In just a few weeks, a 30-minute YouTube video about a Ugandan warlord has racked up a staggering 80 million views. At the same time, its intentions have triggered heated criticism and some admiration across the Web and across the Mission, where nonprofits struggle with the issue of how to get their message out and galvanize supporters.
“It’s easy to sensationalize a moment in time without understanding structural imbalances that lead to such forces in the world,” said Rajasvini Bhansali, executive director of IDEX, a Mission-based organization that works with development projects in Africa.
Still, she acknowledged that the viral sensation is “a game changer” for what her organization does.
The video, called “Kony 2012,” chronicles the atrocities of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, who forces children to fight in the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel militant group. Made by the organization Invisible Children, the 30-minute video urges people to spread the word, write to policy makers and sport the organization’s apparel, with the goal of arresting Kony and disarming the LRA forever.
“It’s making people tune in to international issues,” Bhansali said. “It challenged the standard that the U.S. public doesn’t care about what happens in other parts of the world.”
But Bhansali said IDEX’s African partners on the ground are wary of the western push and are waiting to see if any of the money that is raised through the campaign will really help.
“To them, it seems like a blip in the universe, and it’s going to raise resources that may or may not ever make it to community-based solutions,” she said.
Some skeptics in the Mission wonder if the wildly popular video will have any lasting impact, and some say the campaign has boiled a complex issue down into a feel-good video for a western audience.
“It’s like wildfire: it catches quickly,” Ritual Coffee barista Sergio Arreola said of the viral social media campaign. “But no one gets any real facts.”
Those in the Mission who had heard of the campaign also knew of the surrounding controversy.
“They’re calling it the Great White Hope,” attorney Julie Ahrens said, referring to the criticism that many of her friends voiced about the video, which was made by a team of white filmmakers based in San Diego.
“There is this thought that they are exploiting the issue.”
Ahrens watched “Kony 2012″ after several of her Facebook friends shared it within two days.
“It’s a sexy video, well-produced, and gets people’s attention,” she said. She was touched by the video, but wary about taking its facts at face value.
“It’s good to have skepticism so [the activism] is not just a bandwagon,” she said.
Since the video was uploaded, the Internet has been flooded with criticisms like Bhansali’s and Ahrens’. Critics also charge that Invisible Children is promoting slacktivism, a couch-potato way of protesting with the click of a “like” button.
Enough with all the criticism, said Evan Jarrell; look at what happened — an organization was able to get millions of people to sit down and pay attention for 30 minutes, when keeping most viewers interested for even 30 seconds is difficult.
“[The organization] went to Africa, found a problem, and are trying to catch a bad guy,” Jarell said. “Why are you complaining? What are YOU doing?”
Eliana Gesheva said she has a “strong stance” against using flashy viral campaigns to get out a serious message. She said she doubted that most people looked deeper into the issue after watching the video in the comfort of their homes.
“That’s not the way social media is constructed.”
That’s exactly why this video is ultimately successful, said Steve Charalambous, who works in marketing. Charalambous pointed to the video’s catchy music, sympathetic voice and strong visuals.
“I think people can be overwhelmed quickly if you communicate [serious issues] to them,” he said. “You have to do it in an easily digestible way.”
On Monday, Invisible Children’s CEO, Ben Keesey, posted a response to the week’s worth of complaints. In the video, Keesey insisted that the campaign is working with local development groups and is “connected to a really deep, thoughtful, very intentional and strategic campaign.”
Charalambous said this conversation-like response proves how powerful social media can be in communicating humanitarian concerns. “The very fact people are talking about this is good.”
But can talk create change? Peter Van Wesep isn’t sure. Social media has played an enormous role in the organization of recent uprisings in the Middle East, he said, but the uprisings themselves came from within the countries. This campaign against Joseph Kony is happening mostly in the West. Change, Van Wesep said, must come from a country’s people.
“I haven’t seen real change happen from just awareness.”
It’s not clear how much money Invisible Children has raised since the video was released, but its action kits ($30 each) were sold out as of Tuesday, and the campaign has 3 million “likes” on Facebook and over 400,000 followers on Twitter.
But according to Google Data, the number of media references to Kony and online searches for his name have plummeted. It seems that people have already moved on.
Jorge Diaz, typing on his laptop at Sugarlump Cafe, said he expected this.
The campaign “created concern, but in the end I don’t know if good, long-term policies will come out of it,” he said.
“There’s no doubt Kony is a criminal, and no doubt this story is a truthful one,” said Bhansali. “This story is a painful one.”
But eliminating the bad guy isn’t enough. “We have to think about … long-term secure livelihood, so this thing doesn’t keep repeating itself in history.”