONY2012 video. Ironically, there has been an unprecedented backlash over the KONY2012 video, the likes of which has not been experienced by equally manipulative charities. One has to wonder why.

There is probably too much Internet opinion already. An overnight library of detailed material on the video and IC has been written. Some of it is substantive, some of it is mudslinging, and some of it is factual pedantry. I wanted to try to extract and isolate some of the more salient arguments going around in an attempt to evaluate the actual impact of the campaign. I’ve “scored” the evaluation by simply multiplying the probability of an argument being correct with the impact it would have, were it to be correct. The numbers and ratings are my own guesstimate and open for discussion. Not all arguments fit this model well, but I’m running with it. In addition, I’ve linked, where possible, to sites with further detail.

As disclosure, I have had a strongly negative reaction to the video, and I’m unsure I know why. I’ve spent some time analysing my reaction, and separating the emotional response from the rational, conscious of my own bias. This is what I’ve come up with. If you’ve heard this all before (very probable), skip to the end, where I provide my own opinion of what all the fuss is really about. Please suggest additional (reasonable) arguments if you think I have missed some.


Arguments in favour of KONY2012

I knew 0 before, but now I know 1

Argument: Tens of millions of people who did not know about Kony before now know about Kony. They will be put more pressure on international organisations and government to do something.
Evidence: Number of views
Probability of Impact: High
Impact: Low, Positive
Score: 5 / 25
Evaluation: It is true – many people now know who Joseph Kony is and what horrible things he has done. It is the second part of the argument that is of concern. The amount of influence these people have is limited (the demographic the video has been most popular with has been 13-18 year old girls) – they are not generally the types who care much about international affairs (or they would already have known), and their only voice is as a mass-lobby and possibly to donate more to IC, so that IC can get more followers, who will donate to IC, etc., etc..

It is doubtful that even with collective action (do you call clicking a “Like”-button action?) American foreign policy will be significantly swayed.


The government have to listen to us if we all yell

Argument: With a large enough lobby, the government will be persuaded to maintain a military presence until (now famous) Kony is arrested/killed.
Evidence: Lobbying efforts, etc.
Probability of impact: Low
Impact: Medium, Positive
Score: 3 / 25
Evaluation: Please would those who study American foreign policy step in, but the USA does not seem like the country which initiates or terminates military actions because their population, especially Facebook-hugging students, really would like them to and stick up posters. Even if they did, while the arrest of Kony would be good, it would hardly make much difference to the lives of the vast majority of people in central Africa. Allegations of IC lobbying congress with false information does not help their reputation, either.


The people of Uganda are now “visible”

Argument: Even if nothing else happens, at least there is a story that is known, rather than an untold history of brutal murders, abductions and mutilations.
Evidence: Number of views
Probability of impact: Mid-Low
Impact: Mid-Low, Neutral
Score: 4 / 25
Evaluation: Meh, not really sure this passes the “So-What” question. It is difficult to argue that people really know much more about Uganda than before – they certainly don’t understand the situation. The largest demographic watching is 13-18 year old girls from the rich world. I’m not convinced that many Ugandans would value the story of their country told from this perspective to that audience.


More money to Uganda

Argument: More awareness means more resources for helping find Kony, rebuild Uganda.
Evidence: Overwhelming donations
Probability of impact: Medium
Impact: Medium, Positive
Score: 9 / 25
Evaluation: Probably the most positive outcome of the campaign – it had raised at least $15 million in revenue for IC by the end of last week. Unfortunately for IC, they have made themselves redundant through their own success. The best use of money from the newly-aware would be to give them to mature and useful charities in Uganda who know more about grass-roots development than IC (see summary for links), although potentially less about film making. I suspect this won’t happen, and people will revel in their bracelets and awareness kits. At least some money, however, will filter through to northern Uganda, and this is good.



When I thought about it, I struggled to find anything else to say about the campaign. I’m not even sure how “making Kony famous” fits into the greater scheme – more awareness? The best and most likely thing that IC can do is raise money for helping Ugandans on the ground. This could be good, but the cash would probably be better spent by other charities (or 1, 2, 3, 4).


Arguments against KONY2012

Ad hominem

Argument: The directors of IC are themselves dubious characters, seem somewhat self-obsessed, benefit personally too much from the organisation and are probably not the type of people you want influencing foreign policy.
Evidence: Financial data, photos, self-loving douche-bags
Probability of Impact: Medium
Impact: Low, Neutral
Score: 3 / 25
Evaluation: I tend to agree, but can’t really say that this makes much difference. Lots of people get paid high salaries, travel a lot, get to play with toys, think they are the most awesome people in the world. This does not mean they are unable to do good. This is a non-argument, but please feel free to buy some IC-print toilet paper.



