The Kony 2012 video phenomenon

I could say that I simply didn’t have time to watch the KONY 2012 video all week, but the truth is I really didn’t have any interest. Sure, I heard that it was going viral, but since I was familiar with the nature of the atrocities committed by Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) — particularly the recruitment of child soldiers to his fanatical cult, and aspirations of developing a theocratic state — it didn’t initially occur to me that I ought to watch.

But then a friend asked for my reflections on the phenomenon, and I decided to join just about everyone else and invest about 29 minutes in front of my computer screen. Between the time when I started this morning, and when I finished this afternoon, more than 4 million views were added to the tally, reaching over 56 million.

I was pretty gripped even thought I didn’t learn a single new fact about this absolutely horrific situation. I will definitely be curious to see what happens on April 20th – the day of the great international campaign proposed by the sponsoring organization, invisible children.

The blogosphere is predictably abuzz with complaints about the video and the organization: lack of nuance in presentation of the facts, that the campaign seems to lead more to contributions to the organization than to the problem on the ground, and third, that the recommended prescriptions might do more harm than good – why are we supporting the Ugandan military, for example?

I really don’t feel like commenting on any of these issues.

For me, the bigger question is, why has this video captured the imagination of so many? Well the initial answer seems pretty obvious: The film reports on a grave injustice, and of course everyone ought to be up in arms. But I think there’s more going on as there are tons of atrocities around the world, some that affect many more people.

Here are my hypotheses:

First, there’s a villain with a name and a face. I am willing to accept the idea that Kony is a really, really bad guy. But at least part of the reason he’s been able to recruit child soldiers and commit the atrocities he has is because of the poverty and under-development of the region, and the low levels of state authority. But big structural problems are not the things of movies. And why not? For years, I’ve been trying to convince some filmmaker friends to make a film about the Boer War, a fascinating historical episode that helps explain the origins of apartheid South Africa. But they always ask me, who is the bad guy, the villain? I never quite understood why this should matter, but what they get and I didn’t is that audiences need a human face to be the object of their scorn.

Second, there are heroes – ranging from the filmmaker’s angelic, blond son, to all of us. We are told that we can save kids like Jacob (the boy we first meet, whose brother was killed by Kony). In the film, we can make a difference. It’s empowering. No one wants to hear about problems that we can’t fix.

Third, beautiful celebrity figures provide their stamp of approval, and our connection to the project brings us closer to them. Ok, let me tell a little personal story here…

Back in the fall of 2007, I was teaching my course on the politics of development at Princeton. It was late in the term, attendance at my lectures was dwindling a bit, and a few yawns and glazed eyes were apparent in the audience.

Then one day, one of my students asked me to introduce and moderate a presentation on FINCA – a microfinance NGO – to a group of students.  And by the way, Natalie Portman would be the representative from the organization making the presentation.

Well, I was accustomed to speaking to an audience of about 70, which is the relatively large enrollment for my course.  That night, the 500-seat auditorium was packed for the presentation. I got it: the students were more interested in Natalie Portman than they were in me.

But then, a funny thing happened. When I got up to speak on a topic I really don’t know much about – micro-lending – the students were wide-eyed and on the edge of their seats. For days afterwards, I received emails from students asking to meet with me, and wanting to learn more. The Portman “touch” eventually wore off. But somehow my words seemed more interesting once they were in the context of a glamorous star. (Note to celebrities reading this, you are welcome to sit on stage with me for future lecture courses…)

For the past year, as I’ve posted about previously, I’ve been working on a project studying the effects of the Uwezo campaign in East Africa. They are trying to generate buzz about the poor state of education in Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania, hoping to help citizens make governments more accountable for this fundamental problem. They would love to have more than 50 million page views. Or even 5 million. How about 500,000?

At last count, Uwezo Kenya had just over 5000 friends on facebook.

And Uwezo Uganda produced a really nice film, with the following description: “Kyosiga’s Dream is a short film that shows the school and home life of an 11 year old boy. The film highlights supportive and non-supportive decisions and situations at home, village, and school which may interfere with or aid children’s ability to learn.”

This is important stuff.

And yet, as of today, there were 3 views on Youtube. (THREE).

I don’t know if the Kony 2012 campaign will work, or if in the grand scheme of things, given Kony’s waning influence in the region that this is the problem that “deserves” the attention it’s getting. I’m impressed that so many people care, and that they are spending their time watching this instead of videos about babies biting their brother’s fingers (well, they do that too.)

My question is how to capture people’s imagination about problems that don’t have clear villains, or sexy solutions? And in particular, how to capture the imagination of people in the places where the problems persist so that they might develop the best solutions that are needed for improving their own lives?