Argument: KONY2012 is a piece of Hollywood-fiction, a glorified advert which does not represent the truth and uses every trick in the book to manipulate viewers emotions.
Evidence: Ignoring facts, Hollywood style, cute children as emotional manipulators
Probability of Impact: Medium
Impact: Medium, Netural (/ Positive?)
Score: 9 / 25
Evaluation: Charities run on donations. Acquiring donation requires marketing. Marketing uses manupulative techniques all the time. We don’t complain when it is an advert, for instance, for breakfast cereal. It seems fair that charities are kept to these same standards. That false information has been provided is something that should be looked into by an advertising standards agency. On the plus side, this advertising campaign has been massively successful, and that feeds into the “More money” argument (hence the potential for positive impact).

Unfortunately, there is a strong negative correlation between grabbing attention and explaining the nuances of a complex situation. There is a scale (roughly depicted in the image below). At one ends sits massively popular, simplified messages which work because they appeal to emotion. On the other end lies complex arguments aimed at people with niche academic skills, appealing to rationality. There is a point at the upper end where you become too niche to include more than a handful of people in the discussion. At the other end you risk telling a story so simple that any independent practical action is impossible.

In my opinion, IC falls below the useful-story threshold at the lower end of the scale – all that people are intellectually empowered to do is what IC tells them – i.e. buy awareness kits, donate money to IC.

A simplified depiction of the difficulty of both captivating and providing decent content and analysis

Financially and operationally questionable

Argument: KONY2012 is a new-age scam, appealing to relatively ignorant and gullible college students to give up their easy-earned beer money.
Evidence: Financial data, low transparency rating, references from Uganda
Probability of Impact: Medium
Impact: Low-Medium, Negative
Score: 6 / 25
Evaluation: If I were to be at my most cynical, I would write a post directly relating KONY2012 to the characteristics of Affinity Fraud. The financial data of this charity do seem dubious – there seems to be a lot of indulgence involved (expensive equipment, expensive travel) and incomes that seem to be pegged at around the 1% of revenue per director region – it would be interesting to see whether salaries increase as a proportion of more donations. Is IC “stealing” donations from other charities, though? Likely not – most money made in donations is probably money that would otherwise not be donated.

What seems to be questionable is that IC is far more interested in the charity than the cause. A good NGO would not care who is addressing the problem, but rather that resources are being funnelled into addressing the problem. It would have been preferable to see IC suggest a list of NGOs in Uganda suitable for donation – IC is far more successful at creating awareness than creating actual change. As it stands, IC seems to care more for its own bottom line and fandom. Money given to IC is almost undoubtedly going to do less good than money given to a more competent, hands-on charity.

While the financial aspects of IC are slightly off-putting, evidence of improper behaviour is not particularly strong and this argument is not a deal-breaker.


More harm than good

Argument: KONY2012 tells the story of the Western Saviour, plays on “White Man’s Burden” and depicts Africans as the incompetent poor, begging for assistance. This might enable short-term assistance, but stunts greater African independence, confidence, and essentially long-term development.
Evidence: Conceptual, References
Probability of Impact: Medium
Impact: High
Score: 15 / 25
Evaluation: This is a tough one – mostly because it is very difficult to measure the impact on development of a general perception of Africa and Africans. Anecdotally, it feels like more interventions aimed at empowering Africans are successful than those that merely treat the continent as a charity case. IC definitely does not empower, and the narrator’s relationship with Jacob is certainly depicted as one of paternalism and charity, rather than equality.

I think this is a real problem, and probably the strongest argument of the lot – and I would be grateful if anybody could point me in the direction of any relevant empirical research. Unfortunately, I’d imagine that it involves a lot of complex economics and case analyses to show, convincingly. It is the slow erosion of a capacity for African independence rather than any measurable year-on-year change. Given that there are scores of Kony-like warlords, preying on weak infrastructure, in Africa’s past, present, and, probably, future, people should be more concerned about capacity building than immediate perceptions of “Justice”.



You can divide arguments into two camps: those that are about the nature of the campaign (method) and those about the effects (result). I think there are a lot of negative things to say about the method – the campaign has been manipulative, factually dubious, sensationalist, and seemingly self-serving. The directors of IC seem to be relatively simple, self-loving, but ultimately caring individuals. I prefer flawed, caring individuals to competent bastards – but it certainly does not need to be a dichotomy. The persistent use of deception is problematic.

As for the results – these are difficult to predict. Certainly the arrest or escape of Kony would not be the whole story. This is not an action movie – catching the bad guy will not restore order. I think the “more harm than good” is the best of the arguments against the campaign, but requires more complex analysis to demonstrate satisfactorily. But simplified, if we contribute to the patronising image of Africa as a group of poor and helpless individuals, we potentially do a lot of harm to potential development within Africa.

All this to catch one aging and mostly-inactive man? There is reason to be concerned, but not a lot.


More general arguments

Doing something is better than doing nothing

Argument: All action is positive, this is some action, therefore it is positive
Evidence: Speculative
Probability of Impact: Mid-Low
Impact: Low
Score: 2 / 25
Evaluation: Difficult to argue against (unless you buy the “More harm than good” argument – in which case inaction is definitely preferred). Either way, on the scale of “giving $1 to a beggar” and “empowering a nation”, I think the work done by IC is truly closer to the former. Anybody making this statement needs to provide a good justification of why their time is best spent clicking “Like” buttons and sticking up posters and their money best spent buying bracelets. It’s a puny retort.


Social networks are going to limit world wide conflict

Argument: Social networks and the Internet in general will contribute to speedy global awareness of international issues, resulting in greater pressure on governments to act
Evidence: Speculative
Probability of Impact: Low
Impact: High
Score: 5 / 25
Evaluation: This would be lovely if true, and there is plenty of time to prove me wrong. What KONY2012 has achieved has to introduce a huge peak signal amongst the large noise of thousands of campaigns and lobbies begging for support. Hence, it gets noticed, it gets attention. But, if you watched the video, you saw the long list of horrendous people on the ICC charts. By person number 3, people will be bored of protesting against another dictator, and the rest of the world will get tired of listening to another protest. That is cynical, but not unrealistic. If anything, KONY2012 will prompt a media-race for NGOs to produce the most awesometastic advertising in the name of “awareness”. Caring will become sharing. Donation money will be increasingly wasted on marketing material.

I’m yet to be convinced that awareness is a sufficient condition for changing the world. I’m far from being convinced that social media will be able to create any sustainable and meaningful awareness.


So why are people angry?

My own conclusion is that there is very little to fuss about. KONY2012 is just another YouTube hit, and at worst reinforces an archaic and unflattering image of Africa in the minds of a bunch of youngsters, mostly teenagers, with limited critical thinking to start with. I’m even starting to feel a little sorry about the time wasted writing and thinking about this.

I don’t believe the strong reaction to this campaign has anything to do with the above arguments. The campaign is surprisingly weak, but catchy – like a Black Eyed Peas song. If anything, it is a blip on the timeline of the awesomeness that is the Internet. It is far less a blip on the timeline of the development of Africa.

What is getting everyone uptight? My argument is simply that KONY2012 has caused a large amount of insult and righteous jealousy.

There are a lot of people who work very hard at development. They don’t live in a safe neighbourhood in San Diego. They don’t have pretty children who are well dressed (designer tattered jumpers are expensive), who live far away from any evil or harm. They don’t get to stand in front of crowds of people and feel like a rockstar. They don’t get hundreds of millions of Internet views, or money pouring at them from college student pockets. They don’t get told continuously that they are amazing humans.  They don’t get to play with millions of dollar worth of equipment (many make do with a handi-cam). They don’t get to feel as though they are the only people making a difference. They work hard in often hostile environments, and have, themselves, now been made invisible in favour of an army of would-be vandals.

This, folk, is the big slap in the face that IC have given to many developmentalist out there. They are saying, “You guys can go get your advanced degrees, spend years talking to people on the ground, earning a pitance if anything, working with your hands, living in a foreign country, with a limited family life. Us, well, we’ll stay safe and comfy in the USA (God Bless), make movies, tell some stories, and rake in the money, reap the praise.”

I, too, would be insulted, and jealous, and disillusioned.

Unfortunately, “But It’s Not Fair”, although emotionally justified, is not a valid argument.

I’m not really sure that KONY2012 is such a big deal – positive or negative. I look forward to the day in the next few months where people have forgotten it in favour of the new blockbuster starring Tom Cruise and Jennifer Lopez. I don’t really like the kind of people running IC – I would not want to associate with that sort of organisation. But that is neither here nor there. In the meantime, I urge you all to give every real, somewhat-disappointed charity worker a big hug, a thank you, and maybe donate a few pennies to their organisation – the world needs them more than they need IC.

  • Stuart

    Good stuff. Though I would quibble about some of your scoring of the arguments, I think you’re spot on about the professional jealousy.